Richard Diebenkorn’s “life is really more a career than a biography, like that of a successful academic. It is an exemplary life, but not an outwardly interesting one,” Arthur Danto once wrote. “It is an exemplary life because of its absolute commitment, as if the decisions to remain in California and to stay within a single and evidently deeply fulfilling marriage were so many ways of keeping distraction at bay.” Born April 22, 1922, Diebenkorn commits the unpardonable sin of living a happy, uncomplicated life in the same place with the same partner, free of the dramatic controversy that makes all history, especially art history, so juicy. After returning from his service in World War II, Diebenkorn studied art under the G.I. Bill, eventually developing a unique style equal parts Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse. His Man and Woman, Seated (above, from 1958) shows the influence of his two predecessors, as if characters from a Hopper painting had somehow been transported to the world of Matisse’s color. In many ways, Diebenkorn is a West Coast version of Andrew Wyeth–inextricably linked to a specific place transformed through a unique way of seeing.
Diebenkorn continued to paint landscapes and the figure in a continually evolving Matisse-esque style throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His Cityscape I (Landscape No. 1) (above, from 1963) may be the best of these colorful landscapes, which captures the vibrancy of the California sunlight. Diebenkorn’s devotion to Matisse actually gained him a visit to USSR on a Cultural Exchange Grant from the U.S. State Department to see the then rarely seen Matisses in the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum. That sneak peek truly put Diebenkorn over the top in terms of painting in an abstract, yet Fauvist-colored style. I love this period of Diebenkorn’s work because it really strikes a lyrical note, full of pure pleasure in color and form free of all the angst of the Abstract Expressionists and the showiness of the Pop Art crowd.
By 1967, Diebenkorn pretty much gave up on depicting the human figure. His landscapes became more and more abstract, veering toward Color field painting. In that year, Diebenkorn began painting his Ocean Park series representing his surroundings in California abstractly. Twenty-five years later, the series had grown to 140 paintings, many of which were variations on the same theme of flat planes of color arranged in new and interesting ways, such as Ocean Park No. 54 (above, from 1972). Obviously, you can’t “see” any recognizable part of Ocean Park in these works, but you can “feel” the easy, breezy California lifestyle in their pastel colors and pleasing arrangements. Diebenkorn’s work and life are truly uneventful, but in a good way. The consistency and workmanlike devotion of his career add up to something as significant as the meteoric rise and fall of other, more well-known names, and prove that self-destructiveness isn’t a prerequisite for creativity.