“Do search,” said artist Richard Diebenkorn, “but in order to find other than what is searched for.” This motto is an apt approach for museum-goers at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, which is currently housing works by the Bay Area painter. The exhibit, “Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years,” on view through Sept. 29, chronicles a 13-year period in the artist’s life inspired by the relationship between urban landscapes and natural elements. Tracing the metamorphosis from complete abstraction to figuration, the collection of paintings forces viewers to search for meaning and clarity.
Earlier pieces seem to draw inspiration from Willem de Kooning, the Dutch-American abstract expressionist painter whose art has been described as complex and ambiguous. Diebenkorn’s de Kooning references are prevalent in his early works, which feature graffiti-like drawings and splattered ink. This chaotic representational art at times includes letters from the English language, which Diebenkorn describes as “alphabet soup.” Transitioning out of this indefinite phase in his career, which he described as “exercises in seeing,” Diebenkorn began to make use of his surroundings — both interior and exterior — as inspiration for his work.
One gallery space in the museum takes viewers on a journey through the artist’s slowly developing working methods. We are able to identify his favored themes and experience the shifting nature of his artistic identity. An example is his meditation on scissors; somewhat harsh, and perhaps even suggestive, the paintings of scissors done in oil are either painted solo or in couplets — with lemons, tomatoes or other kitchen utensils. This obsession with the utilitarian tool demonstrates the productive nature of Diebenkorn’s working process and his ability to focus on the complexity behind a simple, everyday object. These little paintings seem to be the modern version of Monet’s haystacks or cathedrals — an impression that challenges the relationship between still-life and painter.
Larger-scale paintings range from flattened, geometric compositions, like his color field paintings that resemble the aerial view over agricultural regions, to representational landscapes like “Seawall, 1957” — a coastal vision of the intersection between earth, sea and sky. These natural elements play a major role in the rest of the Berkeley series. When painting “View from the Porch, 1959,” Diebenkorn said, “Strong verticals and diagonals serve as a reminder that the Berkeley series was created in an environment shaped by the intersection of natural and manmade elements.”
This observation can be applied to both UC Berkeley’s campus and the surrounding area and is what Cal students are proud of. Think of our urban spaces — Telegraph Avenue, the skyscrapers of downtown Oakland that can be seen from the roofs of most buildings, the modern architecture of newly built edifices on campus — that are balanced with the natural aspects of Berkeley — the fire trails behind Clark Kerr Campus, the peaceful marina, Tilden Park, Strawberry Creek, the eucalyptus groves.
This intersection produces a kind of loneliness in Diebenkorn’s paintings. His landscapes usually lack human forms, and when he does paint them, they are isolated — walking alone, curled up drinking coffee, reclining nude. The very Edward Hopper-esque solitude suggests ambiguous psychological interactions with oneself. The thick application and layering of paint somehow mirror the complex layering of the human psyche — at once beautiful and confusing.
It is easy to walk into the gallery spaces and admire the elegance of Diebenkorn’s lines or his use of heavily saturated colors, but somewhere deep within the white museum walls, the midcentury artist is encouraging viewers to search beyond the four borders of his paintings to find meaning behind his relationship with the canvas.