Blockbuster museum shows attract cheek-by-jowl crowds of viewers who leave breathless with shopping bags full of mugs, playing cards, notepads and pencils imprinted with the exhibition’s greatest hits. But it is the small show of deep scholarship that can add a meaningful new paragraph to art history and that will have lasting impact.
“Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942-1955” is just such a show. Organized by the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation in collaboration with Crocker Art Museum Associate Director and Chief Curator Scott Shields, this important survey presents 100 drawings and paintings made in the artist’s 13 formative years.
This groundbreaking exhibition methodically delineates Diebenkorn’s searching formal progression from representational landscape to semi-abstraction (influenced by such artists as Joan Miro and Arshile Gorky) to the abstract expressionism for which Diebenkorn was first recognized. The show makes the definitive case for Shields’ argument that Diebenkorn did not spring whole from abstract expressionism, as is commonly thought. Rather, the painter open-handedly and open-mindedly explored many methods, styles and a rich conceptual diversity before achieving early status as one of California’s premier abstract expressionists.
Most of the works in the exhibition have never been publicly shown. Until now they were held in the private collection of Phyllis Diebenkorn, the artist’s widow, until her death. Diebenkorn fans, indeed any student of modern painting, will be treated to collages, drawings and paintings both in watercolor and oil that reveal the artist’s voracious appetite for nimble and rapidly maturing visual thinking.
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In big museum exhibitions famous paintings and the charisma surrounding them can be blinding, quite literally stopping the show. The seminal works in “Beginnings,” however, without the sheen of fame, offer the first ever insight into Diebenkorn’s artistic maturation. It’s as if we are sitting on his shoulder, watching the deeply personal, gritty task of the artist as he develops his themes and pushes his inventive work forward.
Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Ore., in 1922, but grew up in San Francisco. He always knew he wanted to be an artist and his maternal grandmother especially encouraged his creativity. He first studied art at Stanford where he was introduced to the work of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse at the Palo Alto home of noted collector, Sarah Stein. He was also taken with the work of Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler. A 1942 watercolor and graphite depiction of striped fabric is a skilled, if academic, example of Diebenkorn’s observational and technical proficiency.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Diebenkorn enlisted in the Marine Corps, and was transferred to UC Berkeley to await orders. At Berkeley he encountered the progressive abstraction of Hans Hoffman. He also dug more deeply into Cezanne, coming to understand that difficult work requires one’s taste to grow into it. This work takes time to absorb, but holds abiding value. The aesthetic rigor of this philosophy defined his work for the rest of his life.
He left Berkeley in 1943 for basic training and was eventually stationed at Quantico for officers’ training. Throughout his service he made landscape watercolor studies; their linear compositions and multifaceted perspectives were indebted to Cezanne, John Marin and cubism. He also made countless ink on cardboard studies of enlisted men. A sleeping sergeant on a train, hands curled next to his chest, is closely observed in Diebenkorn’s deft and nuanced gestural line.
After his service he returned to study at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, then considered by many to be the most progressive art school in the country. During 1946-1949, when Diebenkorn was both student and teacher, he developed working relationships with such experimental painters as Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, Elmer Bischoff, and most significantly David Park. Work from this period reflects his interest in abstract surrealism, that ultimately served as the springboard into painterly, aggressive and intuitively suggestive abstract expressionism. Working small to save money, Diebenkorn’s prolific outpouring of graphite, gouache and ink on paper studies provides some of the meatiest work in the exhibition. No one understands line like Diebenkorn. In addition to the inky, sooty drawn lines, he uses boundaries, edges, values, and space to create sinewy and suggestive linear evocations of form.
As Diebenkorn moved on to graduate school in New Mexico and more teaching in Urbana, Ill., his painting fully embraced the vast expanses of gestural abstraction. The austere landscape surrounding Albuquerque finds its way into his light-filled, horizonless canvases, soaked in the palette of the Southwest. Yet one of the most moving pieces in the show is a 1954 untitled painting of a horse and rider. Referencing both the Norman horseman of the Bayeux Tapestry that he studied in childhood and Native American kachina, the piece comes at the end of the show. It represents Diebenkorn’s first mature foray into figuration and is the harbinger of his magnificent figuration to come.
Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942-1955
Where: Crocker Art Museum. 216 O St., Sacramento
When: Through Jan. 7, 2018, Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursdays 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Cost: Free to members; adults $10, seniors and college students $8, 7-17 years $5, 6 and younger free.