Several times throughout his career, Richard Diebenkorn shifted between abstract and representational modes—each critical to his work. In 1983 an interviewer remarked to Diebenkorn of his "capacity to move back and forth between figuration and abstraction." Such a description, the artist replied, "makes it sound as though 'I know how to do it' and this is very far from the case." Rather he proceeded with "the utmost trepidation and great difficulty." 1
When the artist shifted from one idiom to the other, he was invariably looking for a new challenge or for the next step in the formal progression of his work. For example, after Diebenkorn rose to acclaim with the Berkeley paintings, his brilliant series of abstract landscapes made from 1953 to 1956, the artist chose the subject of the figure to provide him with a new set of pictorial problems:I came to mistrust my desire to explode the picture.… It was as though I could do too much too easily. There was nothing hard to come up against. And suddenly the figure paintings furnished a lot of this.2
The artist developed his mature figurative works from 1956 to 1967. By the end of that period, Diebenkorn began to flatten the pictorial space in his work, a direction that eventually led back to abstraction in the windowlike apertures of the Ocean Park series. Despite these shifts from representation to abstraction, Diebenkorn continued to work from the figure throughout his career, often using family members as models.
Seated Figure with Hat was among the last of Diebenkorn's monumental figurative works. The sitter, the artist's wife Phyllis, appears flattened, stationary, and anonymous, owing to the large hat concealing much of her profile and the compressed space of the picture plane. She appears to be sitting in front of an abstract painting, in a stage set, or in a construction of the artist's imagination, replete with the figure's skirt falling over the brown and the blue framing edge, seemingly into the viewer's space. The narrow colored bands on the canvas' outer edges anticipate the quasi-architectonic elements in the Ocean Park series on which Diebenkorn began working later that year.
Diebenkorn's formal concern with discrete areas of color and a simplified composition also prefigures the abstract mode he was about to enter. With regard to composition and refinement of color, the painting Seated Figure with Hat recalls Whistler's famous Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother ("Whistler's Mother") (1871, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), although the sitter faces the opposite direction. Diebenkorn's composition is partially derived from his related watercolor Seated Figure with Hat (1967, private collection).3 While most of Diebenkorn's works on paper did not directly influence his paintings, this watercolor and this oil are among the closest translations of the same subject. In the painting, most extraneous objects are eliminated save for the drawn glass in the figure's right hand. A brushy sun-drenched yellow background reveals the blue underpainting found in many other works both earlier and later. Although the yellow field dominates the composition, other nonrepresentational qualities do not. Seated Figure with Hat strikes a balance between Diebenkorn's figurative and abstract idioms, allowing the extraordinary strengths of each to come to the fore on the same canvas.
(Text by Molly Donovan, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
Notes 1. Cited in John Elderfield, The Drawings of Richard Diebenkorn [exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art] (New York, 1988), 28–29.
2. Gerald Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn (New York, 1987), 88.
3. Jane Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn [exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art] (New York, 1997), fig. 146.
The artist; sold shortly after it was completed in 1967 to (Poindexter Gallery, New York); sold to private collection, United States; purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Rubin, New York, by 1987; purchased 18 November 1991 by NGA.
- Novi pravac: Figura 1963-1968 [The new vein: The Figure, 1963-1968], Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade, 1968-1969, no. 12, repro. (exhibition organized by The International Art Program, National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution).
- Bay Area Figurative Art 1950-1965, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1989-1990, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 3.61 (shown only in San Francisco and Washington).
- Richard Diebenkorn, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; Fundación Juan March, Madrid; Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1991-1993, no. 35, repro.
- Richard Diebenkorn, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 145.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young Museum; Palm Springs Art Museum, 2013-2014, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 143.
- Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, 2014-2015, fig. 1.
- Goldin, Marco. Van Gogh e il viaggio di Gauguin: Variazioni su un tema. Exh. cat. Genoa, 2011. Treviso, 2011: 187, color repro.