Diebenkorn and the Aerial View

By Emma Acker

July 6, 2020

Tranquil beach scene with blue sky and sea.

The modestly sized oil-on-canvas Seawall (1957) is one of six paintings and hundreds of works on paper by Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993) in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Diebenkorn was one of the most influential American artists working in the post-World War II era, and Seawall, despite its small scale, has a visceral immediacy, as it powerfully evokes an elemental meeting of sea, sky, and earth. The painting is meditative and restorative, just as I find the California landscape to be, and it has long been one of my favorite artworks in the collection. Like many of the works Diebenkorn produced during his “Berkeley period” (1953–1966), the open structure and sweeping brushwork of Seawall stem not only from the vocabulary of modernist abstraction but also from the elevated vantages and new visual terrain that the artist experienced in 1951 during his first cross-country flight.

Diebenkorn used an aerial perspective in many of the abstract and representational works he produced while living in Northern California as a way to express his visual, sensory, and emotional impressions of the unique climate and topography of the Bay Area—a landscape in which he was deeply rooted. Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon, but moved to San Francisco with his family when he was just two years old. He grew up in Ingleside Terraces, a residential neighborhood at the southern end of the city about two miles from the Pacific Ocean. Diebenkorn completed the majority of his education in the Bay Area, attending Lowell High School in San Francisco; Stanford University in Palo Alto; and the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in San Francisco.

Diebenkorn Studio and Berkeley Hills

(L) Richard Diebenkorn in his Hillcrest studio with Berkeley #41 (1955) and Man and Woman Seated (1958), Berkeley, 1958. Photographed by Fred Lyon for the article “The Flowering of San Francisco” by Alan Temko, Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts, January 1959. Photo © Fred Lyon / Artwork © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. (R) Richard Diebenkorn, View of the Oakland hills from the artist's Hillcrest Rd. home, Berkeley, Calif., 1962, color 35 mm slide © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Diebenkorn’s perspective on the landscape was forever altered in the late spring or early summer of 1951, when he took his first commercial airline flight. He traveled from Albuquerque (where he lived between 1950 and 1952) to San Francisco to see an Arshile Gorky retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). For Diebenkorn, the views he saw from the plane were a kind of artistic epiphany, and he remembered:

I guess it was the combination of desert and agriculture that really turned me on, because it has so many things I wanted in my paintings. Of course, the earth’s skin itself had ‘presence’—I mean, ...It was all like a flat design—and everything was usually in the form of an irregular grid. A bit later, I started photographing through airplane windows, and actually got quite good results.[1]

Diebenkorn Aerial Photograph, California

Richard Diebenkorn, Aerial photograph, California, c. 1962, 35 mm color slide © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

From the air, the landscape appeared to Diebenkorn as a series of patchwork patterns—a network of linear contours shaping and delineating two-dimensional fields of color. Describing the exhilaration he experienced during the 1951 flight and its impact on his work, he recalled:

I was absolutely knocked out and thrilled, really taken...It wasn’t that I went right to the canvas and said I’m going to paint but it just went right into the mill and started coming out strong.[2]

Diebenkorn incorporated these aerial impressions of fields, mesas, mountains, towns, and rivers into his ensuing painterly, improvisational, edge-to-edge compositions, which distinctly evoke the sense of an environment viewed from above, as in Berkeley #3 (1953; below).

Diebenkorn Berkeley #3

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #3, 1953. Oil on canvas, 51 ⅛ x 68 in. (137.5 x 172.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Bequest of Josephine Morris, 2003.25.3 © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

From the bird’s-eye vantage adopted in the nineteenth-century Japanese woodcut by Utagawa Hiroshige (below, left), to the twentieth-century aerial perspectives incorporated into a photograph by Ed Ruscha (below, center), and an aquatint by Yvonne Jacquette (below, right), numerous works from our diverse collections reveal how an elevated viewpoint tends to abstract forms into flattened planes of color and pattern. As such, this perspective has aesthetic commonalities with Abstract Expressionism, which was the predominant stylistic influence on Diebenkorn’s work from the mid-1940s until his shift to representation beginning in 1955.

