THE BLOG
08/09/2013 12:02 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years

Those of us who live in California know quite a lot about Richard Diebenkorn. One of the great American artists of the 20th century, Diebenkorn is noted for, among other things, his long sojourns in Berkeley and Santa Monica. His world fame was established once he had begun his exceptional Ocean Park series in 1967, 135 angular abstract paintings of heart-thrilling beauty that he painted in his studio at Main and Ashland Streets in Santa Monica. A current exhibition at The de Young Museum in San Francisco reminds us that Diebenkorn's talent was fully developed much earlier.

Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years presents many works from the artist's time in Berkeley, where he lived from 1955 to 1966. Here we see large paintings notable for the freedom with which Diebenkorn experiments with color in spectacular ways. As well, the brushwork is so free in its seeming carelessness that the viewer finds himself fascinated by the spread and flow, obstructed and excited, of the paint itself...and of course the deep-felt emotion that the artist so deftly weaves into that paint.

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Richard Diebenkorn , Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965.
Oil on canvas. Private collection
© 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.
Used courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

A piece like Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad contains an example of how Diebenkorn so effectively places angular lines of bright color (a window frame, the view in the distance of a lawn, a few trees and the shore of a body of water) against the competing swirling cloud of what I take to be the wallpaper inside the room where the artist is sitting. This is a thrilling observation of different intensities of light and its transforming importance to the beauty of every-day objects. Also, the softness of the wallpaper's romantic circles stands up very well indeed to the architectural severity of the rest of the view.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #44, 1955
Oil on canvas. Private collection
© 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.
Used courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Another piece, Berkeley #44, is an abstract rendering of who-knows-what? object. It does not matter what Diebenkorn is looking at in a painting like this. (An aerial view of farmlands far below?) It may be that he is simply allowing his heart to take him where it will. The strength of the painting lies in the scrambled, affectionate color and the way he puts so many clashing hues together in pleasing ways. Here too the different shapes give weight to the piece, the thrust of curves, parallelograms, triangles, etc. all competing for the viewer's attention.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Interior with Doorway, 1962
Oil on canvas. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Henry D. Gilpin Fund.
© 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.
Used courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

My favorite from the show is a simple, dark interior scene that shows a chair, a window and a doorway that opens onto a street or a lot of some sort, with an industrial building across the way. To see this actual room in fact probably would not move me to any particular wish to explore it for soulfulness or love. A lot of dust, most likely, and thrown-away trash in the corners. Or maybe there was not much of anything at all in the room when Diebenkorn found it, except the bleak darkness and the uselessness that an old folding chair like that can so represent. But he finds the soul of it, and the gas station over there (if that's what it is) is the source for the stunning luminescence that provides the painting's welcome invitation to us, to revel in the sun's untroubled light.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled (Yellow Collage), 1966
Cut-and-pasted paper, gouache, and ink on paper. The Grant Family Collection
© 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.
Used courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The exhibit contains many views of people as well, particularly women. For me these are the least convincing of the paintings in the show because I seldom get a sense of who these women are. They occupy interiors made up of Diebenkorn's signature large, angular forms. But the character of the women themselves, whom we often can see directly, is nonetheless hidden by Diebenkorn's lack of attention to the details of their faces. We don't learn much about them, and the paintings suffer from that lack of interest on the painter's part.

One of the revelations of this otherwise fine exhibit lies in the fact that, so many years before the beginning of Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series, he had his vision clearly in hand and the ideas that would lead to that world-famous undertaking. In a very direct way, as different as these paintings are from the later work, they nonetheless go hand in hand with Ocean Park.

Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years
is on view at The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco through September 29, 2013.

Terence Clarke's new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, about a painter in San Francisco, will be published later this year.