Diebenkorn: Abstract, Figurative, Abstract

Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy is one of those exhibitions that you know you like after a few minutes in, seduced by the artist’s balanced compositions and subtle colour palette. Richard Diebenkorn is an American painter born in Oregon (Portland, Oregon, 1922 – 1993, Berkeley, California). Well-established in the US, he is little known in the UK. His last exhibition in the UK was held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981. I admit I didn’t know him until the current Royal Academy (RA) show. I first compared him to Nicolas de Staël, Painter of the School of Paris, before finding an obvious parallel with French painter Pierre Bonnard in Diebenkorn’s figurative period.

20150403-112247.jpg Richard Diebenkorn, Interior with View of Buildings 1962

Richard Diebenkorn grew up in San Francisco, attended Stanford University, and later the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute – Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Diebenkorn had achieved an excellent reputation as an abstract painter, but turned to figurative art in the mid-1950s. He first left figurative hints in his earlier abstract paintings. Later on, Diebenkorn attended life drawing classes every Wednesday but the works produced then remained hidden until he turned to figurative art – before going back to (quasi-geometric) abstraction in 1966.

Exhibition curator Sarah C. Bancroft shared her enthusiasm for curating an exhibition devoted to Diebenkorn for the UK public. She explained to RA Patrons that Diebenkorn was very sensitive to his environment in terms of absorbing colours, depending on where he lived (California, New Mexico, Illinois). She also highlighted that the artist was not afraid to go against the tide, turning to figurative art when Abstract Expressionism was fashionable and later starting his abstract Ocean Park series when performance art and the Light & Space movement emerged in Southern California.

I went a second time, on my own, after the curator tour. I liked less the paintings Diebenkorn made while in Albuquerque (New Mexico) compared to my first visit but I liked even more the Ocean Park series. The Ocean Park series is Diebenkorn’s largest body of work and coincidentally the most in demand. He produced 145 paintings in his larger studio.

Diebenkorn is often compared to Matisse; in my view, the parallel is not ostensible but subtle. Diebenkorn often visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC and was inspired there by Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, as well as by the Matisse retrospective he saw on a Los Angeles trip in 1952 (source: MoMA). Matisse’s inspiration shows quietly in Diebenkorn’s display of his painting process, as layers and “mistakes” are not covered but exposed to the viewer. With Diebenkorn, the Royal Academy continues its tradition of small but high-quality exhibitions. Until 7 June 2015.

20150403-111928.jpg Ocean Park series, view of RA exhibition

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