This work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn catalogue raisonné of paintings and drawings being prepared by the Estate of Richard Diebenkorn.
Sporting a symphony of brilliant color calibrated into remarkable compositional balance, Berkeley 53 resounds like a Mozart score that Richard Diebenkorn loved to "feed into his work." A bejeweled masterpiece from the Berkeley series, it distills Matisse's intense chromatic harmonies through Abstract Expressionist fervor and scale.
For an artist bearing the epithet of his San Francisco Bay Area derivation Diebenkorn has achieved uncommon stature in the fabric of American Post-War art. Tenaciously independent throughout his fruitful career, he straddled both abstract and representational modes of creation, progressing from a precocious Abstract Expressionist period (1948-55) to a then heretic phase as a figure painter (1955-67) and returning to a protracted series of abstract paintings and drawings with Ocean Park (1967-1993). Berkeley 53 represents a culmination of his initial cycle of non-objective paintings and is a tour de force of chromatic daring, structural cohesion and painterly bravura.
Spanning the fall of 1953 through the end of 1955, the era of Diebenkorn's Berkeley abstractions was vital, resulting in creations of sustained virtuosity. A peripatetic start to his mature career had resulted in relocations from Sausalito to Albuquerque to Urbana and finally to Berkeley, where unencumbered from teaching assignments, he devoted himself completely to his art. Solidifying the formal lexicon of his abstract Albuquerque and Urbana paintings, the Berkeley abstractions fermented new compositional devices derived in measure by the light, atmosphere and scenery of his new residence.
Diebenkorn's early encounters with Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian were crucial in his development. The march towards abstraction that he witnessed from Cézanne's collapse and juxtaposition of foreground and background, Matisse's chromatic brilliance and organization of space within geometric scaffolds and Mondrian's relentlessly logical geometric reduction paved the course of his own non-objective works. He tempered the influence of European modernism with the Abstract Expressionist zeal of his fellow countrymen, being especially inspired by its rhetoric about the process of creation itself. Arshile Gorky's linear biomorphic evocations against luminous chromatic backdrops provided an early model that was followed by the agitated fragmentation of Willem de Kooning's emotionally and erotically charged abstractions. Bearing the evidence of their superimposed modifications, de Kooning's paintings were records of their gestation and this, along with their rough and buttery manner of paint application, had profound consequence for Diebenkorn's direction.
If de Kooning's distillation of landscape crystallized from speeding rides in an automobile, Diebenkorn's perceptual breakthrough came from flying in an airplane. Traveling by air from Albuquerque to San Francisco in the spring of 1951, the bird's eye-view of the desert revealed an extreme visual economy to the artist. He stated: "The aerial view showed me a rich variety of ways of treating a flat plane--like flattened mud or paint. Forms operating in shallow depth reveal a huge range of possibilities for the painter." (cited in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 2001, p. 43). Such personal interpretations of landscape found new vistas for expression in the Berkeley paintings. Deriving their formal coordinates and emotional impetus from the light, warmth and undulating topography of the Berkeley hills, the Berkeley abstractions comprised verdant, colorful and luminous evocations.
In these works, Diebenkorn explored and improvised an abstract vocabulary without repetition. Each painting is sui generis, poised towards seeking its own internal veracity. Recalling these works, the California artist Manuel Neri stated: "God damn it, it was pretty strong stuff. It was a type of painting we hadn't seen on the West Coast before. Diebenkorn had a wildness...Those were urgent times, wild times. He brought us a new language to talk in." (cited in Ibid., p. 63). The crowning achievement of his Abstract Expressionist works, the Berkeley paintings were acclaimed at Diebenkorn's first solo show in New York at the Poindexter Gallery in 1956.
While ghosts of earlier approaches emerge in the present work, Berkeley 53 reveals an amalgamation of past efforts towards a confident new direction. Vestiges of the Albuquerque series appear in the sunburst and terracotta spans across the lower right, strangely prescient of de Kooning's yellow-and-pink Abstract Pastoral Landscapes of the early 1960s. Also reminiscent from this period is the linear tracery that snakes through the lower-mid section, suggestive of a river or road seen from overhead, or of a still-life painted into semi-abstraction. The joyful release of Fauvist color from the Urbana paintings is witnessed here, albeit modified and expanded to include greens and blues reflective of the new surroundings. Also evolving from the Urbana period is the gestural handling and horizontally layered composition of the present work.
Berkeley 53 emphatically declares color in new relations, piled up one upon another, interpenetrating each other through their agitated multi-directional brushwork. The weight and texture of paint and the exuberance of its application gives the work a sense of immediacy as if its genesis was the product of a tactile pleasure in materials. The painting may seem non-referential--a flat-patterned patchwork abstract painting--but may equally read as a fully conceived abstract landscape with a foreground, middleground and background, especially evinced by the "horizon" demarcating the uppermost band of blue-green "sky."
However it is interpreted, Berkeley 53 is a chromatic masterpiece whose distinctive palette establishes Diebenkorn as one of the most intrepid colorists of his time. Coupled with bravura brushwork supported by an inventive compositional structure, it is among the highest achievements in Abstract Expressionism.
Oil on canvas
Signed with initals and dated 'RD 55' (lower edge); signed again, titled and dated again 'R. Deibenkorn Berkeley 53 1955' (on the reverse)
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Vanguard 1955, October-December 1955.
Boston, Swetzoff Gallery, Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings, January-February 1957.
San Francisco, The Museum of Fine Arts and Minneapolis, The Walker Arts Center, FACING EDEN: 100 Years of Landscape in the Bay Area, June-September 1995, p. 92, no. 39 (illustrated).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
49½ x 47½ in. (125.7 x 120.7 cm.)
Poindexter Gallery, New York
John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
Barbara and Dixon Farley, Kentfield, CA
Solomon & Co., New York
Private Collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner