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Gone West

Richard Diebenkorn's work comes home with de Young and College of Marin shows, and two new locally published books



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By 1950, Diebenkorn moved his wife, Phyllis, and their family to New Mexico while he pursued a masters degree. By 1953, they were back in the Bay Area, settling into a comfortable house in the Berkeley hills, where they were to remain for the next 13 years. He moved again, in 1965, to Santa Monica, where he would produce his Ocean Park series of abstracts, the best-known suite of work in his oeuvre. Diebenkorn retired to Healdsburg's Alexander Valley in 1988, and lived there until his death in 1993.

Hugely celebrated, the Ocean Park series was honored in a massive 1997 exhibit emanating from the Whitney Museum that traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. A piece from that period, Ocean Park No. 117, sold at a Christie's auction in 2009 for $6.5 million, just shy of the $6.7 million that marks his most expensive canvas.

The work, both figurative and abstract, that Diebenkorn produced during his East Bay tenure is less well known. That oversight has been remedied with "Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years," a lush, stunning new exhibit at the de Young Museum running through Sept. 29.

"It was during this period that Diebenkorn really became Diebenkorn," argues Timothy Anglin Burgard, the Ednah Root curator-in-charge of American art at the de Young.

"His artistic integrity rendered him immune to external pressure to conform to either abstract or figurative styles, and set a liberating example that seems remarkably prescient given the inclusive nature of the contemporary art world."

Not to be outdone, the College of Marin art gallery is undergoing a summer facelift in order to host a 40-piece show of Diebenkorn's works on paper this September in conjunction with two new books on the subject introduced by painter Chester Arnold, a longtime COM faculty member, and produced by novelist Bart Schneider through his Kelly's Cove Press.

The Bay Area could be said to be suffering from a delicious delirium of Diebenkorn fever.

'UNTITLED (YELLOW COLLAGE)' Cut-and-pasted paper, gouach and ink on paper from 1966, on display at the de Young's Berkeley-centered exhibit. - RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION
  • Richard Diebenkorn Foundation
  • 'UNTITLED (YELLOW COLLAGE)' Cut-and-pasted paper, gouach and ink on paper from 1966, on display at the de Young's Berkeley-centered exhibit.

Seated at the outside table of a Sonoma cafe one early morning last month, Arnold and Schneider allowed a visitor to admire the two books they have produced. One, From the Model, concentrates on Diebenkorn's figures; the other, Abstractions on Paper, on his nonrepresentational pieces. Each is small enough to slip into a purse or read in bed, and cost just $20 apiece.

Seeing that the de Young was preparing to mount a large exhibit, Schneider thought to produce an accompanying book centering on Diebenkorn's 4,000 or so works on paper. He approached the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation about the project and, he says, "they kind of lit up. That great work is just sitting there in their databases."

Schneider asked Arnold to help him choose the images and write a short introduction to each book. Arnold asked the College of Marin to mount a show. Things started rolling. After Kentfield, it will travel the country.

Arnold, a highly regarded painter just returned from a one-man exhibit at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C., remembers that he first saw Diebenkorn's work in reproduction. It caused what he calls "a spark."

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