Since his death, his reputation has steadily grown as the master of late 20th century art. Like Matisse, his inspiration, Diebenkorn's works reject the flashy and the puerile. His works anchor the modern art collection at the de Young Museum and his retrospective was that rare thing - a thoughtful blockbuster.
Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon in 1922, raised in San Francisco and got his first art education there--interrupted by WW II and a stint in the Marine Corps. This proved to be the seminal chapter in his art education as he was posted to Quantico, Va. and able to visit the museums in the area.
Matisse's "Studio, Quai St. Michel, 1916" with its simultaneous inside-outside view, thrilled and inspired him: "I noticed its spatial amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room yet the surface is right there...right up front."
Discharged from the military in 1945, Diebenkorn enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts. Over the next several years, he moved between the East and West coasts. His work from the late '40s to the early '50s was essentially abstract, though with strong overtones of landscape space and color. A considerable influence of Willem de Kooning bore on it. De Kooning, Diebenkorn felt, "had it all, could outpaint anybody, at least until the mid-'60s, when he began to lose it."
But Diebenkorn's friendship with the David Park, the fiercely independent Bay Area painter who rejected abstraction, pointed him in the direction of figurative painting. In his later work, he returned to abstraction, but an abstraction shaped and informed by his studies of the figure.
Edward Hopper was one of Diebenkorn's inner jury of admired masters--no other American painter except de Kooning influenced him as much. What he liked in Hopper, Diebenkorn once laconically said, was "the diagonals."
The climax of his work - and the pride of the de Young, is the Ocean Park series. Began in 1967, Ocean Park is part of Santa Monica, the beachside suburb of Los Angeles where he had his studio.
"From its high crystalline light, its big calm planes of sea and sky, its cuts and interlacings of highway divider and curb and gable and yellow sand, Diebenkorn produced a marvelous synthesis that, though prolonged through more than 140 large canvases, had very few weak moments." Robert Hughes.
The Ocean Parks radiate an Apollonian calm, calm, strong, not showy. The paintings repeat elements - the straight lines, the geometric triangles and half obscured squares and arches. The colors echo the California landscape, yellow-ochre, green, multiple variations on blue. The layered surface shows many revisions and corrections; one of the fascinations in viewing his work is seeing the painter's hand in the process of creation.
In her introductory essay to the 1988 show at the Museum of Modern Art, curator Jane Livingston observed that "the fundamental fact about Diebenkorn may be that, in a sense, he lived just slightly in the wrong time. He was down to the bone a modernist. His painting was neither reductivist nor conceptual; it was sublime in an old-fashioned sense. Fortunately, he was entirely unembarrassed by the anachronism of his passion."
When he died of respiratory failure in 1993, Richard Diebenkorn was recognized as one of the preeminent painters of the last half century, a major figure contributing to the dominance of American art since 1945. He sought artistic challenges, was unafraid of changing styles, and constantly reworked and altered paintings until they achieved an "emotional rightness." ("I want a painting to be difficult to do," he once declared. "The more obstacles, obstructions, problems, the better.")
As Whitney director David Ross put it, "Diebenkorn emerges at the century's end as an artist who restored to late modernism the sense of the sublime that seemed to fade with each successive decade after World War II."