Lot 27
  • 27

Richard Diebenkorn

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Richard Diebenkorn
  • Pouring Coffee
  • signed with initials and dated 58; signed, titled and dated 1958 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 57 x 61 in. 144.8 x 154.9 cm.


Mrs. John Barclay, Jr., Greensburg, Pennsylvania (acquired from the artist in 1958)
Richard A. Bourne Company, Inc., Hyannis, Massachusetts, A Private Collection of Twentieth Century Art, May 18, 1982, Lot 37
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh Bicentennial International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, December 1958 - February 1959, cat. no. 127, pl. 33, illustrated 
Washington, D.C., St. Albans School, Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration: Art and Secondary Education, May - June 1959, cat. no. 11
Boston, Metropolitan Boston Arts Center, Institute of Contemporary Art, The Image Lost and Found, May - August 1960, cat. no. 37, p. 43, illustrated and illustrated on the cover


Judith Cressy, "Twentieth century art at Bournes," Cape Cod Antiques & Arts, May 1982, p. 7, illustrated 

Catalogue Note

“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.” (the artist quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and traveling), The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, 1998, p, 50)

Throughout Richard Diebenkorn’s illustrious oeuvre, even the artist’s most abstract compositions, the Ocean Park paintings, are grounded in representational art and landscape structure, and the abrupt shift toward figurative paintings and still lifes, which would occupy him from 1955 to 1967, was a startling and brave statement of independence to make in the art world of 1955. While Diebenkorn was criticized by many at the time, the outpouring of lushly colored and beautifully accomplished paintings in the late 1950s soon altered such opinions and Pouring Coffee of 1958 stands as a testament to the artist’s resplendent triumph in breaking new ground in his oeuvre and the history of American art of the Twentieth Century.

Much like Willem de Kooning, his east coast counterpart, Diebenkorn would oscillate between figurative and non-figurative genres throughout his renowned career, drawing inspiration and rejuvenation from the aesthetic and technical richness of the dialogue between the two subsets of modern art. In Diebenkorn’s masterworks of interior and exterior spaces of the late 1950s, populated by roughly sketched actors and objects, one can observe an affinity between the foreshortened space, luminous color tones, and vertical linear structure of representational works such as Pouring Coffee and his later Ocean Park series. The reinvigoration of both styles originated in the artist’s move back to the Bay Area in 1953, where the open horizons of the Pacific, the hilly landscape, and the vibrant sunlight of Berkeley introduced a new chromatic mood into the artist’s palette. Diebenkorn had utilized the compositional device of compressed space in earlier landscape series such as the Urbana and Berkeley paintings, but the vantage point of those works was an aerial view. With the introduction of figures in the mid-1950s and with the inspiration of his new surroundings, Diebenkorn’s more mature paintings now achieved a mercurial balance of broad vista and interior intimacy. As in Pouring Coffee, Diebenkorn compressed the figure and the traces of a more confining interior into a foreshortened composition, which ambiguously merges into an indeterminate background. The middle ground is occupied by a sharply pitched transitional zone of canted geometric forms which hint simultaneously of interior and exterior elements. The woman’s upper torso and head are framed by a sharply flattened chair juxtaposed by a seeming shelf or table slightly to the rear. Yet a shaft of warm golden yellow pierces this space, bringing with it a strong sense of the radiant California coastal light that so beguiled Diebenkorn in the late 1950s and throughout his life. Blue bands at the top and center of the picture strongly suggest horizons of sky and sea, while the liquiform paint handling in the broad swaths of umber, orange, golden brown, and blue, all prefigure the luminous washes of layered pigment that animate the surface of his Ocean Park paintings. Any trace of wall or floor melts into the sumptuous celebration of paint arrayed in a space both exterior and interior; even the table and pitcher of coffee appear to be limpid pools, while the woman’s features are equally vague and unknowable. A most domestic scene has become the site of a modernist revelation of light and shadow, color and form, which epitomizes Diebenkorn’s dual inspirations of figuration and abstraction.

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 Museum of Contemporary 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. Pouring Coffee was lent by the artist to the Carnegie in 1958-1959 and was purchased from the show by Mrs. John (Josephine Eicher) Barclay, Jr., a Pennsylvania private collector. This was a prescient acquisition as the growing critical appreciation for Diebenkorn’s recent work was soon rewarded with one-man shows at the Pasadena Art Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, both in 1960, as well as the Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C. the following year.  Mrs. Barclay eventually moved to Massachusetts and loaned the work to the Institute of Contemporary Art show in Boston in 1960. Pouring Coffee was subsequently sold at an auction of a private collection in Massachusetts in 1982, and has resided, location unknown until now, in a New York private collection for thirty-three years.

As Jane Livingstone 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, which is beautifully borne out in Pouring Coffee: “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.” Livingstone 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) In Pouring Coffee, the woman’s face is near center with her attention and ours focused on the pitcher and cup of coffee, yet the bold chromatic palette of the upper and lower registers in the painting have the same sublime aura that attracts the viewer with the force of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings or Mark Rothko’s distinctly non-figurative color abstractions.

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)  In dealing with the dichotomies of figural representation and modern concepts of composition and painterly process, Diebenkorn created a total of ten paintings using the figural motif of coffee drinkers often, including Girl and Three Coffee Cups, 1957 (Yale University Art Gallery) and Coffee, 1959 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), and was in good company in choosing interiors and intimate scenes of domesticity as a springboard toward chromatic and spatial experiments. 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, have chosen the cafes and homes of the bourgeois and working classes for works of piercing insight and bold creative exploits. In Pouring Coffee, Diebenkorn achieved a more heightened and radical breakthrough than his forebears by enlarging the figure into the foreground and dissolving the interior into the background, creating a tension that seethes beneath the apparent calm of the subject matter and beauty of the brushstroke.