In Love with Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years

“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.

If you can’t make it, the well-written and comprehensive accompanying exhibition catalogue is a close second.

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.
























2 replies
  1. Helaine Hart
    Helaine Hart says:

    Dear Ellen,

    I’ve been experiencing a deep need to see the Diebenkorn:the Berkeley Years for months and haven’t seemed to get the trip to the Bay Area together, so thank you for the tour and comments. I ordered the exhibition catalogue after reading your blog and can now handle the possibility of not seeing the real thing. I studied briefly with Diebenkorn when I was at Cal (1963-65) and have since been in love with him and his work. Thank you for the virtual visit and your insightful, witty comments. I look forward to receiving more of your blogs!

    Best, Helaine Hart

    • Ellen Kwatnoski
      Ellen Kwatnoski says:

      Dear Helaine —

      Jeanne has spoken so highly of you — I feel we know each other! How wonderful to have studied with Diebenkorn…I just missed you at Berkeley. The work is so amazing…just worlds and worlds to explore in each painting. So glad you’re enjoying the blog posts…please keep the comments coming!

      My best,


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