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Crocker Museum Highlights Diebenkorn's Early Years

Co-written By: Natalie De La Torre & Corrie Hendricks

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1952-1953, Watercolor and ink on cardboard

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1952-1953, Watercolor and ink on cardboard

Prior to last Friday, my only exposure to Richard Diebenkorn was a reference from a 2003 episode of Gilmore Girls & the YouTube video I watched immediately before leaving the house. After spending the morning with Scott Shields, the curator of Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942-1955, I have come to discover that Diebenkorn was an intriguing abstract expressionist painter and an acclaimed contributor to the Bay Area Figurative Movement. His work heavily engaged with the history of art, drawing inspiration from everything from cave paintings, to the Bayeux Tapestry, to the experimental works of Henri Matisse. He gained notoriety within the art world at a young age, having his first solo show at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in 1948, at the tender baby age of 26. Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, on view at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, focuses on his early years, charting Diebenkorn’s rise to artistic maturity.

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By focusing on his early work, the Crocker aims to highlight  Diebenkorn’s lesser known period of production. Many of the paintings and drawings shown have not been available until recently. The exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the Crocker and the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. Scott Shields worked with the foundation and selected works from their collection to represent the earliest years of Diebenkorn’s artistic career.

Upon exiting the elevators, there is a giant black and white photograph of a young Diebenkorn adorning the opposite wall next to a quote by the artist:

“I think what one is about now has intimately to do with what one did yesterday, ten years ago, thirty years ago. Just as you can continue that progression, what somebody else did, forty years earlier, a hundred years earlier, I think that’s what one as an artist probably is.”

This quote is the appropriate teaser for the exhibition you are about to enter, reminding the viewer that the process is often more important, and intriguing, than the finished product.

Entering the gallery space, one is met with deep red walls which serve as the backdrop to the show. The exhibit is kicked off by three framed studies: one of a bedsheet, another of a row of houses, and the third of an image of staggered buildings from his art school days. These images illustrate Diebenkorn’s technical training and remind viewers that regardless of where their work takes them, many artists begin by learning the same basic skills. By opening with a study of a sheet–a motif any fine art student will immediately recognize–it becomes clear that this exhibition differs drastically from other’s on Diebenkorn. Rather than elevate him, Shields hopes to explain how his origins eventually led to the creation of his better-known paintings. One may consider a simple depiction of a striped sheet in watercolor and graphite unappealing, but trust us, this one is surprisingly enticing. 

Scott Shields discusses the early sketches of Richard Diebenkorn at the Crocker Art Museum.

Scott Shields discusses the early sketches of Richard Diebenkorn at the Crocker Art Museum.

These early figurative works were produced while Deibenkorn studied at Stanford University in California. He made it through three years before enlisting in the Marine’s shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Shields explains that his reason was not spurred by nationalism, but instead the promise that the rest of his schooling would be paid for upon his return.

Around the corner, we are met with sketches reminiscent of his military days. For example, a sketch of a sleeping soldier (Untitled, 1944) was drawn while Diebenkorn was training to become a Marine. This humble portrait, drawn on cardboard with ink, shows a soldier snoozing in uniform. The sketchy style in tandem with the man’s posture make him look surprisingly childlike. The serene look on his face and intertwined hands show vulnerability juxtaposed with his soldierly uniform.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1944, Ink on cardboard

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1944, Ink on cardboard

Fortunately, Diebenkorn never had to go to war, but he also never received the promised compensation for school. He finished up his senior year at the University of California, Berkeley (go bears!) before moving to the East Coast. It wasn’t long before he started to hear rumblings in the art community that “representational painting is dead,” and began experimenting with more abstraction.

As the exhibition goes on to illustrate, Diebenkorn used a variety of mediums during his experiments in abstraction including oil, ink, gouache, watercolor, and collage. I found his collage work to bring something particularly significant to the table. For example, Untitled (c. 1946-1947) is at once organic and geometric. Through the use of pasted construction paper and crayon, Diebenkorn develops a multilayered (literally) composition. He inserts powerful reds and blacks within a calm palette of blue, pink, and beige. The rough edges of the layered pieces of paper add a visual dimension to work, while also expressing Diebenkorn's process in a raw, unpolished way. These collage works bring attention to the manner in which Diebenkorn's abstract shapes so often seem to fit together like a crudely constructed puzzle, ultimately expressing some form of cohesive chaos.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1946-1947, Pasted construction paper, pasted tracing paper, crayon, gouache, and graphite on poster board

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1946-1947, Pasted construction paper, pasted tracing paper, crayon, gouache, and graphite on poster board

In addition to the expansive collection of his early work on display, the hallway immediately outside of the gallery is lined with work by teachers and contemporaries of Diebenkorn. Works by many including George Stillman, Lilly Fenichel, and John Grillo provide a larger picture of Diebenkorn's direct influences. Additionally, these works help to paint a picture (bad pun intended) of the overarching artistic ethos of Bay Area artists at the time.

Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942-1955 provides a focused and fascinating evolution of Richard Diebenkorn as both a man and an artist. As was remarked of him in the gallery, "He was just, like, a cute little guy." As a cute little guy, Diebenkorn achieved great success and helped shape the development of the California art scene. Ultimately, this exhibition provides captivating visual material for any AbEx lover, as well as inspiration for young artists that are unsure that their process may ever develop into something substantial.

What a cute little guy!

What a cute little guy!

Richard Diebenkorn Beginnings, 1942-1955 is on view at The Crocker Art Museum from October 8th, 2017 until January 7th, 2018.