“I’m really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it.” — Richard Diebenkorn.

My friends Susan and Leslie and I are all a little in love with Richard Diebenkorn, envying his close circle who were given his charming cigar box lid paintings as gifts. Why weren’t we among them? We were in Berkeley too, or at least I was. So it was something of a pilgrimage of the heart when the three of us crossed the threshold of the striking de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to see “Richard Diebenkorn, The Berkeley Years: 1953 – 1966.

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn

At the opening to the entrance of this vast show, we were greeted by Diebenkorn’s ten rules for a creative endeavor which I’ve appended to the end of this post: “Notes to Myself upon Beginning a Painting.” Number Eight was particularly challenging: “Keep Thinking about Pollyanna.” Should we be the anti-Pollyanna? One suspects so, but what if he means the opposite? “Be careful only in a perverse way,” number 10, suggests we defenestrate Pollyanna. With this delightfully cockeyed perspective, we strolled into “The Berkeley Years.” Susan and Leslie are both artists in their own right, so it was wonderful to see these stunning canvasses with other, highly educated and experienced eyes than just my own.

Dispersed among the large brilliantly composed oil paintings, are exquisite small black and white pieces, such as “Untitled (Berkeley),”1953, in ink, gouache and graphite that add punch and intimacy. But the most absorbing works are the abstract expressionist oil paintings that are the numbered “Berkeley” works.

"Berkeley #8," 1954

“Berkeley #8,” 1954

“Berkeley #8,” 1954 (North Carolina Museum of Art), with its brilliant colors, precisely  balanced composition, and thrusting movement, put me in mind of Jack London canneries, docks, ships, tide pools, and the Berkeley mudflats.

"Berkeley #57," 1955

“Berkeley #57,” 1955

“That red stripe,” Leslie said, studying “Berkeley #57,” 1955 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), “the painting needed it.” Is it landscape? City grid? Aerial views of farm land? The answer is likely yes to any and all images that float up from this lusciously colored work. We can see how Diebenkorn’s thinking (and not-thinking) took him to the brilliant “Ocean Park” series of paintings later completed in Los Angeles and recently on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

"Chabot Valley," 1955

“Chabot Valley,” 1955

As hard as it is to see Diebenkorn’s brand of abstract expressionism as limiting, he gradually became disenchanted, calling it a “stylistic straitjacket.” A wall of small representational paintings heralds this change. “Chabot Valley,” 1955, was his first representational painting.

"Coffee," 1959

“Coffee,” 1959

The next room features a number of Hopper-esque figure paintings of lonely women looking out of windows. “I think his figurative work is goofy,” Susan declared, and I had to agree that these paintings were less successful than the wholly abstract work–although I did love many of the drawings and prints of female nudes. Susan and I both felt the paintings that worked for us were the ones in which the figures were integrated into the background. One exception, “Coffee,” 1959 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) – the figure is striking in the familiarity of the solitary pose, and the absorption of the figure in that cup. “Maybe he took up representational painting because Wayne Thiebaud and other friends were doing it,” Susan said. So hard to tease out what inspires painters, especially when they’re part of a vibrant community of artists.

"Figure on a Porch," 1959

“Figure on a Porch,” 1959

Despite the somewhat over-wrought wall placard analysis, I was drawn into “Figure on a Porch,” 1959 (Oakland Museum). The placard tells us that the figure “is the surrogate for the viewer.” Okay, I buy that. But the chairs standing in for “action” and the blue of the bay for “community”? I don’t think so. This observation was actually the least pedantic of them all, which made me glad I hadn’t taken the proffered headset and stopped reading the written commentary entirely, other than to note the title, year, and location.

We’re back to the landscape, albeit still representational, with “Cityscape #1,” 1963 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), an enthralling work. In shadow, the road divides the developed land—the buildings stack up as if massing at the border and seem to confront the undeveloped green spaces in a showdown.

"Cityscape #1," 1963

“Cityscape #1,” 1963


All three of us were perplexed by the rooms containing “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965 (private collection), with its Matisse-inspired floral patterns. Diebenkorn had evidently seen Matisse’s work at the Pushkin museum on a visit to Russia with his wife and had been deeply moved. This painting was the least surprising in a

"Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad," 1965

“Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965

room full of Picasso-like nudes and Matisse knock-offs.

We retreated to the first room to the left of the entrance, which we’d missed, and reveled in “Berkeley #3,” 1953 (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco). Lavish in pinks, apricots, and golds, this painting took me back to the bustle of my fishery/cannery images, and like many other Diebenkorn canvasses, you can lose yourself in a corner–any corner.

