The artistic process, revealed

Cantor Arts Center celebrates gift of Richard Diebenkorn's sketchbooks

How much does a finished work of art reveal about the artist? The iconic Mona Lisa is world-renowned, but what does it say about Leonardo da Vinci? Most scholars would agree that it is not his best-known paintings but his voluminous notebooks that tell the story of an artist whose insatiable curiosity extended to anatomy, science and engineering.

The notebooks of 20th century American painter Richard Diebenkorn similarly provide insight into the artist's inspirations and working methods. Thanks to his wife and the Diebenkorn Foundation, those notebooks will be on view at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center from Sept. 9 through Feb. 8. "Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed" includes 29 sketchbooks that have never previously been displayed.

For over two decades since the artist's death in 1993, the books -- which range in shape and size from the spiral-bound variety to beautifully embossed journals -- have been kept in a cardboard box in the home of Diebenkorn's widow, Phyllis. Before her death in January of this year, Phyllis decided to donate the entire collection to the Cantor Arts Center, a choice the exhibit's curator, Alison Gass, called "an extraordinary gesture of generosity and trust," given the private nature of these artistic meditations.

Gifting the collection to the University seems like an obvious choice; Diebenkorn was an alumnus (class of 1949), as were his wife, his daughter, Gretchen, and Gretchen's husband, Richard Grant. Today, Gretchen and Richard Grant oversee the Diebenkorn Foundation, which is preparing a comprehensive, annotated catalog of the artist's work.

It's one thing to obtain such a fabulous trove, quite another to display it to the public. Because of the delicate nature of the sketchbooks, visitors can't leaf through them physically, but can scroll through their pages using a digital touchscreen. The digitization process also allows the notebooks to be seen online, making them an important teaching tool that allows students to better understand Diebenkorn's development and maturation, as well as his successful blending of abstract and figurative techniques.

Gass noted that the sketchbooks are a way of "gaining insight into the way Diebenkorn experimented with line, shape, form and perspective, and creatively tackled challenging subjects."

Diebenkorn drew constantly, and the sketchbooks, most of which are not dated, reveal that virtually anything could absorb his attention. There is a pencil drawing of a parquet floor, one of a glass of water with the artist's eyeglasses resting behind it and a thoughtful rendering of the artist himself, posed with hand on chin. It is clear the artist grabbed whatever notebook was handy and used whatever medium was nearby (pen, pencil or watercolor wash) to create the drawings. Some of them, such as the studies of arched windows, were done quickly with broad strokes. Others, like that of a bar scene in Ensenada, Mexico, are quite detailed. Most of the work is straightforward and objective, indicative of an artist working out technical concerns. One page, however, is a touching memorial to the artist's father. There is the outline of a fedora, an intricately-detailed wing-tip shoe and a folded, monogrammed handkerchief with the terse, penciled-in notation, "Day of my father's death."

Most Diebenkorn biographers suggest that the artist did not work from sketches, but a ballpoint pen drawing of a woman lying on the beach in a print bikini, head towards viewer, knees bent and arms at her side, may have been a precursor to the serenely beautiful oil painting, "Girl on the Beach" (1957), installed in the Anderson Collection.

The late Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes referred to Richard Diebenkorn as "the dean of California painters." To get a sense of how the artist was a master of both representational and abstract painting, visitors can move from the notebooks to the contemporary gallery next door where "Ocean Park #94" is hung. The painting is part of the series created over a two-decade period when Diebenkorn was living in Los Angeles. His studio was in an industrial area of the city, and he captured the setting with large blocks of color, defined by lines creating geometric shapes. There is a marked stillness to this work, as the artist strove to capture air, light and mood in a solidly organized composition.

Curator Jane Livingston, who wrote the essay for the 1998 Whitney Museum retrospective of Diebenkorn's work, noted that the artist was very responsive to his physical environment, and "absorbed the aura of a place."

Much has been written about how Richard Diebenkorn was influenced, as a young art student at Stanford, by the work of Edward Hopper.

"I embraced Hopper completely," wrote Diebenkorn in 1985. "It was his use of light and shade and atmosphere ... kind of drenched, saturated with mood and its kind of austerity."

As luck would have it, visitors to the Cantor have a chance to compare and contrast the two artists, thanks to another recent and significant museum acquisition: Edward Hopper's "New York Corner" (1913). The painting is noticeably smaller than the artist's iconic "Nighthawks," but is just as reflective of the artist's theatrical, frozen-moment approach. It depicts a cool, wintry day in a not very glamorous part of New York City, with indistinct figures milling around in front of a closed drinking establishment. The colors are dark and subdued, except for the rather elaborate golden facade of the saloon with its illegible signage. The dark red brick building is contrasted by window shades rendered in deep hues of green, gold and tan. In the background, smoke spews from stacks, creating a blue-gray haze in the air. Although it is one of the artist's earliest works, critics of the period praised it as a "perfect visualization of a New York atmosphere." The painting was part of an anonymous private collection until recently, when the Cantor staff learned of its availability.

"We knew this was an incredibly rare opportunity and determined we would do whatever we could to bring this seminal work into the collection," explained Gass.

"New York Corner" is hung in close proximity to the Diebenkorn exhibition, which also includes a loan of a group of early and never-before-seen Diebenkorn watercolors, executed during his Stanford days. The untitled works depict mainly rural locations, with barns, silos and outbuildings all drawn with a Hopper-like realism, complete with a sense of quiet isolation that makes up much of the American scene. Meanwhile, in Diebenkorn's oil painting, "Palo Alto Circle" (1943), one really senses the impact of Hopper. The younger artist has used strong horizontals in his depiction of the ivory-colored stucco hotel, which is accentuated by a dramatic interplay of light and shadows.

In addition to showing off these latest acquisitions, the Cantor is also celebrating the October opening of the McMurtry Building for Art and Art History with a large-scale exhibition of works from the permanent collection entitled "Artists at Work."

How would Richard Diebenkorn feel about the new emphasis on integrating the arts into the curriculum at his alma mater?

"He was always interested in other disciplines along with art and felt that getting a good and serious education was an important part of life," explained Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant.

And now, Richard Diebenkorn's sketchbooks, a repository of the private musings and innermost thoughts of a major American artist, are part of that education.

What: Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed and Edward Hopper: "New York Corner"

Where: The Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford

When: Sept. 9-Feb. 8. Wednesday-Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Tuesday.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.

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Like this comment
Posted by Karen Letendre
a resident of another community
on Sep 27, 2015 at 6:41 pm

Loved this article on Diebenkorn! Very well written, and really captures the spirit and intent of the exhibition.

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