Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Artist of the Month: Diebenkorn

William O'Connor

After WWII in America abstract expressionism ruled the art world.  Rothko, Newman, Hoffman and of course Jackson Pollock, who was on the cover of Life Magazine in 1949, being called "The greatest artist in America."  Undoubtedly these artists helped to transform the art world, and along with mid century modern architects, musicians and designers, the aesthetic of the post war world dramatically changed.  Figurative and representational art had not only become unfashionable, it was taboo.

Artists who bucked this trend often faced ridicule and obscurity from the art establishment.  O'Keefe, Freud, Neel, A. Wyeth, Khalo, etc, all had to wait decades and the advent of the post modernist movement for their work to be noticed.  One of the most influential of these artists was Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)

Diebenkorn had returned from WWII and begun his career in NYC embracing the new abstract expressionism.  Traveling and teaching he eventually settled down in California in the mid sixties and began to work figuratively. In 1967 he began his famous Ocean Park landscape series which he would work on for almost twenty years and produce more than one hundred paintings.

Diebenkorn's landscapes are a beautiful bridge between abstract field paintings and traditional representational art.   Deeply inspired by artists like Matisse he has simplified the environment focusing on the forms of bright sunlit California color.  Like looking out a window he breaks the space with architectural elements, swimming pools, roads, trees and even figures, into harmonious compositions.

Today Diebenkorn's paintings grace the collections of some of the most prestigious museums and fetch millions at auction.  I still often look to Diebenkorn to better understand composition, dividing the canvas into simple forms and colors.  I highly recommend any student or artist interested in composition to take look at Diebenkorn's work.


  1. Thanks for reminding me about Diebenkorn. I haven't looked at his work much but the compositions in these are indeed really nice. I especially like the "Yellow Porch" piece. I think it has a nice balance of simplicity versus complexity with that flat field of yellow at the bottom and the jumble of houses at the top.

    Appreciating composition for its own sake is an interesting thing though. I would guess that many civilians (non-painters) would find this kind of picture crude. I'm pretty sure that I also would have written this kind of painting off as sloppy just a few years ago. These days I sometimes find myself admiring paintings for reasons that probably wouldn't have been apparent to me in the past.

  2. Like Matisse and Hopper he uses composition to evoke mood really well.

  3. He could handle realism too, check out his still lifes.

  4. Great choice for Artist of the month. I have always liked the work of Diebenkorm and others from the Bay Area Figurative Movement and it is artistically healthy to look outside of our own genre's/field's we work in and often we gain more by studying art that is very different than only what is similar.

    You said it perfectly "Diebenkorn's landscapes are a beautiful bridge between abstract field paintings and traditional representational art."
    And the same can be said for his figurative work. Even stemming from the abstract notions of abstract expressionism they (the Bay Area Figurative Movement) were still concerned with the fundamentals of design, composition, shape, color and color temperature, edges, texture etc, but used real life subjects, from traditional art, like the figure, landscapes, still life.
    Instead of the non-objective work of abstract expressionism, which can sometimes be cold and detached, Diebenkorn and those artists managed to impart a warmth or affection in the treatment of their subjects and a relaxed fluidity in their figures even when adhering to broad shapes and textural paint applications.
    Especially true when you see one in a museum instead of online.