Richard Clifford Diebenkorn, Jr. was born in April, 1922 in Portland, Oregon. By 1940, Diebenkorn entered Stanford University, where he met his first two artistic mentors. With a concentration on studio art and art history, he studied under Victor Arnautoff and Daniel Mendelowitz. The latter encouraged his interest in such American artists as Arthur Dove, and Edward Hopper. Mendelowitz also took his promising student to visit the home of Sarah Stein, sister-in-law of Gertrude Stein, where he saw works by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. This early exposure to European modernism would guide his creative output in the future. In June, 1943, Diebenkorn married fellow Stanford student Phyllis Gilman.
Diebenkorn served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1943 until 1945. While stationed in Quantico, Virginia, he visited a number of important collections of modern art, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Gallatin Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, which was particularly influential for him. During this time Richard Diebenkorn experimented with abstract watercolor as well as making the representational sketches that would continue when he was stationed in Hawaii, and these are often referred to as his “wartime” work.
Between 1946 and 1953, Richard Diebenkorn moved several times for jobs and opportunities. He created bodies of work that represent “periods” in his career and artistic development. The works created during a period reflect the inspiration found where he was living at the time. He produced abstract or abstract expressionist works as part of his Sausalito Period, Albuquerque Period, Urbana Period and Berkeley Period during these years.
In late 1955, Richard Diebenkorn suddenly launched upon a path that veered dramatically from his early abstract period. He began to work in a “representational” mode, painting and drawing landscapes and figure studies. He was also prolific in the still life genre, but it was the figurative and landscape paintings of this period (1956–67) that created an ever increasing audience for his work. In March, 1956, he had the first of nine exhibitions at the Poindexter Gallery in New York; these were duly noted by the East Coast art establishment and helped further his national reputation.
In 1964 he was invited to visit the Soviet Union on a Cultural Exchange Grant from the U.S. State Department. There he was able to see the great Matisse paintings at the Hermitage in Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, which had been unavailable to most of the world for decades. This experience fed his work of the next period.
In 1967, Diebenkorn returned to abstraction, this time in a personal, geometric style that stands apart from his early abstract expressionist period. The “Ocean Park” period, began in 1967 and developed for over twenty-five years, becoming his most famous work and resulted in more than 140 paintings. Based on the aerial landscape and perhaps the view from the window of his studio, these large-scale abstract compositions are named after a community in Santa Monica, California.
By 1976, Richard Diebenkorn was established as an American master. In 1980 and 1981, Diebenkorn produced a group of works on paper known as the “Clubs and Spades” drawings. When these were shown at Knoedler Gallery, the reaction was somewhat perplexed; with time however, these images have become some of the most highly prized of his works.
In the spring of 1988, Richard Diebenkorn and his wife moved from Santa Monica to Healdsburg, California. In his Healdsburg studio he worked in mostly small scale, producing some of the most perfectly executed, works of his life. Though he experienced serious health problems during much of his time in Healdsburg, he was able to continue his restless exploration of form and color and poetic metaphor.
In late 1992, the Diebenkorns were forced to take up residence at their Berkeley apartment in order to be nearer to medical treatment. Richard Diebenkorn died there in March of 1993.
Jane Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, with essays by John Elderfield, Ruth E. Fine, and Jane Livingston
Richard Diebenkorn: Figurative Works on Paper by Jane Livingston and Barnaby Conrad III
American painter Richard Diebenkorn once wrote, “I want painting to be difficult to do. The more obstacles, obstructions, problems … the better.”