On the gallery walls of the David Owsley Museum of Art (DOMA), visitors will literally see how an acclaimed American artist evolved in his early years.
DOMA is the sole Midwestern venue for “Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942–1955,” a traveling exhibition that includes many paintings and drawings that have never before been publicly displayed. It will be at DOMA until May 20.
“Visitors will see how Richard Diebenkorn became Richard Diebenkorn,” said DOMA Director Robert La France. “This shows how the artist was not born fully formed but borrowed from others. They will see him develop.”
That development included a shift from figuration (portrayals of real objects) to abstract and then back again. Organized by the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation in Berkeley, California, in conjunction with the Crocker Art Museum, the exhibition puts Ball State in prestigious company. The other venues in 2018–19 are the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Portland (Oregon) Art Museum, the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, and Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland.
“The Owsley is the perfect place for the exhibition,” said Andrea Liguori, managing director of the Diebenkorn Foundation. “Diebenkorn was a committed teacher throughout his career, even as a young painter in his 20s, and we want the exhibition to be seen by students and emerging artists.”
Having the major exhibition come to Ball State was the result of a call from Dr. La France, said Ms. Liguori. The foundation’s board had just approved the exhibition, and she and guest curator Scott Shields wanted a stop in the Midwest, where the artist had spent time at what is now the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, teaching drawing to architecture students.
In the exhibit, which includes 78 drawings and 22 paintings, visitors will observe how Diebenkorn was influenced by his surroundings and experiences. Works from the 1940s represent what Diebenkorn saw. He captured the folds of a striped curtain in an untitled watercolor and graphite on paper. His 1943 “View of Factories” oil painting portrays a popular subject for artists in the 1920s and ’30s. But the geometric shadows in that painting perhaps forecast his later emergence as an abstract artist, said Dr. La France.
An abstract turn
Serving as a Marine during World War II, Diebenkorn sketched fellow servicemen and others. His work of that era is small because the artist needed it to be portable. After the war, his art took an abstract turn, although some curves resemble real-world objects such as ships. As an art student at California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, he was able to experiment on larger canvases in a studio setting.
His first commercial airline flight, a rare experience in the ’50s, inspired him to experiment with planes (as in flat shapes) and the effects of different paints.
When Diebenkorn moved to Albuquerque in the 1950s to attend the University of New Mexico, his color palette reflected the landscape’s pinks, turquoise, beiges, and browns. Before assuming his teaching position in Urbana, Illinois, he saw a Matisse exhibit and began incorporating vibrant greens and blues into his art.
Throughout his life (1922-1993), Diebenkorn was bucking artistic trends.
“When Abstract Expressionism hit its peak,” Dr. La France said, “he decided he did not want to do it anymore.”
After moving back to California in the 1950s, Diebenkorn’s art veered from his early abstract period. The exhibit ends with the 1954 oil on canvas “Untitled (Horse and Rider)” flanked by two 1955 black-and white-portrayals of artists at work.
“Abstract Expressionism is all about making your mark with your entire body,” Dr. La France said. “The figures are like shamans performing an incantation. These are meant to be clever satire.”
Diebenkorn was also mocking something he used to do. His abstracts show deliberate brush strokes and drips.
“Untitled (Horse and Rider)” portrays someone atop a horse in motion, in a pose similar to a knight on the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry. And yet the figuration, as visitors to the DOMA exhibit will discover, is very much a Diebenkorn.