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Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings capture a fresh and intriguing Californian light

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The Royal Academy’s exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn’s art brings together abstraction and the natural world and should not be missed, writes Nick Grant
Issue 2446
Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I, (Landscape No. 1), 1963, Oil on canvas

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I, (Landscape No. 1), 1963, Oil on canvas (Pic: Photograph: 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

This is a rare opportunity to see a selection of work by the US artist Richard Diebenkorn. 

Art critic Robert Hughes has described Diebenkorn as “a mediator between abstraction and natural vision”. 

He said Diebenkorn’s 1967-88 Ocean Park series of paintings are “abstractions which don’t reject the world but contain it in a concentrated form.”

Diebenkorn is virtually unknown in Britain. None of his work is held in collections or museums here. None has been seen here since an exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1991.

This new exhibition traces his post-war career up until his death in 1993 and has been greeted with critical acclaim.

What is it that makes Diebenkorn’s work so enticing?

When you see his work the appeal is quite simple and obvious. Three things stand out.

First, there is the way he evokes fresh Californian light through daring but always intriguing colour contrasts. He spent most of his life in the coastal district of Los Angeles that his works are named after.

Second, he foregrounds compositional beauty. In his later work, the structure is shown by  charcoal-sketched grids drawn in parallel and angled lines. 


Critics have suggested that  the distant and elevated point of view typical of Diebenkorn’s art was inspired by his first flight in 1951. The journey from Albuquerque, in New Mexico, to San Francisco will have taken him over patchwork landscapes. 

Third, there is both a mystery and hesitancy to his work, which encourages contemplation. 

For example, his pictures that include people tend to avoid facial detail and are set in complex spaces. 

Most of his large Ocean Park series—of which five can be seen here—have thin veils of paint over other shapes.

The edges do not show signs of masking tape. The paint on seemingly unprimed canvas is starting to fade and crack. 

The catalogue includes  this revealing quote from the artist, “One of the most interesting polarities in art is between representation at one end of the stick, and abstraction at the other end, and I’ve found myself all over that stick.”

This is an exhibition that is not to be missed. 

Richard Diebenkorn. Royal Academy of Arts, London W1J 0BD. Until 7 June.

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