Looking at Richard Diebenkorn at the Cantor

The Stanford exhibition celebrates a great American painter and alumnus.

American painter Richard Diebenkorn’s connection to Stanford is deep as well as broad.

At the touchscreen is Susan Dackerman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor Arts Center, looking at Richard Diebenkorn’s digitized sketchbooks with Jessica Ventura, curatorial assistant. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Not only was Diebenkorn an alum, but even after his death in 1993, his impact has continued on campus thanks to the number of significant artworks given and lent to Stanford, the digitization of his sketchbooks and the documented examination via infrared technology of one of his pivotal works.

These elements come together for the first time in the ongoing installation titled Richard Diebenkorn at the Cantor in the Oshman Family Gallery at the Cantor Arts Center.

“While reinstalling our modern and contemporary galleries earlier this year, we realized that our collection – with a little help from the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation – could be paired with recent Stanford scholarship on the artist to present a mini-survey of his work,” said Susan Dackerman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director at the Cantor. “The museum is in the fortunate position to be able to show the evolution of his style, from early figurative painting through one of his renowned Ocean Park paintings.”

Circling Spencer Finch’s suspended light sculpture Betelgeuse (2015) on the second floor of the Cantor’s rotunda and overlooking Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (1904) are six paintings by Diebenkorn, four from the permanent collection and two on loan from the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, spanning three decades. There is also a jumbo touchscreen where visitors can browse and enlarge high-resolution digitized images of all 1,045 drawings from the artist’s 29 sketchbooks, and an interactive digitized presentation of a student research project that allows visitors to reveal hidden drawings under the surface of one of Diebenkorn’s paintings. Both Diebenkorn’s and Finch’s work, as well as the decoration of the rotunda space, provide a chance to indulge in the very particular light of California.

The intimate multimedia installation sheds light on Diebenkorn’s process and progress as an artist, including his shift from a representational style practiced in the 1950s and early ’60s to abstraction, which he thoroughly embraced after he moved to Southern California in 1966 and began the Ocean Park series.

Translating observational experience into art

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Diebenkorn’s graduation from Stanford. He was in the social Class of ’44 but his enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 interrupted his undergraduate education and he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in 1949. While at Stanford, Diebenkorn identified scenes and objects to draw and paint, foreshadowing his practice of translating observational experience into art.

“In his sketchbooks, he worked out familiar themes and structures seen later in his paintings,” said Jessica Ventura, curatorial assistant. “For example, there is a study drawing in sketchbook #15 of the painting Window, one of Diebenkorn’s first large-scale paintings and the first to be completed in his studio in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, California. The model in a resting pose in sketchbook #24 is similar to the figure in the painting Resting, a painting last shown in 1964 at an exhibition in London and now on view at the Cantor.”

Viewing Diebenkorn’s work not only offers a hint about the artist but also provides a suggestion for how to live our lives.

“One can see from Diebenkorn’s sketchbooks and paintings how closely he observed the objects, landscape and light around him – how present he was to his surroundings,” said Dackerman. “For us to look at his work is a good reminder to be present ourselves, to put down our phones and to take pleasure in the world and people around us.”

Resources for research, learning

The Cantor’s long and fruitful relationship with the Diebenkorn family and foundation has provided essential and innovative resources for Stanford students’ research and learning. Disintegrating Pig (1950) was given to the Cantor by Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, ’67 and MFA ’69, and Richard Grant. Window (1967) was given to the Cantor by the artist and his wife, Phyllis Diebenkorn, who was also a Stanford student from the Class of 1942, and anonymous donors. Ocean Park #94 (1976) was given to the Cantor by Phyllis Diebenkorn. All three paintings are in the current installation and the fourth painting from the permanent collection, Buildings—Hill Background (1961), was originally a gift from Richard and Phyllis Diebenkorn to their friend Nancy Gonzalez for hosting the wedding rehearsal dinner for their daughter Gretchen to Grant in 1966. Gonzalez gave the painting to the Cantor 40 years later.

In 2014, Phyllis Diebenkorn, with the assistance of Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant and the foundation, donated 29 of the artist’s sketchbooks to the Cantor. The online accessibility of the sketchbooks makes them a research tool for scholars around the world.

On loan from the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation for this installation are two figurative paintings, Portrait of P.G.D. (1957) and Resting (1962), which demonstrate Diebenkorn’s changing artistic direction and style.

The foundation is also helping issue a major Diebenkorn monograph this fall, which is expected to bring new attention to the artist, in part because of a revelatory interview in the book by Diebenkorn’s friend, artist Wayne Thiebaud, who delivered the inaugural Burt and Deedee McMurtry Lecture presented by the Anderson Collection at Stanford University in 2015. This monograph and Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed, a collection of scholarly essays by Stanford faculty edited by the Cantor, are two publications contributing to the ongoing research of the artist.

Two additional Diebenkorn paintings are on view at the Anderson Collection, included in a reinstallation of the permanent collection, Left of Center, which opened Sept. 20 as part of a celebration marking the museum’s fifth anniversary. Girl on the Beach (1957) is an example of the artist’s figurative work, and Ocean Park #60 (1973) is an example of later abstraction.

“We are extremely pleased to bring work that Richard Diebenkorn created in his lifetime to the Cantor Arts Center and are delighted that the works on loan have been curated together with the museum’s holdings, which of course include the beloved sketchbooks,” said Andrea Liguori, managing director of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. “The artist immensely benefitted from his time at Stanford University, beginning in 1940 where he first seriously encountered subjects such as music, literature and history and again as the first artist in residence in 1963.”

Media Contacts

Beth Giudicessi, Cantor Arts Center: (650) 723-6096, egiudice@stanford.edu

Robin Wander, University Communications: (650) 724-6184, robin.wander@stanford.edu