"Berkeley #3," 1954

“Berkeley #3,” 1954


“Berkeley #23,” 1955 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) was completely reworked from an earlier version painted in 1954. Diebenkorn enjoyed “altering” the image, “by way of

"Berkeley #23," 1955

“Berkeley #23,” 1955

subtracting or juxtaposition or superimposing of another idea.” Looking at the work, you imagine that you can follow the painter in his efforts to structure it. The feeling of participation is one of the most pleasing aspects of experiencing a Diebenkorn painting: you feel that the work is plastic, but that somehow it arrived at the perfect balance, leaving tracks of the process behind. And those surfaces worked and reworked into the vivid turquoise of patinated copper, that periwinkle, that raspberry, that green, that unifying black line—electric!

"Berkeley #44,"1955

“Berkeley #44,”1955

With its mossy green field, “Berkeley # 44,” 1955, reads as a cutting of a vast continuous swath that extends beyond the borders of the canvas. It’s unmistakably a landscape, in my eye, but am I being too literal, too boringly predictable? Quoted in a 1957 Life magazine story, in which he was photographed in front of “Berkeley #44,” Diebenkorn said, “Temperamentally, perhaps, I had always been a landscape painter.” So there.

The show is on view until September 29, 2013. http://diebenkorn.famsf.org

If you can’t make it, the well-written and comprehensive accompanying exhibition catalogue is a close second. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300190786

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

  1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Don’t “discover” a subject — of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.
























1913 Armory Poster

1913 Armory Poster

The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, has a knack for mounting shows that pull together beautiful art, thoughtful curator-ship, and illuminating ephemera. “History in the Making: 100 Years after the Armory Show” is no exception.

At the core of this exhibition is evolution: specifically, how the collection’s founder, Duncan Phillips, grew from—dare we say it?—a callow youth with a limited imagination into the visionary whose eye and intellect created this enduring modern art museum. In 1913 at age 26, Phillips, along with thousands of others, viewed the explosive show of avant-garde art in the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. Appalled, especially by the Cubists, he later wrote a scathing paper trouncing the show: “… the air of studios in New York is charged with much talk about painting, talk that is full of fanaticism and mystification and real concern for the future of art … an International Exhibition of Modern Art quite stupefying in its vulgarity.”

"The Blue Room," 1901, by Pablo PIcasso

“The Blue Room,” 1901, by Pablo PIcasso

The Phillips show presents examples of Armory painters its founder had scorned and then collected avidly. Accompanying the show is an informative cell phone gallery tour.

“That they are doing something new cannot be denied,” Phillips said of the Armory artists, “although just what it is that they are doing, no one has yet perceived.” Picasso was just as puzzling to Phillips as the rest of the Cubists, but by 1927 he acquired “The Blue Room,” 1901, a safe choice for a first Picasso. Moody and intimate, it’s easy on the eye and not nearly as challenging as “Standing Female Nude, which was shown at the Armory.

"Standing Female Nude," by Pablo Picasso

“Standing Female Nude,” by Pablo Picassoeasy on the eye and not nearly as challenging as “Standing Female Nude,” which was shown at the Armory.


The French artist, Odilon Redon, showed his painting,

"Mystery," by Odilon Redon, 1910

“Mystery,” by Odilon Redon, 1910

“Silence” in the Armory show. Phillips acquired “Mystery,” 1910, seen here, in 1925. The sad-eyed woman seems to rise out of the swirl of flowers, or to be hiding behind it, as if she has no connection to the blooms.

“Sketch for Painting with White Border,” 1913, by the Russian painter Wasily Kandinsky, was acquired by Phillips in 1953. Hung near the Redon, the painting vibrates with jewel-like colors, and takes the eye for another circular journey. Kandinsky’s “Improvisation 22,” shown at the Armory, came in for the same ridicule as the Cubists, but canny Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and modern art promoter, snapped it up for a reduced price of $500.

"Sketch for Painting with White Border," 1913, by Wasily Kandinsky

“Sketch for Painting with White Border,” 1913, by Wasily Kandinsky

"Flowers-Bouquet (Tulip Bulbs)", 1920-3, by Walt Kuhn

“Flowers-Bouquet (Tulip Bulbs)”, 1920-3, by Walt Kuhn

The Armory featured several American painters including Walt Kuhn. Here we see “Flowers-Bouquet (Tulip Buds),” 1920-23—almost an abstract, but not quite. Kuhn was among the founders of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the group that mounted the Armory show, and in 1912 traveled abroad to find paintings to include in the exhibition.