Japanese woodcut Utagawa Hiroshige, photograph Ed Ruscha, aquatint Yvonne Jacquette

(L) Utagawa Hiroshige, Traveling at Night by Torchlight at Hakone, Station 11 from the series “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (Tōkaidō gojūsantsugi no uchi),” ca. 1851–1852. Color woodcut, 8 ½ x 13 ⅜ in. (21.4 x 34 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Gift of Patricia Brown McNamara, Jane Brown Dunaway, and Helen Brown Jarman in memory of Mary Wattis Brown, 64.47.91.(C) Ed Ruscha, Lockheed Air Terminal, 2627 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank, from the series “Parking Lots,” 1967 (printed 1999). Gelatin silver print, sheet: 19 ⅞ x 15 ¾ in. (50.7 x 40.2 cm); image: 15 x 15 in. (38.1 x 38.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Museum purchase, Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Fund, 2000.131.228.3. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. (R) Yvonne Jacquette, Clouds Obscuring San Diego, 1987. Color spit-bite aquatint with soft-ground and hard-ground etching, 25 ¾ x 21 ½ in. (65.4 x 54.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Crown Point Press Archive, gift of Crown Point Press, 1992.167.715. Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York

In many of the works from his abstract Berkeley series (1953–1966), Diebenkorn strongly suggests an aerial perspective, and uses the gestural energies and formal rigors of Abstract Expressionism to evoke the atmospheric and visual qualities of the Bay Area. Although Diebenkorn characterized the works in his Berkeley series as being “purely abstract,” his title explicitly links them to the place where he created them.

Diebenkorn’s palette became increasingly vibrant as the series progressed, evoking the verdancy and luminosity of Northern California. The sense of landscape that pervades many of the works in the Berkeley series is enhanced by Diebenkorn’s use of an elevated perspective. The richly painted and intimately scaled Berkeley #33 (below) from 1954 suggests a bird’s-eye vantage on a field bounded by a horizon or sea.

Diebenkorn Berkeley #33

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #33, 1954, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 3/8 in. (61 x 51.8 cm) © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Here layers of color and form evoke a sense of spatial recession. Yet the visible traces of Diebenkorn’s brushwork and artistic process emphasize the two-dimensionality of the picture plane: note the vertical line he scraped down the center of the composition, allowing the ground of the canvas to show through, and the thick daubs of blue paint at upper right. 

While the works in Diebenkorn’s Berkeley series put him on the map as an Abstract Expressionist painter, critics frequently observed and discussed the works’ references to landscape. Of the paintings Diebenkorn exhibited at the Poindexter Gallery in New York in the winter of 1956, one reviewer wrote, “They resemble aerial photographs of a big varied landscape with shore-line, mountains, cliffs and fields, the contours, perhaps, of California.”[3] In a 1957 article in Life magazine (spread below), Diebenkorn is pictured with a painting, #44 from the Berkeley series, which is described as recalling “the sweeping patterns of the fertile lands . . . north of San Francisco.”[4]

Diebenkorn with “Berkeley #44” in “Life” magazine, November 4, 1957

Richard Diebenkorn with Berkeley #44 in Life magazine, November 4, 1957. Artwork © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation / Photograph Copyright 1957. The Picture Collection Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Nat Farbman / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

In 1955, in spite of the critical acclaim growing around his abstract works, Diebenkorn became increasingly disenchanted with Abstract Expressionism. Viewing it as a “stylistic straightjacket,” he began searching for ways for his “ideas to be ‘worked on,’ changed, altered, by what was ‘out there.’”[5] Yet despite these concerns it was not until the late fall of 1955 that Diebenkorn produced what he identified as his first representational landscape, the small oil-on-canvas Chabot Valley. Shortly after making this work, Diebenkorn shifted to painting in a representational mode, a transition that sent shock waves through the art world.

Seawall (1957) is perhaps the most dramatic example of an aerial perspective in Diebenkorn’s figurative work and shows his ability to seamlessly integrate representation with the raw, gestural brushwork of Abstract Expressionism.

Tranquil beach scene with blue sky and sea.

Richard Diebenkorn, Seawall, 1957. Oil on canvas, 20 x 26 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Phyllis G. Diebenkorn, 1995.96 © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Although Diebenkorn painted it in his studio, Seawall is probably based on his memories of a trip he took up the Northern California coast. With the saturated jewel tones of his palette, he conveyed the freshness and vibrancy of a clear day in the Bay Area as though he were painting en plein air. The sweeping vantage gives the viewer the sense that they are simultaneously looking down on and across the landscape, perhaps from a high bluff. From this lofty perspective, the earth and sea resemble a patchwork of abstract forms similar to Diebenkorn’s view of the desert terrain as he flew from Albuquerque to San Francisco, which seemed to him “like a flat design.” We can thus appreciate the painting both as a landscape and as a highly abstracted series of patterns. Sharp tonal contrasts both evoke a sense of three-dimensionality and create a complex, jigsaw-like pattern of interlocking, flat fields of color.

