My Visit with Richard Diebenkorn

A signed momento from my 1978 visit with Richard Diebenkorn

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When I came home from college for Thanksgiving Break in 1977 and told my parents that I wanted to major in art they were upset. Although I had always been creative growing up, I was a pretty conventional young man, who everyone expected to take a conventional path in life. So when I entered Stanford University in 1975 it seemed likely to my family that I was well on my way to becoming an attorney or businessman and gaining lifetime membership in America's upper-middle-class. But I was about to take a different path.

 As far back as I can remember, my parents, friends, relatives, teachers and other concerned adults had been patting me on the head and saying:

"John, you can be anything you want."

However, they had all failed to warn me about the one profession that was outside the range of possibility. "You can be anything you want," they should have cautioned, "except an artist." This omission created, in my second year of college, what I am going to call the "Diebenkorn Problem." I had decided that I wanted to become a painter. In other words, I wanted to enter a profession that my family associated with poverty, alcoholism, scraggly beards, chain-smoking, and permanent financial dependence.

The problem first appeared in my Freshman year, when I discovered that I had left my tennis racket at home when I packed for college. Since I couldn't enroll in tennis—which I had chosen as a nice, easy class—I decided to take a painting class instead. I had been drawing cartoon characters since the age of six and although I had taken no art in High School, I figured I could fake my way through a painting class. Once the class got going I saw how far behind the others students I was, so I began to work hard and see if I could catch up. 

My fascination with art—like any addiction—got serious fast. By the end of my second semester I was painting on the walls of my dorm room—one was a bad copy of a Paul Klee—and reading art magazines until midnight in the college library. I was also taking art history classes and began ostentatiously peppering my speech with French and German and even Italian words: "Fauvist," "kitsch," "Quattrocento," etc.

The author with his work in the Stanford Painting Lab, 1977

It was dangerous stuff.

Even more dangerous was the appearance of a mentor in my life: Professor Nathan Oliveira, a painter. As soon as I met him, Nate had a magnetic pull on me. Here was a man who loved what he did, who had a great way with people and was a tenured professor: a secure member of America’s upper-middle-class. Maybe there was a way I could follow my family's script, just with a twist. I really felt that I could become like Nathan, a painter and a professor, but to really shoot the moon, it became clear to me that maybe I could even go a bit further than that. I could try to emulate Richard Diebenkorn. 

I really felt that I could become like Nathan, a painter and a professor, but to really shoot the moon, it became clear to me that maybe I could even go a bit further than that. I could try to emulate Richard Diebenkorn.

Like the other students hard at work in the Stanford painting lab—where I was now spending nearly all my time—I had come to admire the artist's hazy blue "Ocean Park" paintings, which were gaining a national reputation for their serene geometry and painterly evocations of atmosphere. After landing a part-time job as in intern to the Anderson Collection, where several Diebenkorn paintings were on display, I got to know Diebenkorn’s work up close. I used to stand in front of Ocean Park #60, which was on display in the conference room of Saga Foods and just stare. The canvas—just a bit taller than me—was mesmerizing, carefully structured and somehow otherworldly. It also had dozens of brush hairs trapped in its surface, which struck me as reminders of the physical effort that had gone into painting it. 

Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park No.60, 1973
Oil on canvas, 93 x 81 1/4 inches, The Anderson Collection

Diebenkorn was a friend of Nathan's and by prying I was able to learn a few things about him. Richard Diebenkorn—"Dick" to his friends—drove a Porsche. He had been a Professor at UCLA, but had recently resigned as he didn’t care for the committee work and no longer had to rely on the income from teaching. Diebenkorn was annually producing something like a dozen large Ocean Park paintings that were sold in short order to a waiting list of collectors who paid amounts in the low six figures. Along with Sam Francis, Diebenkorn was one of most respected and financially successful artists in California, or in the entire United States for that matter.  

He was also a tall, square WASPY sort of guy: I could relate. When I say Diebenkorn was "square," he was the only artist I knew of that used rulers to draw lines on his canvasses. That is square. As I fantasized that I might someday have a career like his, I didn't think rational, mature thoughts like "Maybe the man is just immensely talented, and that's why he is doing so well." I set my sights and declared myself an art major.