"Standing Woman," 1920, by Alexander Archipenko

“Standing Woman,” 1920, by Alexander Archipenko

Nearby hangs Alexander Archipenko’s “Standing Woman,” 1920, acquired in 1953. Crafted from oil and gesso on papier-mâché, this piece calls to mind the work of my father, James W. (Red) Boyers, who developed his own bas-relief technique. Red wasn’t a Cubist, however, as his piece “Transmigration,” 1969,

"Transmigration," 1969, by James W. (Red) Boyers

“Transmigration,” 1969, by James W. (Red) Boyers

shows. He took inspiration from natural forms, Native American imagery, and his own vocabulary of shapes.

Another American, Allen Tucker, known as “the American Van Gogh” in the early 20th century, put together the catalogue for the Armory Show where he exhibited five of his own paintings. He’s represented

"The Red Barns," 1923, by Allen Tucker

“The Red Barns,” 1923, by Allen Tucker

here by “The Red Barns,” 1923, which Phillips acquired in 1926. Our cell phone curator tells us that Tucker and Phillips met shortly after the Armory show and Phillips praised Tucker’s “vibrant” landscapes.

At the time of the Armory show, Phillips had called the actual Van Gogh “an unbalanced fanatic.” But in 1926, around the same time he bought the Tucker, he decided to buy his first van Gogh, one of five in the Collection. (Incidentally, the Phillips plans an exciting fall show which will examine Van Gogh’s repeated treatment of the same or similar images. Opening October 12, 2013, the show will bring together 13 of van Gogh’s “repetitions,” in some cases reunited for the first time in many years.)

"Resurrection," 1885, by Albert Pinkham Ryder

“Resurrection,” 1885, by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Finding Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “Resurrection,” 1885, among the jarring canvasses at the Armory must have felt to Phillips like he had run into an old friend. Considered an “old master,” Ryder, with his highly abstracted brooding scenes, clearly shows the roots of modernism in 19th century romanticism.  Ryder’s “Moonlit Cove,” also owned by the Phillips Collection, was shown at the Armory and will be included in the New York Historical Society’s fall show, “The Armory Show at 100.”

"Two in a Boat," 1891, by Theodore Robinson

“Two in a Boat,” 1891, by Theodore Robinson

American Impressionist Theodore Robinson was, like Tucker, new to me. His “Two in a Boat,” 1891, was hung in an Armory gallery devoted to important French, English, American, and Dutch painters, including John Henry Twachtman, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and others. Phillips viewed him as a “painter’s painter” and acquired this charming watercolor in 1920. A close friend of Monet, Robinson’s gestural brush strokes were influenced by European techniques, but his “careful rendering” of the figures here belies the 19th century realism of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.

"Mont Sainte-Victoire," 1886-7, by Paul Cezanne

“Mont Sainte-Victoire,” 1886-7, by Paul Cezanne

Phillips first encountered Paul Cezanne at the Paris Salon Triennial in 1912. The exhibitors, including Cezanne, were “no more than a bunch of damn fools.” But by 1925, Cezanne was a “towering genius” in Phillips’ estimation. He bought “Mont Sainte-Victoire,” 1886-7, a softly rendered version of the mountain range near Cezanne’s home in the south of France.

The smaller room holds some of the most fascinating items in this show: a glass case full of Phillips’ original type-written monographs, journals, and letters, and the walls are hung with prints and small paintings.

"Purple Mountains," 1924, by Arthur B. Davies

“Purple Mountains,” 1924, by Arthur B. Davies

Among them, Arthur B. Davies’ sweet pastel landscape, “Purple Mountains” was made to accompany a 1924 monograph on the artist’s work by Duncan Phillips. Arthur Davies was president of the association that mounted the Armory show where he was represented by six works. Over the years, Phillips was to acquire 30 of Davies’ evocative landscapes. Phillips admired Davies’ “adventurous and anti-academic spirit,” our curator tells us, but mistrusted his foray into Cubism. This brings us to the most charming artifact in the show: Phillips’ journal in which he recounts how Arthur Davies “took his education in hand.” Placing a piece of glass over one of his realistic paintings, Davies “marked in chalk the contour of the masses,” then pulled away the glass with its “skeleton” tracings. Phillips saw that a “…Cubist picture is like a world rising out of chaos.”

Well worth lingering over, “History in the Making: 100 years after the Armory Show” will be on view at the Phillips Collection through January 5, 2014. http://www.phillipscollection.org/exhibitions/2013-08-01-exhibition-armory-show.aspx