In contrast to these geometries, Diebenkorn described a wide swath of green grass at right with loose, sketchy brushstrokes. The white ground of the canvas shows through Diebenkorn’s thin brushwork—in some instances he may have scraped away layers of paint with a palette knife. The track of two white parallel lines roughly scratched in the lower right, resembling a path or trail, leads the viewer’s eye diagonally upward and beyond the confines of the picture plane. Diebenkorn’s sensuous and varied paint handling both emphasizes the flat surface of the picture plane and records his process, reflecting his assertion that:

One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject. Reality has to be digested, it has to be transmuted by paint. It has to be given a twist of some kind.[6]

Cityscape #1 (1963, below), in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, similarly incorporates an elevated viewpoint, depicting a hilly, residential street—reminiscent of those found in Diebenkorn’s childhood neighborhood of Ingleside Terraces—that rises sharply toward the horizon line.

Diebenkorn Cityscape #1

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape #1, 1963. Oil on canvas, 60 ¼ x 50 ½ in. (153 cm x 128.3 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Purchase with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J. D. Zellerbach © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

While Cityscape #1 coheres into a clearly legible depiction of a scene, like Seawall it can be experienced as an arrangement of contrasting patterns and tones—a series of self-contained, painterly abstractions. Diebenkorn’s powerful juxtapositions of color and form contribute to the painting’s dynamism—such as the contrast between the squat, tightly clustered buildings at left and the broad planes of color that describe the open fields and vacant lots at right. A note of menace and drama is introduced by the blade-like forms of the sweeping, dark shadows cast by the buildings, which seem to reach out across the landscape. In a later iteration of this theme, Cityscape #3, Diebenkorn further flattened and abstracted his subject.

Many of Diebenkorn’s still lifes incorporate a bird’s-eye vantage, with utilitarian objects dispersed across dramatically tilted tabletops, like actors on a stage, or landscape elements spread across terrain, as in the untitled drawing below from 1965. They reflect the dramatic flattening of objects in the Indian Rajput miniatures Diebenkorn admired, as well as in still lifes by European modernists such as Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse.

Diebenkorn, “Untitled,” 1965

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1965. Gouache, ink and graphite on paper, 13 ¾ x 10 ¾ in. (34.9 x 27.3 cm). Private Collection © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Diebenkorn’s preoccupation with the aerial view persisted following his move from Berkeley to Southern California in 1966—influencing the abstract works in his Ocean Park series, which he produced while working in a studio in the eponymous neighborhood in Santa Monica, California, and in those of his Lower Colorado series from 1969–1970, which are clearly based on views he took of the Western landscape from a helicopter.

Diebenkorn: Ocean Park 116; Aerial photograph, Lower Colorado; Lower Colorado #4

(L) Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park 116, 1979. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 82 x 72 in. (208.3 x 182.9 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, gift of Mrs. Paul L. Wattis, 2000.20. (C) Richard Diebenkorn, Aerial photograph, Lower Colorado, 1970, gelatin silver print, dimensions unknown. (R) Richard Diebenkorn, Lower Colorado #4, 1970, acrylic and graphite on paper, 20 5/8 x 23 in. (52.4 x 58.4 cm). All © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

The aerial perspectives Diebenkorn incorporated into his work throughout his life allowed him to bridge the divide between abstraction and figuration, incorporating modernist principles—such as an emphasis on expressive paint handling and the flat picture plane—while powerfully conveying a sense of place.


Text by Emma Acker, Associate Curator of American Art, adapted from the essay “A Sense of Place: Richard Diebenkorn and the Aerial View” in Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966 (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

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Notes and Sources Cited

[1] Dan Hofstadter, “Profiles, Almost Free of the Mirror,” The New Yorker, September 7, 1987, 60.
[2] Mark Lavatelli, “Diebenkorn’s Albuquerque Years,” in Gerald Nordland et al., Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico, (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press; Taos, NM: Harwood Museum of Art, 2007) 32.
[3] Stuart Preston, “Painting on View: One Who Followed Goya—Recent Abstraction,” New York Times, March 4, 1956, X14.
[4] “Look of the West Inspires New Art,” Life, November 4, 1957, 67.
[5] Jan Butterfield, “Pentimenti: Seeing and Then Seeing Again / A Dialogue between Richard Diebenkorn and Jan Butterfield,” Resource/Response/Reservoir, exh. brochure for Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings, 1948–1983 (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 1983).
[6] Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, exh. cat. (Oakland: Oakland Art Museum, 1957), 12.

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