Richard Diebenkorn through the Eyes of His Students
By Harley Wong
“[Richard] Diebenkorn was probably the major influence on the direction that my work eventually took,” said artist Robert Bechtle. Those familiar with Diebenkorn’s gestural oeuvre and Bechtle’s photorealist paintings may find that statement surprising. Though Bechtle pursued his graduate studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC), now CCA, in 1956 while Diebenkorn was teaching at the institution, Bechtle intentionally avoided enrolling in his classes. “I swore that I wasn’t going to get caught up in that,” said Bechtle, referring to the Bay Area Figurative Movement, “but I got caught up in it anyway.”
Despite their diverging approaches to handling and manipulating paint, Bechtle was moved by Diebenkorn’s subject matter. As Bechtle put it, it felt like Diebenkorn was “caressing the objects in his paintings.” In works like Still Life – Black Table (1964), Diebenkorn seems to ask: How does a glass of water appear when set on a black surface? In Nancy Sitting (1964), Bechtle engages in a similar line of questioning: In what ways can an empty glass distort the edge of a placemat?
Diebenkorn’s influence can even be found in Bechtle’s scenes of San Francisco. Though Diebenkorn employed a more aerial perspective in his landscape paintings, as exemplified in the abstract “Ocean Park” series (1967–88), both artists demonstrated an interest in stretched, angular shadows—as seen in Diebenkorn’s Cityscape #1 (1963) and Bechtle’s Texas and 20th Intersection (2004)—and curving compositions, as displayed in Diebenkorn’s Divided Street (1961) and Bechtle’s Frisco Nova (1979).
Also enrolled at CCAC in the mid- to late-1950s was painter Bernice Bing, but unlike Bechtle, she did study under Diebenkorn. When describing the paintings in her 1961 solo show debut at Batman Gallery, Bing said, “I used techniques that Diebenkorn had employed in his earlier landscapes: washes over solid colors. There were also places in my paintings that had impasto brush strokes…in a fusion of light and a sort of atmospheric void.”
They’re methods Bing borrowed again: “These Mayacamas canvases, unlike the earlier ones I did in San Francisco, are opaque and painted with impasto brush stroke. They have definite tactile surface because nature itself is so tactile.” The student and teacher reunited postmortem in 2012 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco when Bing’s Mayacamas No. 6, March 12 (1963) was exhibited next to Diebenkorn’s Seawall (1957). Side by side, Diebenkorn’s influence feels immediate, both in texture and form.
Diebenkorn continued shaping the lives of young artists when he moved from Berkeley to Santa Monica. Unable to enroll in his highly sought-after classes at UCLA, Elyn Zimmerman met Diebenkorn after artist Sam Francis generously loaned to Zimmerman the studio space he happened to share with the UCLA professor. “He took some interest in the paintings I was working on and would come over for critiques—as if I were one of his students,” Zimmerman said. “Diebenkorn spoke about the difficulty of making a gray painting—how hard it is to make something meaningful and able to connect when one of the fundamental elements of painting—color—is not present or is reduced.”
Five years later, in 1970, Diebenkorn started painting his “Ocean Park” works in grayscale, first on paper and then on canvas. Around the same time, in 1973, Zimmerman created her own monochromatic, abstract representations of space—graphite drawings of imagined architectural settings. It seems their mid-1960s conversations stayed with them both.
The studio building they once shared was located behind and one door over from artist Tony Berlant’s home. Unlike Zimmerman, Berlant was able to enroll in one of Diebenkorn’s UCLA classes in 1960. When Berlant began teaching at the university, they shared an office, becoming lifelong friends. In a letter to Diebenkorn dated October 3, 1989, the former student wrote, “I’ve been meaning to write and just say I missed you…Whenever, I am counting my blessings I always put knowing you and Phyllis high on the list.”
1. Robert Bechtle, “75 Reasons to Live: Robert Bechtle on Richard Diebenkorn’s Coffee,” filmed January 16, 2010, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA, video, 9:16, https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2011/01/75-reasons-robert-bechtle.
4. Bernice Bing, “Interview with Artist: Selections from interview with Bernice Bing by Moira Roth and Diane Tani, August 13 and 24, 1991,” Visibility Press, Berkeley, CA, web, http://artasiamerica.org/documents/2201.
6. Elyn Zimmerman, “What Diebenkorn and Matisse Taught Me about the Hard Work of Making Art,” December 6, 2016, J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles, CA, web, https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/what-diebenkorn-and-matisse-taught-me-about-the-hard-work-of-making-art.
7. Tony Berlant, correspondence, Richard Diebenkorn Foundation Archives © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.