Richard Diebenkorn’s MFA

Although widely associated with the bay area, it was in New Mexico that the famed landscape painter came of age

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The Green Huntsma­­­n, 1952, Oil on canvas, 42″ x 69″
Photo courtesy: San Jose Museum of Art Courtesy of the estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn was twenty-eight years old in 1950 when he went to Albuquerque to study for his MFA degree at the University of New Mexico on the GI Bill. By no means an ordinary student, he had already taught at the California School of Fine Arts, (now the San Francisco Art Institute) where artists such as Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, and David Park were members of a distinguished faculty.

Richard Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon in 1922 and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1940, he enrolled at Stanford University; expecting to study medicine or law, he developed a great interest in classical music, modern poetry and drawing, and began studying art seriously in his sophomore year. By 1943, he was producing fine realistic paintings in the style of Edward Hopper. His use of saturated light and compositional structure show an early debt to the great American realist.

In 1943, having joined the Marines, Diebenkorn was assigned for further study to UC Berkeley, where he managed to study painting with Worth Ryder and Erle Loran: both Hans Hofmann students. Most important at this juncture was Loran’s introduction of Cezanne’s paintings to the young art student. Soon, the young Marine was sent to Quantico, Virginia, which was close enough to Washington for him to spend Sundays at the Phillips Collection, the treasure house of modern art. Diebenkorn studied Cubist paintings by Braque and Picasso and was particularly drawn to paintings by Bonnard and Matisse and their way of dealing with interior and exterior light and space. He was also able to go to Philadelphia, where he studied Cezanne’s Large Bathers (1898-1905). He would take the train to New York, where Mondrian’s abstractions at the Museum of Modern Art had an impact on the structure of his later paintings. In New York, he also became acquainted with paintings by the emerging Abstract Expressionists, among whom Baziotes and Motherwell were of great interest to him.

After being discharged from Officers Candidate School (he was told that he “didn’t have any Marine Corps spirit,” he later recalled) he moved back to Northern California and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts. The school, under the direction of the progressive Douglas MacAgy, was one of the most advanced art schools in the country and was largely responsible for the genesis of the California School of Abstract Expressionism. Diebenkorn’s principal teachers were David Park, Clay Spohn and Hassel Smith, and there was the commanding presence of Clyfford Still, whom Diebenkorn met only once or twice. In addition, there were also many other talented and ambitious young artists on the GI Bill. Sam Francis, a student at Berkeley, was a frequent visitor.

At the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA), its outstanding director Grace Morley gave the first solo exhibitions in this country to Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell. She also purchased major paintings by Gorky, Pollock and Mark Rothko for the museum’s permanent collection. Diebenkorn became an active member of this energetic art environment. He soon left, however, having been selected for a fellowship which sent promising young painters to New York. In the fall of 1946, with wife and young daughter now in tow, he went to Woodstock, NY, where he worked diligently on his painting and took trips to Manhattan and the Museum of Modern Art.

In the spring of 1947, the Diebenkorns returned to San Francisco where MacAgy offered Richard a teaching position at the school. At that time, he saw Still’s major solo show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, which inspired the young artist. In the summer of that year, Rothko was teaching at the School. Diebenkorn met him and also studied his pivotal painting, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944), with its free, curvilinear forms that sway in space but are simultaneously anchored to a ground. (Unfortunately for San Francisco residents, this picture was traded after Morley’s departure and now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art).

There were fruitful discussions at the school, mostly about how the painter, working on abstract pictures, could keep the human element alive, how to avoid specific references to the outside world, and also, how to reject the intrusion of geometric shapes. Diebenkorn’s paintings at the time were still rather Cubist in structure, but began to include free biomorphic forms and he rejected a figure/ground relationship in favor of fields of stained color. In 1948, he was honored with a solo show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. However, Diebenkorn felt that he needed more free time to develop his work. So, taking advantage of the GI Bill, he registered in the graduate program at the University of New Mexico.

There, he made a great many drawings in ink, gouache, watercolor and oilstick to develop his personal imagery. At the same time, the high desert, with its huge dry land and sharp blue skies, had an effect on the painter’s palette. His paintings became brighter, echoing the beige sand of the desert. Landscape features were unavoidable throughout his work. But he also introduced new linear elements into his compositions: looping, quirky independent lines of energy, which appear in many of his improvisational pictures. He also abandoned the thick paint application which he had seen in the paintings by Still and Park. Nevertheless, black shapes continued to make their presence known, as in Untitled (Albuquerque), done in 1950 soon after his arrival.

