I have always enjoyed the “Ocean Park” series of abstract paintings by Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993). These paintings were done when Diebenkorn moved to Los Angeles and comprise his signature style. These large canvasses evoke the light and landscape of southern California.
                                        Ocean Park No. 54, 1972 oil on canvas.
While in San Francisco last month I had an opportunity to visit an exhibition of Diebenkorn’s early work, specifically the pieces created from 1953-1966 when he lived in Berkeley. The exhibition is at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and is very comprehensive and enlightening. 

Richard Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years 1953-1966

                                        Berkeley No. 13, 1954, oil on canvas.

The earliest works in the exhibition are indeed abstract, graffiti like ink drawings, influenced by the abstract expressionists, specifically de Kooning. As time passes Diebenkorn’s work, much praised by the art community for its energetic, abstract qualities, becomes more figurative.

Richard Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years 1953-1966

                                            Untitled (Berkeley), 1954, ink on paper.

 In 1955 he created “Chabot Valley” his first representational landscape. His shift to figurative work shocked the art world.  In 1957 Diebenkorn wrote, “Temperamentally perhaps I had always been a landscape painter.” He further commented, “Abstract literally means to draw from or separate.  In this sense every artist is abstract… a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference.  The result is what counts.”

Richard Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years 1953-1966

                                   Chabot Valley, 1955, oil on canvas.

Throughout these years Diebenkorn returns to drawing from the figure. His 1958 piece “Woman in Profile” uses energetic layers of impasto  to describe a woman. Diebenkorn paints the organic shapes of the figure and juxtaposes them to the landscape outside; the grid pattern of the windows unites the two worlds.

Richard Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years 1953-1966

                                 Woman in Profile, 1958, oil on canvas.

Diebenkorn’s figure studies or “exercises in seeing” as he describes them reveal his thought process and works to come. While visiting Leningrad in 1965 his works take on a Matisse like quality using pattern and flat color. These works anticipate the “Ocean Park” series.

Richard Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years 1953-1966

                           Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965, oil on canvas.

Diebenkorn is a unique American artist.  This exhibition of his early work enlightens and informs our undertsanding of his signature work. I highly recommend a visit to the de Young Museum for this impressive exhibition.The exhibition catalog, with essays by Emma Acker, Steven A. Nash and Timothy Anglin Burgard, is excellent.