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Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled” from Sketchbook #10, page 13 (1943–93), gouache and watercolor on paper (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Bay Area artist Richard Diebenkorn kept sketchbooks for his entire career; they served as a sort of nomadic studio where he experimented with visuals that bridged figurative and abstract ideas. Recently the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University acquired 29 of Diebenkorn’s sketchbooks, and this September they’re going on view to the public for the first time in Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed.

“The books are filled with stunningly gestural sketches of bits and pieces of daily life, both mundane capturing of everyday things, and powerful vignettes of intimate family moments,” Alison Gass, the Cantor’s associate director for collections, exhibitions, and curatorial affairs, told Hyperallergic. “We see brief visual meditations on vistas seen on travels, and we see carefully built studies that would become the large-scale finished Ocean Park paintings we know so well.”

Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled” from Sketchbook #2, page 37 (1943–93), felt-tip marker ink on paper (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation) (click to enlarge)

Diebenkorn, who graduated from Stanford in 1949, passed away in 1993, and his widow Phyllis Diebenkorn, who donated the sketchbooks, died this year. His legacy of vibrant landscapes and abstract studies is secure in postwar art, yet the sketchbooks join the Cantor’s existing Diebenkorn collection of completed work to offer a rare insight into his process. All 29 of them were digitized prior to the exhibition, and will soon be available online. In the show, the sketchbooks will be open to a single page, but visitors can flip through with digital versions on touch screens.

“As Diebenkorn kept these sketchbooks throughout his life and career, putting one down only to pick it up years later, they are un-datable, but also each turn of the page offers a total surprise,” Gass said.

Within the sketchbooks are over a thousand drawings that reflect his interest in both nature and the built environment of California, along with studies of figures, portraits of his wife, and experiments with abstract expressionist color fields. The Cantor Arts Center shared the selections below as a preview prior to their first public exhibition.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled” from Sketchbook #2, page 33 (1943–93), gouache, watercolor, crayon with graphite and cut and pasted paper on paper (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Richard Diebenkorn, Cover of Sketchbook #8 (1943–93), printing ink on laminated board (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled” from Sketchbook #8, page 85 (1943–93), ballpoint pen ink on paper (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled” from Sketchbook #2, pages 26–27 (1943–93), graphite on paper (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Richard Diebenkorn,” Untitled” from Sketchbook #2, page 17 (1943–93), ink wash, watercolor or gouache with crayon and felt-tip marker on paper on paper (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled” from Sketchbook #13, page 13 (1965–66), pen and ink on paper (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled” from Sketchbook #20, page 45 (1943–93), crayon on paper (gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealedwill take place September 9 to February 8, 2016, at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford, California). 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

15 replies on “A Lifetime of Sketchbooks from Postwar Painter Richard Diebenkorn”

  1. I have, but it disappeared. Where is my comment. What do I click to have it printed here?

    1. Ms. Drexler, I certainly hope that you, one of the most influential artists of the century, succeed in getting your comments shown here. I would love to read what you have to say. Perhaps you did not “sign-in” when you posted.

      Sid Moore

        1. Yeah, Rosalyn, I showed sculpture in a couple of minor shows at the Martha Jackson and photographed her openings. That was in the mid-’60s. Back to painting now after half-a-century in between of doing other fun stuff. Hey, where are those comments you posted? … please.

          1. Sid, I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but it conveyed my joy and appreciation of the notebooks. I said that my notebooks were, sadly, full of shopping lists, things to do, phone numbers, names that belonged to strangers…I did do a few very nice collages that have recently been framed. And a list that seems to be important to me of songs I’d like to sing with lyrics attached. That glimpse into Diebenkorn’s notebooks was as great an art experience as I’ve ever had.

          2. LOL! Rosalyn, I love you self-deprecating way of describing your notebooks. I, too, thought along those lines about my own notebooks as I soaked up his. My only real claim of similarity with Diebenkorn’s artful pages is the fact that I have an identical Morilla “Clipper” sketch pad that hails from the same era and is in similar disrepair.

          3. A fifty years hiatus doing “fun stuff”? I’m so glad you’re back to painting! Now’s the time. I wish my husband had had the strength to hang on. But he didn’t. It pains me to see his work so neglected. I wander through his studio appreciating the work. I’m the only one. Well who said life was fair. Was it fun stuff, or something else that could have ruined you altogether? Take care.

  2. Love these intimate wanderings of a deeply creative committed individual. I hope younger Artist take note. It takes a life of such exploration to do good work.

  3. Ms. Drexller wrote that the glimpse into Diebenkorn’s sketchbooks was as great an art experience as she’s had. Permit me to add to that. During publishing of four books on aspects of Diebenkorn’s work I spent numbers of days alone with him during several years in two studios looking at his work with him. I proposed doing facsimile publications of sketchbooks after we sat together turning them page by page during four days in succession.
    I gave him the printer’s dummy that Stanford has numbered no. 16. After publishing Richard Diebenkorn: Works on Peper I brought to him a duplicate of the volume with blank pages to start mocking-up volume 2. I scaled the painting I imagined for the dust jacket, wrapped the blank book and left with him. Returning to his home in Santa Monica a few weeks later I discovered that he had been using the pages not for visualizing our next book but to make drawings of a coat for a series of etchings that he was conceiving. One of his earliest drawings was of his Matine Corps jacket when he was in the military. Now after decades he returned to that motif.
    Diebenkorn’s private drawings were revelatory. Whether, when or how to publish them was thought-provoking. For example, more than once when I went to visit him in studio to consider works to include in a book he said with a deep chuckle, “Let’s look at the scatalogical drawings.” Then he would get out some drawings that gave him great amusement, were extremely well drawn, and were crazy.
    Diebenkorn drew dogs magnificently.

  4. Originally I proposed publishing a thorough book on Diebenkorn’s figurative works. He told me that what he needed was one on his Ocean Patk drawings. No survey had been done of more than twenty years of these works, and only one painting survey had been done to date, one by Linda Cathcart and Robert Buck. Hard to believe now.
    The big problem was lack of a master record. Dick had been with Matlborough Gallery when the Rothko scandal happened, and he left.

  5. At the time trying to locate works on paper was extremely hard. I thought that we traced one only to learn it had been sold two or three times since. One day while visiting his daughter Gretchen I saw a little Ocean Park painted drawing. I asked her, “What’s that?” She said that her dad had painted some works on cigar box lids. They were fabulous! Some of the printed text and gold tape of the mahogany cigar boxes showed through his paintings. I immediately asked Dick to publish them and we did: Diebenkorn: Small Paintings from Ocean Park.
    Almost immediately after we published Works on Paper the Museum of Modern Art decided to have an exhibition of Dick’s works on paper. We co-published the catalogue with them. Then as if our publications and the MoMA show brought resolution to an era Dick called to tell me that he had moved from Santa Monica to Healdsburg, California. I visited and stayed there several times, and we looked at his sketchbooks and “scatalogical” drawings again–him chortling with deep satisfaction and me in wonderment–but he became ill and we did not publish any more.
    his family evidently viewed the sketchbooks as intimate and personal but I did not pick up that sensibity from him. He cared about and enjoyed them, and other personal drawings. One drawing was a self-portrait with his head as a dog. Another one with no head. He drew fictional monsters like those in aback grounds of Goya. He was a beautiful guy!

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