Richard Diebenkorn

The retrospective of Diebenkorn’s work at the de Young museum in San Francisco offers an expansive view of his work during his Berkeley years in the 50s and 60s. What the de Young displays from its permanent collection is poor preparation for the diversity of work on display. We see his transition from abstraction to figuration vividly, with even the most clear cut of landscapes and portraits retaining the flatness and band-like qualities of his more abstract work. His palette is more subtle than I’d imagined as well, with great use of blue, blue-grey, yellow, and golden yellows in particular. His portraits evoke a powerful sense of Hopper’s alienated urban citizens and deserted scenes, but without the depth of field and realism of Hopper so that a tension with a more abstract rendering of space (the space of the canvas) contends with the rendering of social space. They also evoke, pointedly, Matisse, in color, form, composition and subject matter, but a similar avoidance of realism and an emphasis on tone or mood.
Most striking, to me, about his portraits is the absence of facial detai. Very few render faces in a recognizable way. Some have no features at all. The absence of this traditional focal point again pushes consideration toward the plane of the canvas and to the overall, haunting mood of the piece rather than evoke comparison/constrast with actual people or a model. There are exceptions but Diebenkorn manages to be both radical and traditional at the same time: offering what appear to be familiar scenes and compositions and then decomposing the familiarity into something more surprising, disconcerting, arresting and even disturbing. It is a show well worth seeing.

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