Weisman Museum to Present Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942–1955
Pepperdine University's Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art will present Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942–1955 from Saturday, January 12 through Sunday, March 31, the exhibition’s only Southern California venue. A special opening reception will be held Sunday, January 13, from 2 to 4 PM. There is no admission charge and the general public is invited to attend.
Organized by the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation in Berkeley, California, in conjunction with the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, the landmark exhibition is the first to solely examine the work Diebenkorn made prior to his turn to figuration and nearly 25 years before the Ocean Park series. Beginnings focuses on the artist’s stylistic and technical origins in oil, watercolor, gouache, ink, crayon, and collage, tracing Diebenkorn’s evolution from representational landscape, to semiabstract and Surrealist-inspired work, to his mature Abstract Expressionist paintings from the Sausalito, Albuquerque, Urbana, and early Berkeley years.
The examination is a significant contribution to the study and understanding of Diebenkorn, who Crocker Art Museum Associate Director and Chief Curator Scott A. Shields asserts is “the greatest artist California has yet produced.”
Later periods in the artist's development have been surveyed in exhibitions and publications, but Beginnings is the first full-scale exhibition to chronicle the artist's paintings and drawings from early to mid-1940s, as well as the mature abstractions that the artist started to make later in the decade while on the faculty of the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) in San Francisco.
“We are thrilled to welcome Beginnings,” said Michael Zakaian, Director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. “Many of the early images, influences, and references that later defined Diebenkorn’s mature drawings and paintings began here in Southern California. Of course, he would return, moving from the Bay Area in 1966 to Santa Monica, where he taught as a professor in the art department at UCLA until 1973 and produced his epic painting cycle, the Ocean Park series.”
Focused exclusively on paintings and drawings made between 1942 and 1955, Beginnings features approximately 75 works from the collection of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, most of which have never before been publicly exhibited. These little-known works range from World War II drawings and watercolors depicting soldiers, military life, and the vast, beautiful setting of Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, to abstractions that unite the forms of Surrealism and the fractured planes of Cubism, to gestural works on paper. The show concludes with one of the artist’s first mature figurative paintings, his 1954 Untitled (Horse and Rider), laying the foundation for the representational drawings and paintings soon to come (1955–1966).
Beginnings reveals the forces that shaped Diebenkorn as a young artist: the landscape; his service in the US Marines in the East, Southern California, and Hawaii; and his teachers and mentors, most notably painter David Park, whose artistic and paternal guidance lasted until Park’s early death in 1960. It also evidences the influence of artists he admired, including Arshile Gorky, Joan Miró, and Willem de Kooning; as well as the writings of art critic Clement Greenberg. “Diebenkorn’s early works show the artist rapidly assimilating art from various time periods and locales,” said Shields.
In the second half of the 1940s, Diebenkorn attended and then taught classes at CSFA (now San Francisco Art Institute) where, Shields says, “Diebenkorn learned from Clyfford Still that painting must not be pretty and from David Park that it should not be easy to make. Diebenkorn came to relish the search and struggle, making them critical components of his art and battling against his innate predisposition toward the refined, gracious, and elegant, creating a tension he exploited to maximum advantage.” Beginnings brings to life the moment in Berkeley in 1954 when, just as Diebenkorn was being hailed as California’s leading Abstract Expressionist painter, he felt his art had perhaps become too polished, prompting him to shift to landscapes and the figure.
Beginnings originated during meetings in the mid 2010s between Shields and Andrea Liguori, Managing Director of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. Liguori was in the final stages of research and development of Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné (Yale University Press, 2016), the definitive resource on the artist’s work (including sketches; drawings; paintings on paper, board, canvas; and sculptural objects), when she asked Shields to curate an exhibition for a multi-museum tour. Shields noted the rich variety and depth of the Foundation’s holdings of Diebenkorn’s early work and proposed it as the focus.
Said Liguori: “The variety in the artist’s output, and its response to the forces that influenced him in his art making, invited a much closer look. We hadn’t yet seen a museum exhibition of Diebenkorn’s work preceding 1950, and with the catalogue raisonné providing the public with the first complete look at the early productions, Scott instantly recognized its importance and was eager to explore it more deeply.”
Fully Illustrated Publication
Beginnings includes a fully-illustrated scholarly publication (Pomegranate, 2017) featuring nearly 200 hundred paintings and drawings in stunning new color photography produced by Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. In it, Shields, counters the prevailing notion that the artist began his career as a painter in the Abstract Expressionist style. In fact, Diebenkorn himself placed his beginnings in representation. “Though his evolution was rapid, he did not suddenly arrive on the scene as an Abstract Expressionist prodigy,” asserts Shields. “He investigated many styles and ideas to get there.”
The artist’s journey of self-discovery is critically explored involving pivotal artistic mentors and influences, such as painter John Marin; Wolfgang Paalen’s magazine Dyn, wherein the artist viewed reproductions by William Baziotes and Robert Motherwell; Clyfford Still, whose influence at CSFA resulted briefly in Diebenkorn experimenting with dark, angular forms and colors; Hassel Smith; Willem de Kooning, the artist’s hero; Raymond Jonson, landscape painter turned transcendental abstractionist; Henri Matisse; and painter David Park and other practitioners of the Bay Area Figurative style. Shields elucidates the “revolution,” as Diebenkorn put it, of Abstract Expressionism among San Francisco’s avant-garde in the late 1940s and charts the artist’s precocious rise as the region’s leading Abstractionist.
He also explores the complicated and enduring relationship between Diebenkorn and Park, of which Diebenkorn said: “I was the younger, the learner in our relationship.” Park and Diebenkorn, along with Elmer Bischoff, came together in 1954 for Berkeley drawing sessions from the live model, being joined by Frank Lobdell and sometimes Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown. The publication includes a foreword by Richard Diebenkorn Foundation President and Southern California-based scholar Steven A. Nash, PhD, as well as a chronology, selected bibliography, and exhibition checklist.
In 2019 the exhibition will be on view at Academy Art Museum, Easton, Maryland.
About Richard Diebenkorn Foundation
The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation expands knowledge and fosters appreciation of the artist and his role in central artistic developments of the 20th century. The Foundation increases public access to Diebenkorn's work and understanding of his legacy and times through support of exhibitions, loan of artworks, research, publications, archival services, and digital initiatives.
In 2016 the Foundation debuted Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné (Yale University Press). This seminal 2,000-page reference contains more than 5,000 works illustrated in stunning new color photography and exhaustive documentation. The new diebenkorn.org provides unprecedented public access to the artist’s work and archives.