Painter Richard Diebenkorn lived in San Francisco and in Berkeley. He went to Stanford and to Cal. His heroes were both the French painter Paul Cezanne and the Dutch-born avant-garde American Willem de Kooning. He didn't consider himself a landscape artist, yet when Life magazine discovered him in 1957, the headline read "Sweeping Patterns from California Fields."

Diebenkorn's earliest paintings were representational, sometimes suggesting Edward Hopper's work. Then he turned to abstraction. Then to representation again. Then to abstraction. He refused to fall into line. He was called a traitor when he added figures to his abstract images. One collector who'd bought his works telephoned to say, "You've ruined the value of my paintings!"

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Figure on a Porch, 1959. © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Figure on a Porch, 1959. © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved. (de Young Museum)

He was a working artist for 45 years, based mostly in Northern California, yet many art references identify him only by the abstract, geometric "Ocean Park" series he painted in Santa Monica over a 21-year period beginning in 1967. One art directory says Diebenkorn "remains difficult to categorize." That would suit him just fine.

A history in the Bay Area

The full scope of his life is suggested and superbly displayed in "Richard Diebekorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966," which fills the lower-level galleries of the de Young Museum with dazzling color. More than 130 paintings and drawings have been assembled by curator Timothy Burgard from across the country, many of them rarely seen by the public.

While it would have made sense to include one of the "Ocean Park" paintings for contrast, the exhibit shows Diebenkorn's twists and turns -- from the abstraction of his numbered "Berkeley" paintings, through still lifes of mundane objects in his studios, to the large-scale works in which glum figures seem unaware of the blaze of color around them.

Diebenkorn, who was born in Portland in 1922 and died in Berkeley in 1993, came to prominence in the Bay Area in the early 1950s. It wasn't until the 1970s that he received true national and international recognition.

That may have been his choice. He was wary of the New York art establishment, even reluctant to be featured in Life. He remembered the magazine's "discovery" of Jackson Pollock and his action paintings, which pinned him with the label "Jack the dripper."

An 'oscillation'

Over the years, some critics agreed with Diebenkorn's notion that he wasn't shifting from one style to another -- instead, his paintings always hovered between abstraction and depiction.

Burgard, in an interview as the de Young exhibit was opening, describes it as an "oscillation." And you can almost see the conflicts in the paint, on the canvas. The subject was not as important to Diebenkorn as the way he worked it out: "I want the action to be in the painting."

In "The Berkeley Years," of course, visitors might expect some depictions of Berkeley and the Bay Area, but finding them is something of a game.

"View from the Porch," from 1959, is a panorama from Diebenkorn's home on Hillcrest Road in Berkeley. "Chabot Valley" is another somewhat recognizable scene. "Ingleside," a much bigger, more abstract canvas, recalls the neighborhood in San Francisco where he grew up. Yet he seldom painted anything close to photographic. For Diebenkorn, there was the specific environment, and then there was his own personal "sense of place."

Many of Diebenkorn's paintings during his Berkeley years are notable for dazzling blue water in the background, sometimes so bold that it overwhelms the figures in the foreground. But he wasn't standing with brushes and canvas in Emeryville or on Ocean Beach. "He had four studios in Berkeley, Burgard says, "and none of them had a view of the Bay."

Although he did paint what he saw from his porch, few of his works involved standing in front of a painting's subject. "The whole thing is a fiction," Burgard says.

Fiction, drama and mystery are present in the big figurative paintings, in which the human figure might be barely depicted, often from behind or with an obscured face. Diebenkorn described this change in his paintings in the mid-1950s as "the presence of a person as opposed to emptiness." But some settings still look empty. The glum, usually solitary figures don't seem aware of the blues, greens, yellows and purples that leap from the canvas.

Abstraction vs. depiction

The nearly 100 paintings (plus drawings) are deftly installed in the de Young's big galleries and present a tour through Diebenkorn's Berkeley years as well hints of what came before and what came later. A yellow collage from 1966 suggests a return to abstraction. What's more, the paintings' "oscillation" between abstract and figurative styles conveys much of the history of 20th-century art.

It's possible to stand in the center of the first gallery and, turning slowly, see 10 of his abstract, numbered "Berkeley" paintings from the mid-1950s, to ponder how they're similar, and different. With "Chabot Valley" (1955), it's possible to discern rooftops, windows, greenery, sky.

Two views of the same scene on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Santa Barbara (both from 1958), are masterfully paired. One is a representational watercolor with graphite, the other a more abstract oil. It's the abstract painting that conveys more emotion.

"Cityscape #1" (1963), suggested by a hilly residential street in San Francisco, juxtaposes a row of houses with a grassy field across the street. They could be colliding, or on a fault line. (Another "Cityscape" was first titled "Landscape.")

Many of these works are challenging. Diebenkorn himself sometimes struggled through composition to completion.

"Abstract means literally to draw from or separate," Diebenkorn said in a statement posted in big letters high on a gallery wall. "In this sense, every artist is abstract ... a realistic or nonobjective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts."

'RICHARD DIEBENKORN:
THE BERKELEY YEARS, 1953-1966'

Through: Sept. 29
Where: de Young Museum,
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Admission: $10-$20; 415-750-3600, http://deyoungmuseum.org

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