Following the Footsteps of Richard Diebenkorn Across California
By Ricky Amadour
Artist Richard Diebenkorn passed away in 1993, two years before I was born in 1995, in the small town of Sparks, Nevada. We just missed each other. As a first-generation American from a working-class background, my introduction to art was through volunteer parents at my grade school, Huffaker Elementary, and the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. I would spend hours each day drawing fictional casino architectural renderings and city maps from my imaginary worlds, and I yearned to move to a big city with skyscrapers. In my teens, I moved to Sausalito with my family, which I consider my hometown, to pursue a career in the music industry. This moment is marked by the many histories and characters I met who would share their stories of the Summer of Love and musicians such as Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and The Doors.
Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon, and moved to the Bay Area at two years of age with his family. His parents were not from an art background, yet by many accounts, he was a prolific drawer as a child. It wasn’t until his time at Stanford University in 1940 that he discovered artists and professors who would help carve his path in painting. Art as a profession can be challenging to communicate for those not in the industry. For Diebenkorn, having the intellectual and familial support structures made the difference in articulating his visual language in his time.
I told my mom I didn’t need to attend college as an artist, yet her insistence changed my life. As a transfer student from Santa Monica College to UCLA Arts, Diebenkorn and his work were the subjects of a lecture in Professor Lari Pittman’s painting class in 2016. Pittman would have extroverted discussions in his class and share books from his library and Gallery Manager Ben Evans’ extensive arts library. Pittman attended CalArts at the peak of its Feminist Art Program in the 1980s, a dynamic painter, his densely layered works interrogate quotidian aspects of life, death, and sexuality to dismantle archetypal representations of queer culture.
In a remarkable sense of coincidence, I discovered Diebenkorn had also spent time in places that significantly shaped my journey in art and life. In 1947, Diebenkorn settled in Sausalito with his young family in a cliff-side house on a ridge overlooking the Bridgeway waterfront at 40 Bulkley Avenue. Far from its current image as an affluent seaside enclave, Sausalito was a working-class neighborhood then; the Golden Gate Bridge would have only been ten years old. I lived on Johnson Street right above the docks and houseboats where Otis Redding wrote: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” in 1968 and a short walk from Diebenkorn’s place. Sausalito offered me endless expansion, and I befriended and was mentored by the ICA Studios artist and music community. We would gather for jazz nights at Osteria Divino on Caledonia Street, where you would occasionally have Robin Williams or Carlos Santana pop in for a meal.
A voracious painter, Diebenkorn’s artistic period in Sausalito resulted in a large body of work. Untitled [signed Sausalito] (1948), an oil painting on canvas featuring a tall grouping of pyramidal shapes, denotes a hillside with a perspectival vanishing point. His earthen color palette suggests botanical semblances and the area’s distinctive aroma: an abundance of overgrown lush foliage, golden grasses, and the salted air from Richardson Bay. His Sausalito-inspired paintings would later lay the groundwork for the layering of colors and rendering of shadows used to communicate the dimensionality of land in works like Seawall (1957) and Cityscape #1 (1963), the latter produced in San Francisco.
At the request of artist Frederick S. Wight, Diebenkorn accepted a teaching position at the UCLA Department of Art in 1961 and moved with his family to Santa Monica from the Bay Area. While searching for a studio, his friend, artist Sam Francis, offered him a shared space on Main Street and Ashland Avenue in Ocean Park. The Santa Monica Freeway had just opened, and artists including James Turrell, Billy Al Bengston, and Ed Ruscha were all in close geographical proximity. Writing this essay, I decided to walk down Main Street, where I had my first job in Los Angeles as a host at Lula Cocina Mexicana. Today the sounds of people at eateries, with their makeshift post-pandemic sidewalk dining and beachgoers taking a break from surfing, fill the scene. Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, created during this time, with its lines, light colors, and shapes, evoke California’s ever-evolving topography. In Ocean Park #18 (1968), and later works including his final Ocean Park #139 (1985), the perspective appears to float above the landscape as an aerial observation of ephemeral patterns on the sand.
An immediate hit in the Los Angeles art world, Diebenkorn lived in a Spanish Colonial Revival house on Amalfi Drive in Santa Monica Canyon. Heading to Will Rogers Beach, I would zigzag down weekly from my home in Kenter Canyon for breakfast at Patrick’s Roadhouse. Situated in the same canyon as the historic homes of screen siren Dolores Del Rio and art director Cedric Gibbons, and designers Charles and Ray Eames, Santa Monica Canyon has a rich history as a gathering point for the creative milieu. Diebenkorn would host the local artist community at his home as a sort of salon and notably invited students and young artists to share thoughts and ideas.
These locations informed Diebenkorn’s palette, thought process, and brushstroke, performing as descriptive markers sharing a zest for life and sincere devotion to home. Diebenkorn’s works are a symbolic dialogue between the body, architecture, and the natural environment, indicating the passage of time and light through the transient. At the same time, his figures and landscapes depict the quotidian and are reflections of everyday life. They are procured through light observation but interact individually as eye-tricking roadmaps that contextualize our humanity. His indelible influence continues to shape the cultural fabric of California’s image and identity.