When I mentioned Diebenkorn around my family, it turned out that they knew something about him. Apparently my Aunt Alice had attended Stanford after the war where Phyllis Gilman, who later became Phyllis Diebenkorn, had been a friend and a member of the same graduating class. My aunt was very familiar with the story of how poor Phyllis had married an artist and how other women had gossiped that she would now be facing a life of poverty. We all know how that turned out...

Then, one day at my grandmother's house, I ran into Esther Slinger. Esther, a longtime friend of my grandmother's turned out to be Phyllis Diebenkorn's aunt. When I mentioned that I was a painting student Esther told me her most sensational Diebenkorn story:

"I once visited Dick and Phyllis when they were living in Berkeley, and I saw him painting. He actually THREW the paint at the canvas."

Maybe Esther was trying to help out my family by scaring me back towards respectability, but her comment backfired. It helped me shift my view of "square as toast" Dick Diebenkorn as being a bit closer to Jackson Pollock. My personal fantasies about my future as an artist become more detailed. Someday, I would drive a Porsche—as Diebenkorn did—and throw paint while wearing Brooks Brothers shirts. I would somehow manage to be both conventional and intellectually free as I believed Diebenkorn to be. My interest Diebenkorn—a fantasy role model who I now envisioned as being rather like James Bond with a paintbrush—grew more tangible. 

In October of 1977 a Diebenkorn Retrospective opened at the Oakland Museum, and I studied the show up and down. In fact, I wrote about art for the very first time in my life and got my review published in the "Stanford Daily." It was a truly awful piece of writing that sounds very forced when I read it now: 

"Formula-painting seems the real subject of the 'Ocean Park" series. Every one of these large paintings, to a large or small degree, recalls a beauty which Diebenkorn's compulsive personal sensibility has distilled from the landscape."

The review got Nathan Oliveira's attention and he apparently even mailed a copy to Richard Diebenkorn, a thought that now makes me a bit nauseous. Then, one day during class Nathan walked me away from the other students into a dark corner of the painting studio. What, I wondered, had I done wrong? He handed me a slip of paper torn from a yellow lined pad, and told me:

"Give Dick a call. He is expecting to hear from you."

I still have that slip of paper. In fact, here it is:

A few weeks later I pulled up at the curb of a house that sat on a winding road leading out of Santa Monica Canyon. Yes, there was a Porsche in the driveway, but that is a given for Pacific Palisades. The house was Spanish Colonial in style and had a tile walkway leading to a wrought-iron grille. A dog barked when I rang the bell. The man who answered the door was quite relaxed and somehow already familiar. Writer Dan Hofstadter beautifully describes the Diebenkorn I remember in his book "Temperments": 

Richard Diebenkorn: Photo by Dan Hofstadter

The man who answered the door was quite relaxed and somehow already familiar. Writer Dan Hofstadter beautifully describes the Diebenkorn I remember in his book "Temperments":

"He has something of the appearance of a leading man in an old-fashioned drawing room comedy: the sculptural planarity, the dark emphatic eyebrows and mustache -- deep clefts running like parentheses from cheeks to chin -- clefts that behave like dimples and help to give him his genial, kindly appearance."

As I walked in—a real stunned fish as visitors go—I couldn't really pay any attention to Mr. Diebenkorn, since the walls had me staring. On the living room wall was a large Diebenkorn canvas that showed the influence of Matisse: Diebenkorn's “Large Still Life” from 1966, now in the collection of MOMA. There were also some small drawings from India—including one of an elephant—and a nude in charcoal by Los Angeles artist William Brice. 

Richard Diebenkorn, “Large Still Life” (1966), oil on canvas, 64 1/2 x 1/4 inches, 
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of the family of Richard Diebenkorn

The house, which was L-shaped, wrapped around a patio filled with potted trees and director’s chairs, and had a stunning view across Santa Monica Canyon. I remember thinking that I must be in the South of France. Mrs. Diebenkorn came in and said “hello,” but then stayed quietly in the background. When she did appear, I couldn't help but notice the couple's calm connection with each other. 

When we sat down to begin our visit, Diebenkorn took a seat in his comfortable armchair and I brought out a portfolio of my own ink drawings. They had been done with a bamboo pen, influenced by similar works in a book of Diebenkorn drawings that I had purchased at the Stanford Bookstore: in fact I had brought the book with me for Diebenkorn to sign. I was still in a kind of daze when it hit me: I am showing Richard Diebenkorn my work 

How did he respond? I think it's fair to say that he was pleasantly underwhelmed. He made a few gentle comments about my use of line, and the whole portfolio was set aside in ten minutes.

