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Barbara Rae RA on Richard Diebenkorn

Published 26 February 2015

Richard Diebenkorn has long been hailed as a ‘painter’s painter’. Here, Barbara Rae RA reflects on the impression he made upon her when they met.

  • Meeting Richard Diebenkorn was a notable event; his ideas and theories fascinating to hear and understand. They certainly made a difference on my teaching practice, and that outcome reflects admirably Diebenkorn’s reputation as an ‘artist’s artist.’

    In 1985 I was teaching at the Glasgow School of Art. As my annual project abroad under big skies I spent almost four months in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a beautiful low-level city of sculptural adobe architecture. I was interacting there with various local artists. Imbued with enthusiasm, I began experimenting with monotype prints.

    There was an exhibition of Diebenkorn’s etchings in town at the same time. That is where we met. I had a good, long conversation with him, and with his wife, about his art and about Scotland. He was courteous, easy to converse with, happy to impart knowledge. Back in Glasgow my students were passionate about Diebenkorn. They loved following his progression from early career, where the influence of Bonnard is obvious, through to when he turned to bold abstraction. You could see how much was a logical progression.

    My students’ enthusiasm never abated. They were so hungry for information that every time I gave them a book about Diebenkorn they kept it - I had a terrible time getting books back. One book I still have is awash with oil paint and colourful fingerprints!

    Buoyed with the new-found friendship I thought it tremendously beneficial for students, and for him, if he journeyed to Scotland to visit all four of our art schools. He liked the proposal immediately and we agreed to make plans. His wife was particularly interested in visiting the Western Isles because she had distant relatives who were from Islay. At the time, Tony Jones was head of the Glasgow School of Art. He agreed to help arrange the visit. Unfortunately, fate stepped in. Soon afterwards Tony left to join the Art Institute of Chicago, the visit never arranged, never materialising.

    I spent 15 years travelling back and forth to California, revisiting New Mexico a few times to work. I had a small studio in Los Angeles very close to Ocean Park where Diebenkorn lived and worked. Studying his work I can recognise the very streets and houses in the abstract images he created from the places he could see from his studio windows. Often it seemed he had the benefit of a gull’s eye view, perhaps a roof garden as observation deck. (Mini-drones didn’t exist back then!)

    I took the opportunity to drive through that area every time I could, passing his house. The way the wide street sweeps down a hill, under a concrete walkway painted with a giant whale, up a rise, and then the view out to the ocean - I could really see exactly what he was capturing with his Ocean Park series of paintings.

    Taking a careful look at any of those paintings is taking a journey around the Ocean Park area of Los Angeles, its white washed condos, back alleys, parched, patch gardens and wood decked, wood smoked, barbeque backyards, its red roofed restaurants, and shops and parking lots. He saw rich pattern in them all and created wonderful, inspiring work.

    © Barbara Rae CBE RA RE (2015)

    Richard Diebenkorn is in The Sackler Wing at the RA from 14 March — 7 June 2015.