EUPHORBIA linen is delicate yet iridescent, with the sharp freshness of ice cold lemonade. American painter Richard Diebenkorn loved the way strands of this pale lemon could bring sunlight into his works, staining them with the colour of summer. Capturing the essence of time and place through light inflections was vital in Diebenkorn’s hugely varied practice, whether abstract, figurative or somewhere in between, as he revealed, “I would like the colours, their shapes and positions to be arrived at in response to and dictated by the condition of the total space at the time they are considered.” This pale, zingy yellow was often made to sing even brighter when set amongst muted, subtle modulations of grey, dusty pink, maroon or blue.
Born in Oregon, Diebenkorn studied art and art history at Stanford University in California, where the radiant, blinding light first began to colour his paintings. After a brief spell in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 Diebenkorn returned to study at the California School of Fine Arts, soaking up his surroundings with saturated colours and abstract designs influenced by the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Arshile Gorky.
After moving to Albuquerque to study at the University of New Mexico, in the mid-1950s Diebenkorn was drawn like a moth back to the fresh light of California, settling in the Berkeley area for over a decade. His earlier, expressive abstraction was replaced with atmospheric studies of interiors featuring half-lit figures or the trace of human presence through intimate domestic objects including chairs, books and tables. Initially he was influenced by Edward Hopper’s tightly arranged geometric panels of light and shade, later moving closer to Henri Matisse’s painterly, abstracted language with pattern-like designs and broad patches of vivid colour.
In Interior with View of the Ocean, 1957, melancholic greys and blues are split by broken shards of diagonal light in ghostly white gold and lemon yellows, bringing the painting to life. Made two years later, Interior with a Book, 1959 is a hypnotic sea of deep, rich blue, while an abandoned chair and book suggests the trace of someone hovering nearby. Running across the horizon, a piercing shard of sharp yellow draws in the eye and tears across the dreamy scene like a streak of lightning, breaking it in half. Interior with Doorway, 1962 contrasts jewel tones of blue and burgundy in the shadows with shockingly bright streaks of blinding lemon light. In the more abstract and refined Interior Green with Chair, 1964, light catches the surface in two patches of yellow so pale they almost turn white, jumping out amidst fluid passages of aquamarine blue and tiny streaks of burnt orange.
In the late 1960s Diebenkorn moved to Santa Monica and began work on his now world famous Ocean Park series, creating over 140 paintings devoted to the bright light and pastel tones around him. Art critic Sister Wendy Beckett reflected on the subtlety of his tones, writing, “These radiant sub-colours give the paintings a sense of mystery, of the unfathomability of the ocean.” Exposing his working process was vital to Diebenkorn, as we see in these powerful palimpsests that trace the passage of time, with visible mistakes and marks that are scraped away, worn down and reworked, giving them an appealingly human frailty. In Ocean Park No. 139, 1970, a softer, creamier shade of light yellow runs in long streaks down one side, banding together with warmer ochres and elegantly counterpoised alongside a broad panel of cerulean blue; brought together into one, these tones mimic the golden sand, transparent water and airy light synonymous with his beloved California.