California Landscapes: Richard Diebenkorn / Wayne Thiebaud


Wayne Thiebaud, Ripley Ridge, 1977. Oil on linen, 48 × 36 inches. Private Collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

In iconic works from the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud defined a California vernacular in the early 1960s—Diebenkorn with suburban views of figures at windows and Thiebaud with arrays of desserts. Their expansive, luminous spaces embraced the influences of de Kooning, Hopper, and Matisse, not to mention Persian miniatures and Japanese prints. But their work extends beyond that period, as evidenced by this dual show at Acquavella, which focuses on landscape and opens fresh perspectives on an artistic friendship that endures today as Thiebaud, the surviving partner, continues to paint at age 97.

For Diebenkorn, California Landscapes focuses on abstracted landscapes, with four works from the “Berkeley” series (1954–55) and one large Ocean Park #40 (1971). It neglects the years from 1955 to 1967, when Diebenkorn, a leader of the Bay Area Figurative group, abandoned abstraction and painted landscapes with figures. In those years, he befriended Thiebaud, who had then abandoned Abstract Expressionism for the clean geometric shapes and flat backgrounds of his desserts. In their selection the organizers at Aquavella cast Diebenkorn as a reductive modernist, whose abstractions are populated by Thiebaud with cities, farms, and mountains, as all-inclusive fields for human activity. In Tidelines (2004–14), Thiebaud returns to his Abstract Expressionist beachscapes of the 1950s, with a procession of figures suggesting the stages of life.

The show doesn’t claim to be a historical survey (there are only twenty paintings), but by omitting Diebenkorn’s own landscapes with figures—in which figures on porches and at windows can be seen as material extensions of their suburban contexts—it leaves out the organic links between his early and late abstractions. The gestural marks and rough impasto of the “Berkeley” series extend his involvement with de Kooning, whose “slipping glimpse” could encompass both landscapes and figuration; their physicality engages the body implicitly, while their irregular, interlocking shapes and suggestions of high horizons reflect the artist’s interest in views from airplanes. It’s only a small step from these to Driveway (1956), a plein-air landscape with similar compositional divisions, which marks his break with abstraction. A second conventional landscape, the starkly reductive Cityscape #4 (1963–66), foreshadows the condensation of the “Ocean Park” paintings: its dark river of asphalt evokes Hopper, a common influence on both artists. But here, the inclusion of a landscape with figures could have brought out the crucial influence of Matisse: If the emptiness of the Ocean Parks might be seen as a lingering legacy of Hopper, their expansive architectural frameworks resonate with Matisse’s windows and domestic interiors, transposed into California space and light.

Thiebaud also began painting outdoors in the early 1960s, though most of the works here were completed after Diebenkorn’s death in 1993. In one of the few pairings of roughly contemporaneous landscapes, the sprawling tentacles of Urban Freeways (1979), which Thiebaud has called his representational response to Pollock’s all-over paintings, is juxtaposed to Cityscape #4. It emphasizes Thiebaud’s pictorial exuberance; he ventures into figuration with excess. Early on, he cultivated a relationship with mountains, creating exaggerated and fictional landscapes, icons of Western folklore that also recall the mountains on Chinese scrolls. He confronts viewers with vertical slabs of mountains or skyscrapers; by denying us a place to stand, he ironically undercuts the sublime, making us aware of gravity and generating a bodily response.

In his series of Sacramento delta landscapes, which begins in the 1990s, Thiebaud applies his table-top compositional grids to orchards and crops. While the bounded fields of Green River Lands (1998) resemble the roughly articulated shapes of Diebenkorn’s “Berkeley” landscapes, they are actually quilt-like composites of numerous smaller, tightly organized compartments—some of which are dramatically foreshortened like van Gogh’s furrowed fields—juxtaposed to others with tree-rows in contrasting patterns. Orchards are rendered as tapestries of repeated trees, explosions of colored impasto, like Burchfield’s visionary foliage. This wild invention exceeds the exaggeration of David Hockney’s dynamic landscapes, which remain based on observation; unlike Hockney, Thiebaud is a painter of memory and imagination, and distrusts photography and technology.

Wayne Thiebaud, Bluff and Farmlands, 2017, oil on canvas, 30 × 40 in. From the Artist's studio. Art © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

In an early statement, Thiebaud observed that his use of impasto to transform paint into frosting also serves to make the viewer aware of the illusion. In the later landscapes, this material virtuosity gives way to urgency, a sense of loss and anxiety embodied in sheer materiality. From the layered pentimenti in the beach foam of Tidelines—like nothing in Hockney’s virtuosic performances—to the mute rock-face of Mountain Split (2011–17), sculpted in painterly relief, Thiebaud seems to demand more of paint than it can bear. Elements of depiction—miniature houses and farms recalling Breugel—are increasingly confined to marginal fields, as though overwhelmed. But this inwardness yields to a renewed dialogue with Diebenkorn in Bluff and Farmlands (2017), which evokes a childhood memory recalled in a recent interview, of living on a farm in Utah beneath a bluff with “stuff on top.” Here, Thiebaud deploys, as in his early desserts, a stripped-down distillation of basic elements: Its armature of diagonals resembles that of Diebenkorn’s Driveway (1956), which hangs nearby, while its corner-to-corner diagonal flattens the space like the drawn lines of Ocean Park #40 (1971). There’s a reassuring sense of closure.

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkley #44, 1955. Oil on canvas,
59 × 64 inches. Private Collection © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

After Diebenkorn’s move to Ocean Park in 1966, Thiebaud continued to visit. He observed in an interview how, even as Diebenkorn pursued an ideal of order grounded in Mondrian and Matisse, the everyday features of Ocean Park still manifested themselves in the paintings; their luminous architecture seems fully inhabited. The underlying power of visual memory unites these complex painters, very different, but intimately linked in their immense visual culture and all-consuming appetite for art.


Hearne Pardee

Hearne Pardee is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.