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Celebrate the Diebenkorn Centennial with OMCA

An offline/online celebration of the singular artist’s beautiful, mysterious body of work. 

The Oakland Museum of California joins the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation and cultural institutions worldwide in celebrating 100 years of the artist’s legacy. Over the next year, we invite you to post a selfie in front of a Diebenkorn and tag @oaklandmuseumca, #Diebenkorn100 To see the three Diebenkorn paintings on view in the Gallery of California art, purchase tickets to OMCA.

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Richard Diebenkorn and the Oakland Museum of Art

Richard Clifford Diebenkorn Jr. (1922-1993), the painter best known for his abstract and figurative work portraying a distinctly West Coast vibe, made his foray onto the national art scene in 1957 with a show entitled Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting.

This pivotal show was held at the Oakland Museum of Art which later merged with two other institutions to become what is now the Oakland Museum of California. Now on view in Gallery of California Art at OMCA are three Diebenkorn paintings – Seated Nude–Arm on Knee, 1962; Figure on a Porch, 1959; and Woman with Chin in Hand, 1958.

Before this decisive show, the dominant artistic scene of the ‘50s was in New York where artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock rejected all subject matter in favor of art that was pure abstraction, highly idiosyncratic, and sometimes neither abstract nor expressionist.

The Bay Area Figurative Movement

Over on the West Coast, artists of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s mostly mirrored the Abstract Expressionist style of the East Coast – all, except a small group of artists in the San Francisco Bay Area connected to the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. David Park, an artist and teacher at CSFA, established an important artistic circle with fellow teaching creatives including Elmer Bischoff and Hassel Smith. Richard Diebenkorn, then a student at the school, eventually became part of the group which met weekly for lunches and drawing sessions using live models.

This diverse group of painters created a new form of abstraction grounded in the California landscape which reinstituted recognizable figures and objects into the work. They never officially cohered as a movement, but the 1957 exhibition, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting at the Oakland Museum of Art, featured their new figurative style and marked a clear break from Abstract Expressionism.

David Park’s Portrait of Richard Diebenkorn, 1953, provides an example of the gestural compositions that conveyed energy and abstraction that defined the Bay Area Figurative movement.

Diebenkorn’s abstract and figurative work

Diebenkorn, along with these other West Coast artists, went on to create a body of work which celebrates the local landscapes of Northern California while also reintroducing still life images with recognizable subject matter into their art.

Along with abstract yet distinctly Californian landscapes, Diebenkorn focused on representational images of people, most often alone and usually women. Using oil and acrylic, Diebenkorn created layered, gestural, and geometric paintings using bright colors depicting the landscapes of places he lived and worked – San Francisco, Berkeley, Healdsburg, Sausalito and Santa Monica. He sometimes added charcoal markings into the paintings which increased the depth of his work and added to the angst and energy of the spaces.

This sudden shift from Abstract Expressionism to a new kind of portraiture, still life, and landscape painting gave the impression that Diebenkorn, Park and the others were attempting to set a new trend, to revolutionize modern art. In the midst of being told he was revolutionary, Diebenkorn said, “I’m really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all”, adding that he intended to “follow a tradition and extend it.”

To Diebenkorn, the experiments into different art styles and forms of expression was all part of the same journey from pure visual expression towards an understanding of composition and the placement of figures into that expression.

A decade later, Diebenkorn returned back to a much more abstract style of art. He left Berkeley for Santa Monica and was inspired by the suburb where he lived. This body of work, the “Ocean Park” series, featured balanced compositions, harmony, and soft hues while still clearly depicting the essence of Santa Monica. This body of work only further catapulted him onto the international stage.

For more on the life of Richard Diebenkorn, visit the Richard Diebenkorn FoundationTo see the three Diebenkorn paintings on view in the Gallery of California art, purchase tickets to OMCA or visit one of the participating institutions celebrating #Diebenkorn100