During the thirteen years he lived in Berkeley, artist Richard Diebenkorn made a big transition from Abstract Expressionism to figurative painting.
"It's one of his greatest contributions, in addition to the sheer beauty of his work," said Timothy Anglin Burgard, the co-curator of Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, at the de Young Museum through Sept 29, 2013. "He bridged two styles that seemed unbridgeable."
The exhibit has more than 130 of Diebenkorn's works, including Chabot Valley (1955), his first clearly representation landscape. Burgard said the shift incited controversy in the art world, with some people feeling Diebenkorn had betrayed a movement by leaving abstraction behind.
"They used words like 'traitor,'" Burgard said. "This was during the Cold War and the mentality was you're either with us or against us."
Diebenkorn, who grew up in San Francisco and attended Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, was famously independent and not worried about criticism or commercial forces, Burgard says. He thinks part of the reason Diebenkorn was so much his own person had to do with his memory of going to the Legion of Honor in 1936 with his grandmother, an artist herself, to see Vincent Van Gogh's first U.S. exhibit. Diebenkorn remembered not just the tour group, but the guide as well, making fun of the pictures, considered iconic just 10 years later.
"I always felt that this teenage exposure to how fickle the public could be influenced him," Burgard said.
Pictures of the artist by Rose Mandel hang in the hall leading up to the exhibit (an exhibit of her photos, The Errand of the Eye, is also at the de Young through Oct. 13). Burgand says Mandel was one of the few people to see Diebenkorn at work. The photos, which appeared in the article, "Diebenkorn Paints a Picture" in a 1957 ARTnews magazine, first show Diebenkorn in his studio, painting a man. In the last photo he has turned the painting upside down, and is working on the painting that became Woman By the Ocean (1955), displayed in the exhibit.
"He never started with a preconceived idea," Burgard said. "For him the process was as important as the final result."
Even in Diebenkorn's abstracts, you can see figures and landscapes, says Burgard. He points to Berkeley #3 (1953), where he thinks there could be the figure of a woman, her outstretched leg like a horizon line.
"It's organic and there's growth and fertility, and he fills it with life force," Burgard said about the painting.
Diebenkorn was profoundly influenced by his environment, Burgard says, and the light and colors of the Bay Area seep into his work with the deep greens and ambers and ochers, as happened later when he moved to Santa Monica and painted the famous Ocean Park series with the blues of the ocean and sky there.
Diebenkorn, who appeared in Life magazine in 1957 as well as the ARTnews piece, didn't respond to pressure to move to New York even though in that time "California artist" was a dismissive phrase. This is another example of his independence, Burgand thinks.
"He had to make a conscious choice to stay here," Burgard says. "He was a California artist who emerged as a major national and international artist."
Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 is at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, through September 29. Admission is $10-$20. For more information, call 415-750-3600 or visit deyoungmuseum.org.