What do I remember about the next hour or two? The visuals have stayed in my memory more than what we talked about. I remember tea served with lemon—in china teacups that made me think "Matisse"—a dining room that had curved windows and some Diebenkorn figure drawings hanging on the the wall. I can also recall afternoon light casting shadows on the big Matisse-inspired still-life in the living room.

James Doolin, "Shopping Mall," 1973-74,  The San Jose Museum of Art

I remember that Diebenkorn talked at some length about his respect for the work of James Doolin who had been one of his graduate students at UCLA. Doolin, he explained had spent several years working on an aerial view of Santa Monica Mall: they had flown over the mall together in a private plane so Doolin could take photos. It was a very ambitious project that Diebenkorn, who had served as Doolin's advisor, thought highly of. Years later, when I met Doolin he was very touched when I relayed Diebenkorn's admiring comments. 

Our visit came to an end just after Diebenkorn opened a catalog of paintings by Mark Rothko. He was leafing through them and commenting, somehow testing to see if I might have anything interesting to say. He opened a page in the front of the book, showed me an early Rothko and asked:

"Whose work does that remind you of?"

I had no idea. He had hoped, I imagine, that I would be better informed and more interesting to talk to about painting. Soon after that, our visit was over. It's not as if the man kicked me out of his house for not knowing that Mark Rothko had an early period where he took ideas from John Marin— I figured that out in the Stanford library the following week—but I did sense that he was a bit disappointed.

Then, as he walked me to the front door, he said:

"Please give me a call sometime if you want to visit the studio."

To this day, I cannot give any rational explanation as to why I never called him back and visited the studio. I kick myself now. I did go back a few years later, when I helped a friend publish a Diebenkorn poster. He claimed to remember me, and fiddled with a box of pens to find just the right one to sign a few posters. The house looked the same. The Diebenkorns had a settled life.

By the time I had my graduate degree in Painting, it was 1982, the art world was coming to a boil, and new artists were making headlines. Clemente, Schnabel, Basquiat—young, splashy, challenging talents—made the work of Diebenkorn and his generation look sedate in comparison. I continued to admire Diebenkorn's work, but meeting Diebenkorn had somehow made him more human and less of a figure to be fantasized about. 

When I worked took a job working for art dealer Larry Gagosian in 1983 the gallery was only half an hour from the Diebenkorn's house, but it seemed worlds away. I had landed right in the epicenter of a new kind of red-hot art world where reputations came and went overnight and paintings were—more than I had ever imagined—expensive investments meant to be brokered and even "flipped."

I hadn't hear Diebenkorn or his art mentioned at all until one day Larry and his client, the film producer Keith Barish, spilled out of Larry's office laughing hysterically. They were like a couple of ten year olds who had just heard a dirty joke, seized by an uncontrollable laughing jag. Seeing me at the front desk, Larry composed himself and said: 

"John: Keith and I have a question for you: what kind of collectors buy Diebenkorns?"

I shrugged.

Larry gave the punchline: "Rich Jews."

It wasn't funny (to me) at all.

After that, the pair laughed all the way out to Barish's Bentley. I found myself wondering: how could Barish, a Jew and also the Producer of "Sophie's Choice," possibly find the joke funny? To this day I still don't understand. Was Barish perhaps considering buying a Diebenkorn, but not wanting to be one of "those" collectors? The possibilities—all of them ugly—boggle the mind. 

What I began to realize after hearing that joke—and after other disconcerting experiences working for Larry Gagosian—was that there were often huge differences between someone like Diebenkorn and the people who coveted his work. I had been fortunate enough to learn—through my direct experience of him—that Richard Diebenkorn himself was astute, classy and cultivated. Those qualities stood out even more over time as I matured and glimpsed the seamier aspects of the art world.  

Looking back, I was extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Richard Diebenkorn. I continue to admire his art: in fact my admiration has grown over time. It’s a pleasing thought to realize that even though I chose Richard Diebenkorn as a role model for rather shallow reasons, I actually chose extremely well. Honestly, it would have been impossible to make a better, wiser choice. 

Note: this essay was originally written in 2002, then edited and revised in 2017