“Some landscapes were invented by painters and carry their names. The stone farmhouse on a lavender Provençal hill proclaims Cézanne; the shuttered hotel room with a blue glimpse of sea beyond a curlicued balcony announces Matisse […] It happens in California too, through the work of Richard Diebenkorn. If one has admired Diebenkorn's paintings of the late '50s, like […] View from the Porch, 1959, one comes to see the coastal suburbs of California in terms of them […] There are perhaps a dozen living painters who vindicate painting's claim to be still a major art. Richard Diebenkorn is one of them.”
Diebenkorn’s Bold, Large-Scale Landscape is a Love Letter to California
Resplendent with lush mark-making and interlocking planar geometries, Richard Diebenkorn's View from a Porch is a key work within the artist's oeuvre. Featured in many of the artist’s most important retrospectives, the present work has highlighted exhibitions of Diebenkorn’s work since its initial display at the Boston ICA in 1960, notably gracing the artist’s benchmark 1999 Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective and, most recently, the Baltimore Museum of Art for the celebrated Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition in 2017. Bold and confidently painted, the present work combines Diebenkorn's Fauve-like mastery of color, honed in the execution of the Berkeley series, which he began in the early 1950s, with his control of space and light celebrated in the later Ocean Parks. Hailing from an important and limited group of five large-scale paintings depicting similar subjects, three of which are housed in institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum and the Oakland Museum, View from a Porch represents a rare opportunity to acquire a masterwork from this pivotal period in the artist's career. Expressionistic and animated, the present work sees Diebenkorn deploy the breadth of his painterly arsenal, intermingling his most effective visual strategies to depict his most celebrated subject—the California landscape.
1959: A Foundational Year for Richard Diebenkorn
Of the four other paintings in this rarefied group of large scale works from 1959, illustrated below, three are held in prestigious institutional collections, while the fourth set a new auction record for the artist when it sold in 1998. All Art © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.
A lifelong artist, Diebenkorn sketched from a young age, and with the support of his family cultivated his artistic inclinations into adolescence. As his practice developed, the artist synthesized cultural influences with his subjective experiences, crafting images of the world around him. Diebenkorn received some formal training at Stanford, but it was during his time in the United States Marine Corps that he first became enamored by the spatial compression of Georges Braque and Paul Cézanne, as well the intricacies of the grids deployed by Piet Mondrian, which he would later incorporate into his practice. Above all, Matisse’s impact on the artist’s career, and the present work in particular, is irrefutable; not only was Diebenkorn’s visual description of space deeply informed by iconic works such as Tangiers: Landscape seen through a Window (1911-12), in which Matisse’s genius for reductive geometry that implies just enough perspect to suggest shifting interior and exterior space is fully in evidence. Bringing his continental forebears into conversation with an American painterly immediacy, especially the brash and virtuosic painting of the Abstract Expressionists, Diebenkorn began to craft his singular aesthetic language. While this previous generation of American artists had transposed the inroads of European Modernism, in particular the automatic, unbridled quality of Surrealism, into a new language of painting rooted in abstraction, Diebenkorn, as well as his peers in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, harnessed that same energy to explore the outer limits of figuration. Teaching alongside Clyfford Still at California School of Fine Arts at the close of World War II, the artist crafted images of the California landscape in blocks of color, constituting the genesis of a rhythmic, terrestrial body of work that would form his Berkeley series.
“Diebenkorn is one of those artists who has a knack for inspiring art-historical nostalgia. It is not merely that he unabashedly reflects the influences of Hopper, Still, de Kooning, Rothko, Mondrian, and above all, Matisse, but that he is able through sheer recreative virtuosity to remind you of what once seemed so thrilling about the earlier phases of modernism that he evokes”
A major conceptual breakthrough came when the artist started to form a visual framework influenced by the birds-eye-view of Earth from the air, with the artist stating, "One thing I know has influenced me a lot is looking at landscape from the air. I was flying back from California to Albuquerque in 1951[…] Of course, the Earth's skin itself had 'presence'–I mean, it was all like a flat design–and everything was usually in the form of an irregular grid" (The artist quoted in Douglas Hofstadter, "Profiles: Almost Free of the Mirror,” New Yorker, September 7 1987, p. 60). From this early flight experience during his Albuquerque years to his time in Urbana or Berkeley, each successive landscape further informed and added nuance to this unique spatial strategy, culminating in masterfully resolved canvases such as the present work.
