San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase with funds from trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilburn, and J. D. Zellerbach © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.
Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I (formerly Landscape I), 1963, oil on canvas. Credit: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase with funds from trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilburn, and J. D. Zellerbach © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.

“Any work that is going to be a classic,” to paraphrase a quote attributed to Picasso, “must be different from the classics before.”

Well, the late Richard Diebenkorn was a 20th-century artist who created many classic works.

A show at the Palm Springs Art Museum, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, focuses upon Diebenkorn’s years in the San Francisco Bay Area, when the artist integrated abstract expressionism with representational art to produce a new visual vocabulary.

Diebenkorn (1922-1993) once transitioned from a unique abstract-expressionist style to become a member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Upon his move to Southern California in the mid-1960s, though, Diebenkorn returned to abstraction, building upon his successes both as an abstract artist and a representational artist.

One of the first things you notice about Diebenkorn’s works: His large canvases demand attention. He uses striations, aka bands, for multiple purposes. He almost always uses striations to create a horizon line across the top of a canvas. Other striations create space for Diebenkorn’s approaches.

“Cityscape I” (1963), according to Steven Nash, the museum’s executive director (and a Diebenkorn expert), “defines Diebenkorn’s first real merger of abstract painting and the cityscape.” After using one band to articulate his sky, Diebenkorn employs other striations to create horizontal sectors below. Planes of green on the right side of the canvas suggest parks or lawns, while patches of grays and whites on the left suggest houses and other manmade structures. Left of center, the artist creates a well-defined wide road that ambles from the foreground to the blue sky. Deep gray shadows further define various spaces and make the eye move across the entire painting. 

Diebenkorn’s second trademark, after striations, is his use of vigorous brush strokes and a palette knife, carryovers from his abstract-expressionist canvases. With this technique, Diebenkorn produces the experience of three dimensions on his two-dimensional canvases. Diebenkorn’s painting style is not unlike the style of the New York City-based abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). In fact, de Kooning and Diebenkorn were concurrently exploring the tension between figuration and abstract expressionism.

Diebenkorn’s consistent approach to creating figures is his third trademark. The artist often eliminates parts of arms, legs and heads, making his figures appear both closer and larger. Enhancing the effect, he often paints his figures toward the bottom of the canvas, as well as to the left or right of center. This forces the viewer to take in the entire canvas.

Up close, Diebenkorn’s figures are not attractive. The paint is thick, and heads are devoid of recognizable features (noses, eyes, mouths, etc.). When viewed from a distance, however, there is a major shift: Faces show subtle and not-so-subtle shading. Diebenkorn’s figures project a pensive mood; they seem isolated, and that mood often permeates the entire canvas.

His large canvas “Woman on a Porch” (1958) is a perfect example of Diebenkorn putting all the pieces together: striations, highly textured canvases, and truncated, faceless figures.

Diebenkorn, like many abstract expressionists, never abandoned his exploration of the human form. Irrespective of medium (e.g., gouache, pencil, charcoal, pen and ink), these images—frequently of nude women, and frequently smaller—are quite accessible.

The artist’s figurative drawings frequently contain elements of his larger canvases (e.g., faceless people; off-center focuses, etc). To create depth and perspective, Diebenkorn employs ghosting (drawing softer lines around parts of the figure) and shading. These impressive works are frequently given non-descript names, like “Untitled” or “Woman Seated.”

With his 1966 “Untitled (Yellow Collage),” Diebenkorn hints at his imminent return to abstraction. Using gouache, he paints a faceless female figure dressed in a rich-blue dress. She is atop a collage of different shades of yellow that both define the horizon line and delineate space.

Given this impressive show’s depth (approximately 110 works), it is well worth one long visit—or maybe two, After all, a second visit offers opportunities to revisit the pieces you enjoy most, and discover works you may have missed during the first visit.

Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, continues at the Palm Springs Art Museum through Feb. 16, 2014. A free audio tour is accessible via cell phone. The museum is located at 101 Museum Drive in Palm Springs. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday though Sunday; and noon to 8 p.m., Thursday. Admission is 12.50 for adults; $10.50 for seniors; $5 for children; and free to members, youths 12 and younger, military members and their families, and everyone from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursday and every second Sunday. For more information, call 760-322-4800, or visit

Below: Richard Diebenkorn, “Woman on a Porch,” 1958, oil on canvas. New Orleans Museum of Art, museum purchase through the National Endowments for the Arts Matching Grant © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.

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