Richard Diebenkorn - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Executed at the peak of the artist’s pivotal “Berkeley period” and just prior to an extended interlude in figuration, Richard Diebenkorn’s Untitled (Berkeley), 1954, presages the ethereal architecture of his famed Ocean Park works. Completed at the onset of Diebenkorn’s multi-year sojourn in Berkeley, California, it is emblematic of the body of work for which the artist received his first critical successes and offers an excellent look into a decisive moment of his development of his singular visual idiom.


    [left] The San Francisco Bay viewed from the Berkeley Hills. [right] View from the porch of Richard Diebenkorn’s Hillcrest Road House, circa 1962. 

    The Berkeley series won Diebenkorn widespread acclaim as Abstract Expressionism’s West Coast ambassador, but the artist abandoned abstraction and turned to figuration shortly after completing this work. Having been held in same collection for nearly four decades—and featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s landmark 1988 survey of the artist’s works on paper—Untitled (Berkeley) showcases the artist’s famed fusion of styles and anticipates the poetic vernacular abstraction of the Ocean Park works.


    The Berkeley Period


    After leaving his teaching post at the University of Illinois, Urbana in 1953, Diebenkorn relocated with his family to Northern California; just missing the deadline to apply for teaching jobs for the academic year, he was able to focus entirely on painting in his new Californian environment. Situated between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean—surrounded by both the urban landscape of the city as well as the hilly terrain of Marin County—Berkeley’s  unique topography served as the perfect inspiration for Diebenkorn’s next body of work. As “The gradual rise of the Berkeley hills up from the bay has the effect of creating a natural amphitheater for optimal viewing of the surrounding landscape. The shimmering surface of the bay can assume an astounding spectrum of color from blue to green to grey, or, alternately, a silver or gold mirror like state at sunrise and sunset,” curator Timothy Anglin Burgard illustrated. “The cyclical arrival and departure of the Bay Area’s distinctive fog creates disorienting spatial effects, as when the narrow strip of land is visible between the low-lying mist above the bay area below, creating a form of tripartite stratification…[and] prismatic effects of extraordinary subtlety.”i

    "One thing I know has influenced me a lot is looking at landscape from the air… Of course, the Earth’s skin itself had ‘presence’–I mean, it was all like a flat design–and everything was usually in the form of an irregular grid."
    — Richard Diebenkorn

    Diebenkorn recognized the inherently abstracted qualities of the landscape and translated them into his unique painterly language. Having already undertaken prolonged experiments in abstraction, in Berkeley the architecture of Diebenkorn’s mature style fully crystallized. In Untitled (Berkeley), wide passages of earthen tones, enclosed by a muscular yet graceful line, are periodically broken by bursts of vibrant color, creating a composition that undoubtedly owes much to its East Coast counterparts but is tempered by a cool, confident, and distinctly Californian placidity. Over several years in Berkeley, Diebenkorn produced a striking series of paintings and works on paper that reflected the formal achievements of the New York School but were distinctly informed by the environment in which they were created, winning the artist his first widespread recognition as an abstract painter and cementing his status as one of the leading abstractionists on the West Coast.


    Untitled (Berkeley) is a triumphant example of the artist’s eponymous series; the strength of his line is in full effect, providing organizing structure but also ensuring the independent harmony of the work’s constituent elements. Executed with gentle gestural strength, Diebenkorn’s deft hand links together the loosely geometric planes of brushy color and the architectonic elements of his assiduous underpainting to evoke the sun-dappled vistas, leafy green hills, and rugged ridgelines of the San Francisco Bay—just before the artist would forego his abstract approach for the representational articulation of figuration. 


    Balancing Abstraction


    Despite his landmark achievements during the early years in Berkeley, Diebenkorn increasingly felt that by pursuing abstraction he was steadily approaching an artistic cul-de-sac. Having studied at the California School of the Fine Arts under Clyfford Still and visited peers, including Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, in New York in 1946-1947 and again in 1953, Diebenkorn was thoroughly familiar with the tenets of the subjectivity, expressive color, and flatness that dominated the Abstract Expressionist ethos. He also had diligently studied the modernist canon, especially Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, from whom he learned to compose images using planes of color; it is thus no surprise that Diebenkorn, undoubtedly nudged by his involvement with the Bay Area Figurative Movement, grew frustrated with the theoretical monolith of the New York School and returned in 1955 to figuration in emulation of his earlier idols. But the artist’s figurative artworks, like his abstract endeavors, blurred the lines between abstraction and figuration by incorporating elements of both to produce a style that lingers in the indistinct shadows of objectivity.


    Paul Cézanne, Mount Sainte-Victoire, circa 1896-1906. Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Photo credit SCALA / Art Resource, NY

    "One of the greatest things about Dick’s work is his use of color, which is spectral or prismatic…they tend to develop what’s called color chords, much like the three notes on a piano."
    — Wayne Thiebaud

    Diebenkorn’s stylistic chimera that defies categorization is the result of an intense period of aesthetic development during the 13 years he spent in Berkeley. By blending dialects of expression, Diebenkorn produced his style which art historian Robert T. Buck described as “transcending natural cause and effect…an original approach to landscape paintings wherein horizontal lines and formal elements fuse and split into a dynamic, yet delicate linear networks, reinforced by subtle tonal modulations. The ensuing drama, though less mystically inclined, recalls the work of Turner a century before.”ii Diebenkorn would bring this dialectic to its peak with the sensitive and sublime Ocean Park series in the 1960s, but the fundamental foundations on which it was built are evident in the formal syntheses of the Berkeley works, spectacularly executed in the present work. Diebenkorn’s desire, formulated through the words of friend and Bay Area Figurative painter Elmer Bischoff, was “to transcend through all generalities to reach a particularly poignant feeling.”iii Untitled (Berkeley) is a precocious distillation of the material experience of Californian life, achieving the spiritual eloquence of figurative landscape painting using the vocabulary of high abstraction.


    i Timothy Anglin Burgard, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, exh. cat., M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 2013, p. 17.
    ii Robert T. Buck, Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1976, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1976, pp. 46-47.
    iii Elmer Bischoff, quoted in Timothy Anglin Burgard, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, exh. cat., M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 2013, p. 13.

    • Provenance

      Allan Frumkin Gallery, Chicago (1954)
      Private Collection, Chicago (acquired circa 1961)
      Allan Frumkin Gallery, Chicago (1983)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1983

    • Exhibited

      Chicago, Allan Frumkin Gallery, Richard Diebenkorn: Recent Paintings, February 10 - March 31, 1955
      New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, The Drawings of Richard Diebenkorn, November 17, 1988 - December 3, 1989, p. 90 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Jane Livingston and Andrea Ligouri, eds., Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2, New Haven, 2016, no. 1314, p. 506 (illustrated)

Property from a Midwestern Private Collection


Untitled (Berkeley)

signed with the artist's initials and dated "RD 54" lower left
watercolor, gouache, graphite and colored pencil on paper
16 x 13 in. (40.6 x 33 cm)
Executed in 1954.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $478,800

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278 


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020