Thursday, July 16, 2020

Distance Learning -- Day 30

Edward Hopper, Western Motel, 1957, oil on canvas

So, today I've been thinking about the relationships between Richard Diebenkorn's and Edward Hopper's art.  They aren't accidental.  

When Richard Diebenkorn was learning to paint in the 1950's, Abstract Expressionism was the vogue.  So much so that, in a determination to be 'with it,'  the San Francisco Art Institute recruited several "AbEx's" from the East Coast and more or less banned realistic painting. The point of Ab Ex was to let the art 'flow from the artist's emotions and soul (or some mystical place) directly onto the canvas.' 

Diebenkorn tried and actually succeeded but never resonated with this expressive method.  His natural thinking process was orderly, methodical, architectural; he didn't wear his soul on his sleeve.  So he turned to the study of other artists for his guidance - through books, magazines, and especially actual works if he could get his eyes on them.  

His first main  'teacher' (although he wasn't aware of it) was Edward Hopper. Diebenkorn encountered Hopper's austere Americana at age 20 when he was in Stanford's art program. And he fell hard.  In his own words: I embraced Hopper completely ...It was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere...kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity.  It was the kind of work that just seemed made for me.  I looked at it and it was mine.

Richard Diebenkorn, Girl Looking at Landscape, 1957, oil on canvas


Diebenkorn filled his his early sketchbooks and canvasses with images that were so like Hopper's "it makes you do a double take when you see the label" according to a reviewer.  Hopper's intense but cold colors are there, the clean lines and shapes, along with the enigmatic estrangement of the subjects and that peopleless, contemplative landscape out the window.  But, these aren't mere imitations of Hopper;  already Diebenkorn is allowing his paint to be 'washy,' to be able to rethink, make changes and get it right directly on the canvas, in front of the viewer.

Diebenkorn enjoyed success with these Hopperesque figurative paintings.  But gradually the landscape 'backgrounds' became more dominant and then paintings in their own right.  Almost from the beginning he seemed to be wrestling with the figurative or the landscape; the realistic or the abstract. The debate is on visual record in many works including the two paintings below painted the same year.

Richard Diebenkorn, Coffee, 1959, oil on canvas


Richard Diebenkorn, View from a Porch, 1959, oil on canvas

Diebenkorn had also encountered and been strongly touched by Matisse's work while at Stanford, and, as he wrestled with this debate, he kept elements of Hopper but turned more and more to a prolonged direct study of Matisse's works for solutions.  Eventually what he had understood and assimilated from both these artists (and Rothko) brought forth his unique, fully realized master works, the magnificent and revered Ocean Park series.

Richard Diebenkorn in front of two of his Ocean Park paintings

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