Richard Diebenkorn makes return to Europe in overdue retrospective at Royal Academy

By Mark Sheerin | 16 April 2015

The paintings of Richard Diebenkorn make a welcome return to British shores at the Royal Academy

Colour reproduction of an abstract painting with greens, pinks and blues
Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #5, 1953© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, Pirvate Collection
A painter who deserves to be as well known as any of his colleagues from the Abstract Expressionist movement is being shown in the UK for the first time since 1991. That painter is Richard Diebenkorn, who also happens to be the most European of American artists.

But while he fell under the influence of Matisse, Degas and Bonnard, Diebenkorn was a West Coast artist. His studios were as remote from Paris or Nice as could be. And his most famous body of work, the Ocean Park series, evokes California more surely than the salons of the old continent.

Diebenkorn’s career falls neatly into three phases. He began painting abstract works, switched to figuration at the height of his fame, and then returned to abstraction in 1967 to make the acclaimed paintings of Ocean Park.

The RA’s Sackler Wing, with its three airy galleries, is the perfect setting for a concentrated if overdue survey. Diebenkorn was elected an honorary member of the RA a year before his death in 1993.

All three passages in the American’s life have their arguments and their appeal. The first flowering of his talent for abstraction, works created in Albuquerque and Berkeley, California, display a flair for refined and unexpected colour.

Mineral shades of purple and blue-green are washed onto the canvas in layers of varying thickness. And Diebenkorn creates an impression of low relief by varying the intensity of colour and marking out spaces with charcoal.

a painting of a landscape with a driveway leading to the sea
Richard Diebenkorn Cityscape #1, 1963© San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J.D. Zellerbach Copyright 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation
“Forms operating in shallow depth reveal a huge range of possibilities available to the painter”, or so Diebenkorn is quoted in the fine exhibition catalogue. He said as much relating to inspiration from a view of the land from a aeroplane.

But cave art also comes to mind, and the artist’s monochrome 1958 work Disintegrating Pig is surely as close to the paleolithic roots of art as any other work created in a 20th century studio (as opposed to a cave in Southern France).

Diebenkorn takes only the best from Europe. The conventions he quotes include the painted view from a window or the single figure in a mood of happy leisure. Such works have been said to evoke the marvellous expression bonheur de vivre and it’s a tradition said to date back to 17th century Dutch art.

Certainly there is little bonheur de vivre in the macho endeavours of a Pollock or a Rothko. But Diebenkorn proved himself to be a master of it.

One of the strongest of his figurative works is Woman with Newspaper 1960. His model takes time out to drink a coffee and read a newspaper. Her small self-reflexive frown as she reads the front page is deft and exquisite.

Diebenkorn’s drawings, of which half a dozen appear in gallery two, are not without their critics. He lacked the sure touch of his inspiration Matisse and his pentimenti are too scruffy to compare well with the intense focus of, say, Giacometti.

a painting of a girl next to a lawn
Richard Diebenkorn Girl On a Terrace, 1956 Oil on canvas, 179.07 x 166.05 x 2.54 cm © Collection Neuberger Museum of Art Purchase College, State University of New York. Gift of Roy R. Neuberger Copyright 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation
But even a line that gently wavers can be a line of beauty. An untitled work of ink on paper from 1969 is certainly expressive. But it displays an airiness that characterises all of Diebenkorn’s best works.

Ink likewise bleeds across his most interesting life drawing here, the faceless, Untitled (striped blouse) of 1966.

What Diebenkorn is most celebrated for, however, are the many paintings in his Ocean Park series. These represent 20 years work between 1967 and 1988, made in Southern California, and they do justice to their coastal title and West Coast origins.

Again there are tentative but determined charcoal lines. There is a refreshing palette not afraid to throw in pastels or beiges. And there is the geometric template which calls to mind more windows, or, as the catalogue suggests, the maps which Diebenkorn made as a young man in the US army.

To see these works in central London is to escape for a while to the Pacific. Cityscape #1 from 1963 shows light fading on a suburban road in Berkeley. It’s the edge of the town, the road leads to the horizon, and it’s a view from the pages of a lonely tale by John Cheever or John Updike.

But Diebenkorn empties the landscape, flattens the scene and renders it pictorial.

The lengthening shadows are not quintessential California. Like all of his paintings these hover somewhere between the old and the new world. This versatile painter deserves as much attention in both.

  • At the Royal Academy, London until June 7. Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday). Admission £8-£11.50 (free for under-16s). Book online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

an abstract painting of blues and pink lines
Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park #116, 1979 Oil and charcoal on canvas 208.3 x 182.9 cm © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, gift of Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Copyright 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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