Three delightful and distinctive works by Richard Diebenkorn illustrate the artist's shift from abstraction to figuration during a decisive moment in his career. They are available for immediate purchase, offered by Van Doren Waxter Gallery exclusively on Sotheby's Gallery Network.
R ichard Diebenkorn’s remarkable career was shaped and ultimately defined by a balance struck between seemingly disparate artistic forces. Contrary to the prevailing stylistic philosophy of his generation – a group of artists operating in the wake of the Second World War whose compulsion toward an aesthetic break with Modernism inspired a disavowal of representational art – Diebenkorn determinedly and deliberately charted his own course, embracing the grand art historical tradition of figuration at the very moment that it was nearly lost. Though the first seven years of his mature professional life were spent incorporating into his work the vanguard American style of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, in 1955 Diebenkorn enacted a sudden shift to a purely representational mode, a track he would explore with boundless determination until the inception of his famed Ocean Park series in 1967.
In the early to mid-1950s, Diebenkorn’s abstract paintings were the subject of noted acclaim, culminating with the Berkeley abstractions exhibited at a successful one-man show at the Poindexter Gallery in New York in 1956. At this critical point, Diebenkorn made his decisive departure toward representational work. Dissatisfied with the lack of tension and boundaries that abstraction afforded, and impatient with the overwrought emotive impulse of New York Abstract Expressionism, Diebenkorn sought a new means for negotiating the aesthetic terms of his visual repertoire. In group exhibitions of the late 1950s, including Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and important survey shows of recent art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Diebenkorn re-emerged as a central figure in a burgeoning movement toward a return to representational art within the abstract aesthetic.
“If you don’t assume a rigid historical mission, you have infinitely more freedom. One of the most interesting polarities in art is between representation at one end of the stick, and abstraction at the other end, and I’ve found myself all over that stick.”
As Jane Livingston noted in the catalogue to the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Diebenkorn observed a hierarchy within the lexicon of representation. “The still-life object firmly anchored him in concrete reality; the observed landscape could be more freely interpreted; figure painting held the highest and most challenging set of psychological and methodological imperatives.” Livingston further identified the “arresting discrepancy between the quality of literal verisimilitude in the small [still-lifes] of humble objects and the somehow metaphoric, even allegorical, character of the more ambitiously scaled interiors, especially the interiors with figures.” Diebenkorn himself acknowledged the primacy of the figure as a catalyst, in an undated studio note, stating: “The human image functions for me as a kind of key to the painting.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, 1998, p. 50).
“As soon as I started using the figure my whole idea of my painting changed. Maybe not in the most obvious structural sense, but these figures distorted my sense of interior or environment, or the painting itself – in a way that I welcomed.”
Expanding on this theme in 1987, Diebenkorn further commented: “As soon as I started using the figure my whole idea of my painting changed. Maybe not in the most obvious structural sense, but these figures distorted my sense of interior or environment, or the painting itself – in a way that I welcomed. …In abstract painting one can’t deal with …an object or person, a concentration of psychology which a person is as opposed to where the figure isn’t in the painting….And that’s the one thing that’s always missing for me in abstract painting, that I don’t have this kind of dialogue between elements that can be….in extreme conflict’’ (Ibid., p. 50).
The various stylistic junctures that described Diebenkorn’s career resulted not only in a artworks abounding with innovation and beauty, but in a series of personal reflections on his own beliefs, decisions, and ultimate intentions. According to the artist himself, foremost among the fundamental concerns in his life and work was a deep-seated underlying commitment to aspects of the modernist tradition framed generations earlier by the great European masters. Henri Matisse was a continual touchstone for Diebenkorn, and his interior scenes such as The Piano Lesson from 1916 are frequently cited inspirations. Yet artists as disparate as Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modgliani left an enduring impression on Diebenkorn.
The foremost champion of Modernism’s final chapter, Richard Diebenkorn steadfastly pioneered a novel vernacular that celebrated a hitherto unprecedented marriage between the fundamentals of abstraction and figuration.