While teaching at the California School of Fine Arts he lived in Sausalito, close to many of the Bay Area artists, including James Budd Dixon, Frank Lobdell and John Hultberg. The artists would meet in each other’s studios: Hassel Smith and Ed Corbett would visit and the younger painters saw Corbett’s black paintings. They also enjoyed George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoons, with their quirky lines, and Diebenkorn took one of his comic books with him to New Mexico.

In 1951, he flew back to San Francisco to see the Gorky retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art. This was his first flight and he recalled: “I flew fairly low over just all sorts of country, which absolutely blew my mind.” A painting such as Miller 22 (1951), could be a view of the desert seen from high up. Its rounded corners also suggest women’s breasts or cow udders. The Diebenkorns were now living on a farm outside of town, and he painted Disintegrating Pig (1950), based on a sow he had seen at the State Fair. There was also frequent lightning on the high desert, which resonates in Albuquerque 22 (1951): a large beige and light brown field bisected by jagged angular lines. White and yellow rectangles invade the picture space from the right and a short black band comes down from the top in this early color field painting. But the world of reality is not forsaken: Albuquerque Motorcycle Wreck (1951) is a successful fusion of figuration and abstraction.

Albuquerque 4 (1951) is important in the artist’s career. In this work, he used a rich palette of red, ocher, maroon, white and black. An emblematic form hovers near the center, while another, cross-like emblem appears in the dark grey area near the bottom. Similar signs occur in paintings by Picasso, Miro and Adolph Gottlieb, artists seeking images of universal meaning. Toward the end of his Albuquerque period, Diebenkorn painted The Green Huntsman (1952) (named after Stendhal’s novel). The grey shrouded figure lying in the painting’s center reminds us of similar concealed figuration in Rothko’s paintings of the mid-’40s. The black shapes and the free composition, however, very much belong to Diebenkorn, who had now reached his maturity as a major American painter.

It is a sensual, organic, painting. As in the work of his San Francisco colleagues, it is more directed toward nature than the work of his New York contemporaries. After all, nature was in much closer proximity in the Bay Area or New Mexico than in Manhattan. Many of Diebenkorn’s paintings appear improvisational and seem to be spontaneous. He was not, however, an Action Painter. He analyzed his work and frequently repainted his surfaces. In this sense, the New Mexico paintings anticipate the deliberate constructions of the Ocean Park pictures.

Diebenkorn’s talent found recognition early. In 1948 the twenty-year-old artist was given a solo show by Jermaine MacAgy at the San Francisco Museum of the Legion of Honor. In 1949 he was featured in a two-man show with the much older Hassel Smith. The same year, he was included in the “California Centennial Exhibition” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from which the dealer Paul Kantor purchased one of his canvases, and soon thereafter Diebenkorn had regular shows at Kantor’s gallery in Los Angeles. In 1951, the renowned German art historian Dr. William Valentiner, former director of the Detroit Art Institute and then director of the Los Angeles County Museum, bought Untitled (Albuquerque) (1951) for his private collection and James Byrnes, curator at LACMA also purchased a Diebenkorn and included him in his show “Contemporary Painting in the US” the same year. In 1951, Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt included Diebenkorn together with Hassel Smith and Edward Corbett as three California painters in their book “Modern Artists in America.” His 1951 show at Paul Kantor’s was well received. In his Art News review, critic/curator Jules Langsner in particular singled out The Green Huntsman, writing: “Diebenkorn conveys an impressive monumentality, not unlike the grandeur of the stark desert mass on a cold morning.”

Last year, the Albuquerque paintings were all re-assembled for an exhibition at the Harwood Museum of Art at the University of New Mexico in Taos; they then traveled to the San Jose Museum of Art, where they were beautifully installed.

These works mark his breakthrough as an important artist. Gerald Nordland, a leading Diebenkorn scholar says in the exhibition’s catalogue: “After Albuquerque, Diebenkorn was poised for the next steps on his path to eminence.” It is doubtful that another MFA show has equaled Richard Diebenkorn’s in the art building of the University of New Mexico.

“DIEBENKORN IN NEW MEXICO: 1950-1952” was on view at the San Jose Museum of Art, from October 13, 2007 through January 6, 2008 (408) 271-6840 www.sjmusart.org