STANFORD, Calif. — A small gallery at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center is currently offering a deeply personal glimpse into the life and work of Bay Area artist Richard Diebenkorn. Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed is a tiny yet tremendously exciting exhibition that makes public for the first time works drawn from the influential artist’s 29 never-before-seen sketchbooks. The pieces on view, a thoughtful selection of 95 works — including 83 of the 1,045 drawings found in the sketchbooks — reveal an artist who was captivated by the quotidian details of life and the people who formed his most intimate circles.
Entering the exhibition, visitors are met with a dazzling array of colors and forms, drawn or painted onto the pages of worn, store-bought sketchbooks. From precise renderings of a military jacket to a series of tenderly crafted portraits of Diebenkorn’s wife, Phyllis, the show brings to life the artist’s interior landscape, personal musings, and the way he approached the world.
Working in the decades following World War II, Diebenkorn made a name for himself first as a highly skilled Abstract Expressionist, then as something of a heretic, eschewing abstraction for representational works, before eventually returning to abstraction once again in what would become one of his best-known series, the Ocean Park works. The sketchbooks highlight the fluidity that characterized Diebenkorn’s practice throughout, and his willingness to move freely between different artistic schools of thought. They include drawings of people in various stages of representation — a quiet meditation on the many possibilities of figuration and form.
The exhibition opens by diverging from its premise with a few pristine paintings created in the early 1940s, when Diebenkorn was a student at Stanford. Bucolic buildings and rustic railways highlight his debt to Edward Hopper (whose works are also on view across the gallery), with striking shadows, moody landscapes, and carefully executed textures. The paintings provide an apt starting point, illustrating Diebenkorn’s interest in experimenting with the permutations of a single subject. The 1942 and 1943 works “Mushroom House” and “Untitled” both depict the same country row house, first in oil, then in ink and gouache. Slight variations in texture, form, and material result in similar works that convey quite different temperaments — one weathered and foreboding, the other light and tranquil.
From there, visitors are treated to a range of sketches in various stages of completion, composed in an assortment of materials, including ink, charcoal, and ballpoint pen. While some of the sketches appear to be studies for major works, others offer glimpses of his personal life, from a rendering of a hat and shoe, as if just removed from the closet, to drawings from a travel sketchbook documenting a trip to Athens, Malta, Sicily, and elsewhere. There are unfinished fragments of everyday experiences — a percolating espresso maker and a medley of pots and pans, Phyllis sitting with her chin in her hands — that read as a privileged foray into what Diebenkorn undoubtedly considered an informal and private outlet, alongside works that appear worthy of framing.
Among the most breathtaking of the latter is “standing female nude holding flower stem,” which is pasted on the inside cover of sketchbook number 24. The watercolor, as the title suggests, features a nude woman against a vibrant red background and evinces all the hallmarks of Diebenkorn’s finished work: careful attention to the curvilinear form of the figure, richly textured color, and a nascent geometric quality, even within the supple form of the nude.
But while the nearly complete works reveal the talent of the artist we’re all familiar with, the scratched-out pieces and unfinished pages offer an even more compelling glimpse of Diebenkorn’s practice. Though ostensibly created as happenstance sketches, they evidence his singular approach to conceiving of a figure in relationship to its surroundings, his careful attention to color, and the ease with which he moved between figuration and abstraction. His friend, the artist William Brice, once said that Diebenkorn “absorbed the aura of a place” — a sentiment aptly conveyed by Diebenkorn’s profound ability to capture the essence of a subject in a quickly composed sketch.
Studies of the figure pervade the exhibition, mirroring a motif that runs throughout much of Diebenkorn’s work. Sketchbook number 20, which has been carefully preserved and separated out page by page in protective casing so that visitors can flip through much of it, provides a particularly insightful look at the artist’s process and the way he approached the figure. Pages 131–139 depict a female nude with clear attention paid to perspective and shading. Much of Diebenkorn’s work, both figurative and more abstract, is concerned with the figure as it relates to its architectural surroundings. Here we see that investigation firsthand, with drawings and watercolors of a nude depicted from different angles and in different positions, variously set against an empty background and then with geometric blocking of the space. We see Diebenkorn play with the texture of the figure and the use of shading, conveying the mood of the subject and highlighting its relationship to the room.
In drawing 131 [female head and torso], Diebenkorn’s thick application of ink wash to the left of the figure’s face imbues the work with a certain emotional gravity, creating an energy in the painting that draws our eye to the bottom corner, where her head lies in her hand. Page 133 [seated female nude] reveals Diebenkorn’s commanding use of texture and shading. A female figure seated on a stool appears as though emerging from a geometric black space, the forms of her limbs seemingly carved out by the absence of color rather than by the presence of the space around her. The roughly lines drawn across her torso give the appearance of soft, supple skin on her stomach, while the shading on her legs suggests a sturdiness typically difficult to convey in a seated figure.
This sketchbook, presented in full, also helps us understand the way Diebenkorn approached his work in these books: a few studies repeated, followed by a break in the pages and then new interest in a different subject for several more pages. A rough sketch often appears next to a more complete-looking one (though not necessarily of the same subject), as in sketchbook 17, where page 54 features a nascent but crossed-out figure standing before an easel, while page 55 contains a stunning, vibrant landscape created in watercolor and graphite that could well be a finished work hanging on a museum wall. Diebenkorn started and abandoned sketchbooks at will, and the pages and books themselves are undated, often featuring works from many different years. Among the few signifiers of a particular place or time are pieces of ephemera that Diebenkorn pasted in, ostensibly meant as bits of inspiration or influence for later works but now lending a certain historical grounding to the pages on display.
While major scholarly analysis of the sketchbooks has yet to be undertaken, the initial research and resulting exhibition reveal an aspect of Diebenkorn’s process that’s gone unexplored: he was making simple sketches from life constantly, suggesting that his major compositions may have been drawn more from happenstance slices of life rather than carefully composed scenes. Stanford has digitized the sketchbooks so that viewers can flip through all of the pages, on touch screens in the exhibition and on the computer at home. While the acquisition of these drawings offers tremendous possibility for Dievenkorn scholars down the line, it also provides art lovers with the rare chance to encounter the human side of a great painter, to see the beginnings of his masterworks in careful studies of the simplest and most intimate subjects.
Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed continues at the Cantor Arts Center (328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford, California) through February 8, 2016.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.