Diebenkorn retrospective explores Berkeley period 

Curator Timothy Anglin Burgard, pictured with Richard Diebenkorn's "Berkeley #44," reveals the Bay Area painter's contributions to 20th-century art.
  • Curator Timothy Anglin Burgard, pictured with Richard Diebenkorn's "Berkeley #44," reveals the Bay Area painter's contributions to 20th-century art.

Richard Diebenkorn's blandly named "Berkeley #44" — and other paintings in a numbered series — appears to be both a tribute to, and a reinvention of, Matisse.

The 1955 impressionist-abstract California landscape is one of 131 masterpieces in "Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966" at the de Young Museum through Sept. 29.

The works — with colors, lines and perspectives that seem to reflect a cross-section of works by many modern artists — nonetheless have the unmistakable stamp of one man, a great American artist and pride of the Bay Area.

Diebenkorn (1922-1993), a Lowell High School and Stanford University graduate, as well as a California School of Fine Arts student and instructor, had an unprecedented solo exhibit here at age 26 and became one of the most admired painters of the 20th century. The current show represents his first solo show at the museum since then.

Timothy Anglin Burgard, the de Young's Ednah Root Curator of American Art, characterizes the artist as "moving between abstraction and representation with remarkable fluidity, and sometimes combining these approaches in fascinating and complex ways, within a single painting or drawing."

Among the paintings and drawings assembled from collections across the country are abstract and figurative works, with fascinating examples of abstraction becoming figurative — or the other way around.

Diebenkorn himself dismissed the distinction by saying that all paintings start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression: "To call this expression 'abstract' seems to me often to confuse the issue. Abstract means literally to draw from or to separate. In this sense, every artist is abstract. The result is what counts."

The painter's career was boldly varied. The early abstract expressionist phase (1946-1956) was followed by a big shift into representation (1955-1967), then a return to abstraction (1967-1993) — but never rigidly single-minded.

Impervious to allegiance to schools, to critical praise and condemnation, and disregarding commercial concerns, Diebenkorn marched to a different drummer.

Says Burgard: "It's art about art — of others, of his own."

Chief among others was Henri Matisse, the French impressionist adored by Diebenkorn. His New York Times obituary noted: "[Next to Cezanne], Matisse was the other artist who influenced Mr. Diebenkorn most profoundly, and with whom he has been most often linked."

Diebenkorn explored and extended the modernist tradition, curators emphasize, acknowledging the artist's major contributions.

The Berkeley period shows the influence of the Bay Area's environment on the painter's abstract phase as he was moving to figurative works, including interiors, still lifes and recognizable human figures.

Museumgoers new to his work may need a bit of time and repeated viewing of the paintings to absorb their full impact, but the cumulative effect of this big retrospective is irresistible.


Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, open until 8:45 p.m. Fridays; closes Sept. 29

Tickets: $10 to $22

Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.deyoungmuseum.org

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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