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ca. 1960-65

Untitled (3055)
ca. 1960-65

Untitled (3074)
ca. 1960-65

Untitled (3073)
ca. 1960-65

Untitled (3064)
ca. 1960-65

richard diebenkorn

figure drawings at acquavella

by Richard Stephens

Before the West Coast painter Richard 

Diebenkorn perfected his famous "Ocean 

Park" series of color abstractions, he 

spent a decade creating richly worked and 

brilliantly colored representational 

paintings--still lifes, landscapes, 

interiors and figure compositions. He also 

drew from the model, and a selection of 

these black-and-white drawings of women, 

dating from 1958-67, were recently 

presented in an exhibition at Acquavella, 

April 26 - May 23, 1996. 

These drawings have an eloquent presence, 

largely due to Diebenkorn's understated 

portrayal of the mood and character of his 

models. Uniformly untitled, many of the 

drawings depict the artist's wife Phyllis. 

In Diebenkorn's paintings of people, almost 

always women, the face is never explicit, 

never important. His figure paintings were 

not painted from life but were based on 

drawings and reworked repeatedly until the 

artist achieved the formal integrity of 

color and structure he was seeking. The 

figure drawings, on the other hand, show 

the artist's apparently inexhaustible 

interest in, and pleasure in, the presence 

of flesh-and-blood women.

Two drawings have Matisse-like blank ovals 

instead of faces and are obviously homages 

to Matisse. The remaining 58 drawings 

evoke, through the model's facial features, 

gestures and pose, a human and specifically 

feminine presence. This is not to say that 

the poses and settings are at all natural. 

Rather, the drawings are meticulously 

arranged. Each model, whether clothed or 

nude, makes with her limbs or garments the 

sort of diagonal lines and angular shapes 

with which Diebenkorn constructs his 

compositions. The femininity of his subject 

is not expressed by means of traditional 

lines, but through the artist's responsive 

rendering of the individual, feminine 


The drawings' charm derives not just from 

the personalities of their subjects, but 

also from the artist's personality, 

imminent in his marking gestures. 

Diebenkorn manages to suggest space in even 

his sparest drawings, while at the same 

time maintaining the flatness of the 

picture plane through compositional 

structure. In the more densely worked 

examples, those with either ink wash or 

scribbled hatching done with charcoal, 

pencil or pen and ink, lush half-tones are 

achieved, giving a painterly effect. This 

wonderfully varied scribbling technique, 

borrowed perhaps from Bonnard, but employed 

with more gusto by Diebenkorn, gives an 

airy sparkle to the half-tone areas.

These drawings have a similarity to 

portraits by Whistler and to both portraits 

and nudes by Modigliani. Both artists were 

devoted to the demands of portraiture and 

were at the same time intensely involved 

with abstract composition. The only profile 

in the exhibition, catalog number 29, a 

seated woman facing left, resembles 

Whistler's Arrangement in Black and Gray, 

with its rectangle to the left which serves 

to balance through dynamic symmetry the 


The wide range of treatments of a narrowly 

defined subject matter should give no 

surprise coming as they do from the hand of 

the artist who invented those masterly 

variations on a theme that make up the 

"Ocean Park" series.

Richard Stephens is a free-lance art writer 
who is preparing a book on J.M.W. Turner.