Synthesizing multiple viewpoints, View from a Porch incorporates a traditional perspectival recession into space with a more flat and planar demarcation of shape, merging the act of looking downward from far above and outward across a vast expanse. Both abstract and mimetic passages come together without appearing fractured or discordant, and confident linework breaks up the planes of the composition into cascading fields of color. Notably, the present work sees the first emergence of the dramatic angular scaffoldings that would become Diebenkorn’s most significant painterly gesture, a compositional device that prefigures the Ocean Park paintings. Bringing these myriad elements into concert, the composition of the present work is resolved in angle and line, and despite Diebenkorn's abstract visual strategies, the image of rolling hills with urban sprawl in the distance is highly legible. Drawing one's eye inward with a strong linear diagonal extending from the lower-right corner, the shapes within the canvas become utterly immersive, underscoring the artist's mastery over the mediation of his observation with Modernist imperative in painting, ultimately imbuing the Californian countryside with the gravitas of European landscape painting.
Channeling these earlier European influences, Diebenkorn deftly moves between passages of chromatic harmony and discord. View from a Porch is a treatise in color, with riotous shades of green, red, blue and yellow boldly deployed across the canvas. Describing Diebenkorn's painting, Wayne Thiebaud states that "[o]ne of the greatest things about Dick's work is his use of color, which is spectral or prismatic. There are always at least two yellows, two reds, two blues, so that the warm and cool alternation or juxtaposition of the colors enlivens the work. He uses a warm reddish blue and then a greenish blue and a purplish one, and they tend to develop what's called color chords, much like the three notes on a piano. His color is quite marvelously connected to a tradition of color. That's why he collected things like Indian miniatures and makes you think of painters like Matisse and Bonnard" (Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in: "Wayne Thiebaud Examines a Still Life," Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2013, accessed April 16, 2020). Although linked to the legacy of radical color use in art history, in View from a Porch, Diebenkorn makes this "spectral" array all his own, crafting an image of California with a heightened and joyful intensity.
The sensation of light, both internal and reflected, dominates View from a Porch and is a further product of Diebenkorn's masterful deployment of color. Dusty charcoals overlay vibrant reds, accentuating their warmth, and elsewhere delicate strokes of cool blue and slashes of crimson coalesce to mimic the sensation of light dancing across a surface. An innovator in the utilization of intense, often contrasting shades, Diebenkorn points to "the rather useless furniture" outside of his Berkeley studio which were covered in "different overlapping layers of house paint" as the genesis of his technique in overlaying layers of pigment (The artist quoted in: Douglas Hofstadter, "Profiles: Almost Free of the Mirror,” New Yorker, September 7 1987, p. 61). With his inspiration sourced from the quotidian elements of mid-century American life, Diebenkorn renders the Western landscape with expressionistic ardor and ingenuity, working over areas repeatedly to achieve his desired effect and lending luminescence to the canvas surface. Fully committed to depicting his surroundings as only he could see them, not since Edward Hopper had an artist created a vision of the American landscape so distinctive and personal.
Confining his bold use of color into interlocking segments and balancing the geometry of his composition with a lavish and expressive application of paint, View from a Porch is a testament to Diebenkorn's control of the medium, culminating in a work of remarkable visual harmony. Widely exhibited and published, the present work represents the first time in 20 years that an example of this storied group has appeared at auction, and offers singular insight into this pivotal period in the artist’s development. Exuberant in color and form and expertly composed, View from a Porch is a rendering of the Californian landscape as only Diebenkorn could see it, underscoring his place at the forefront of Post-War American painting.