Stanford student’s investigation reveals images in Diebenkorn painting

Richard Diebenkorn's Window is the centerpiece of a new interactive exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center. The exhibit reveals hidden images beneath the painting found by Stanford student Katherine Van Kirk.

Stanford student Katherine Van Kirk, ’19, has paired modern technology with old-fashioned detective work to reveal images hidden beneath the surface of artist Richard Diebenkorn’s painting Window (1967).

Katherine Van Kirk

Stanford student Katherine Van Kirk, ’19, paired modern technology with old-fashioned and painstaking detective work to reveal several images hidden beneath the surface of artist Richard Diebenkorn’s painting Window (1967). (Image credit: Aaron Kehoe)

Van Kirk discovered multiple compositions hidden below Window’s surface that date to the mid-1950s and ‘60s, when Diebenkorn was a leader of the Bay Area Figurative movement. These earlier compositions indicate the diversity of Diebenkorn’s artistic interests in the years immediately before he transitioned to abstract painting.

Now, Van Kirk’s findings are featured at the Cantor Arts Center in the exhibition Through Diebenkorn’s Window: Transitions in Time, on view through Aug. 12. The exhibition includes an interactive display that allows visitors to peel back the layers of the painting for themselves.

Art+Science Learning Lab

Van Kirk, an engineering physics major, always dreamed of finding an underpainting, which is an image hidden beneath the surface of a finished work of art. When the Cantor’s Art+Science Learning Lab put out a call for art-related research projects, she put in a proposal and was selected as a Chen-Yang Fellow in the lab. Soon she was working closely with Susan Roberts-Manganelli, director of the lab, who armed Van Kirk with an infrared camera and sent her into the Cantor’s galleries to see what she could find.

“Our lab is the place where science students get to use their analytical skills in new ways,” Roberts-Manganelli said.

The second painting Van Kirk analyzed with the infrared camera was Diebenkorn’s painting, Window. She was amazed to see something revealed under the surface. Thanks to a grant from the Bank of America 2016 Art Conservation Project (ACP), the Art+Science Learning Lab purchased a special infrared reflectography camera capable of more penetrating imaging for Van Kirk to use. The lab plans to use it for future projects. Van Kirk spent hours using the special camera to create a patchwork quilt of images of each part of the painting, which she then stitched together.

“It feels like every day we uncover a new detail below the surface. We initially thought there was only one alternate composition, but just recently, we discovered another layer,” Van Kirk said. “At its heart, my interdisciplinary research is detective work combining art and physics. It’s an incredible way to be spending my time at Stanford.”

Pair of glasses

The images to emerge include a sketch of a pair of glasses that match those worn by Diebenkorn, as seen in a self-portrait the artist did in a sketchbook that is part of the Cantor’s collection. These and other images, including a table, a candelabra and a nude female form, are evidence in a single painting of the transitions Diebenkorn was making in his art.

“Katherine’s work is an example of how the Cantor is engaging undergraduates in unique research opportunities and helping create bridges across the campus between the arts and sciences,” said Susan Dackerman, John & Jill Freidenrich Director at the Cantor. “It’s exciting to see technology being used to add to our understanding of an artist’s process and the evolution of his work.”

To have found the multiple compositions beneath a work of Diebenkorn’s adds another chapter to the Cantor’s deep connection with the artist and his estate. Throughout his long career, Diebenkorn used a sketchbook (a “portable studio,” as he called it) to capture his ideas. The resulting collection of sketchbooks contains drawings that span the artist’s career, including gestural renderings of everyday items and a multitude of images of the people who surrounded him over the years. They reveal his fascination with the human figure.

After Diebenkorn’s death in 1993, his wife Phyllis, ’42, made a gift of more than two dozen sketchbooks to the Cantor Arts Center in 2014. These sketchbooks proved invaluable in helping Van Kirk understand the significance of the images she found, explained Jessica Stewart, associate curator of academic engagement, who has worked with Van Kirk on the preparation of the exhibition.

The new exhibition allows visitors to see beneath the surface of the painting using interactive digital media. The artist’s sketchbooks, also on view, support Van Kirk’s conclusions about her discoveries.

Move slider to reveal deeper layer. (Image credit: Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center)