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Review: 'Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years' proves absorbing

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PALM SPRINGS — A modest little painting near the entry to the exhibition "Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966" is a harbinger of things to come.

Not just for the lovely and engrossing show that unfolds in the galleries at the Palm Springs Art Museum, but for Diebenkorn's greater achievement. That came after the painter left Northern California and settled in Los Angeles, where he began the peerless "Ocean Park" abstractions.

"Seated Man" was painted in 1956. Not long before, Diebenkorn decided he needed to throw a speed bump in the path of his accelerating career as an abstract painter. The previous year he had been included in six important museum exhibitions around the United States, Europe and South America — in those days, not bad for a 33-year-old artist based in California.

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All the paintings he sent to New York, Rome, São Paulo and elsewhere were in an Abstract Expressionist idiom. His work was evolving as a concentrated engagement with the physical stuff of oil paint and canvas, filtered through a complex conversation among the deep memory of landscape and light; the emotional temperature of the moment; and, a psychological estrangement from them, manifest by an artist at work alone in the studio.

"Seated Man" shifts gears.

It wasn't the first of his paintings to include a frankly representational element — just a shirtless man sitting next to a small yellow table, the merest suggestion of a plate, a coffee cup and perhaps a spoon laid out on top of it.

Nor had Diebenkorn ever given up the weekly drawing sessions from a live model that he participated in with painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff since moving back to the Bay Area, where he grew up. (He died at 70 in 1993.) Figure drawing was one way to train the eye, the hand and the intricate relationship — essential for a painter — between the two.

Yet, the simple presence of a figure in the painting changes things. The anonymous man's face is barely delineated, certainly not an individualized portrait. His body is firmly locked in place by surrounding wedges, lines and blocks of brushed and layered color, which are as abstract as anything in Diebenkorn's earlier work.

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The painting's deceptively simple structure is informed by the precedent of the towering 20th century Modernist Henri Matisse, who had died not long before. (Before he got to Berkeley, Diebenkorn was more attuned to Pablo Picasso's Cubism.) Together with the clear if indirect suggestions of landscape in all of Diebenkorn's abstractions, including the background of this one, the inclusion of a figure and a rudimentary still life compresses all four competing subjects in the history of Modern painting into one small canvas.

The landscape/figure/still life/abstract painting is barely 22 by 20 inches. Clearly a tentative experiment, almost even a sophisticated oil sketch, "Seated Man" encapsulates much of what Diebenkorn would explore in depth over the next decade. The Palm Springs show does an excellent job of laying it out.

Co-organized by the museum's director, Steven Nash, and Timothy Anglin Burgard, curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it was shown in June, the exhibition charts the extensive give-and-take between total abstraction and representational painting that characterized Diebenkorn's productive years in the Bay Area.

It has been slightly trimmed from its earlier incarnation; but, with roughly 100 works almost evenly divided between paintings and drawings, it offers a reasonably full accounting of his development. (The catalog is also very good.)

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The show is installed with abstractions in galleries to the right and figurative paintings to the left; drawings are integrated among them. A viewer can easily move back and forth.

Works are grouped into loosely generalized themes, including abstract landscapes, studio interiors and the impact of Matisse. Diebenkorn greatly admired the French painter, whose work he studied at every opportunity. He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1964, where he was gobsmacked once more by Matisse, so powerfully represented in museums in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

One of the most revealing thematic groups brings together "pensive figures" — often but not always showing women. Like "Seated Man," albeit with a frequent change in gender, they picture the activity in which Diebenkorn himself was engaged while painting.

The figures are imagined. Seated or standing in an interior or on a porch; gazing out the window or at a landscape; drinking coffee or simply musing — they embody contemplative rumination within carefully articulated environments.

That most of them are women is instructive.

In 1953, Willem De Kooning confounded committed fans of New York School abstraction with a show of ferocious paintings of women. De Kooning was the American painter that Diebenkorn perhaps revered most. The show's first dozen abstractions are profoundly indebted to him, and intimations of De Kooning's characteristic whiplash line are all over the Californian's figure drawings. Diebenkorn seems to have taken to heart his hero's dramatic break with abstraction.

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Burgard, the San Francisco curator, deftly identifies Diebenkorn's "Berkeley #3" as being more than it might at first seem to be. Painted in 1953, it contains all the veiled landscape suggestions of Diebenkorn's earlier abstractions: A horizontal canvas is populated by tiered zones of light color articulated with clusters of interior drawing. But an inescapable trace of a reclining figure is there too.

An oval "head" is at the upper left, curvilinear "breasts" are slightly below and to the right, and a long "torso and limbs" in fleshy pink spread across the central register. "Berkeley #3" is abstract, but it contains hints of a classical odalisque as much as a landscape.

Total abstraction fuses with nascent representation into a generative whole. In Palm Springs, the painting is smartly installed just left of center on the entry wall, leading to the show's figurative side. It's a nudge to perceptive eyes toward what is to come.

So is "Seated Man," which balances abstraction and figuration.

Remove the little painting's figurative elements, and what is left behind is a virtual "Ocean Park" abstraction of the kind Diebenkorn would begin to make when he moved to L.A. a decade later. The capstone to a remarkable career, those works were the subject last year of a revealing exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art. Now, the Palm Springs show takes us on a deep dive into the fruitful paintings from which the Ocean Park series grew.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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'Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966'

Where: Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs

When: (760) 322-4800, through Feb. 16. Closed Monday.

Tickets: $5-$12.50

Contact: http://www.psmuseum.org

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