Early Diebenkorn in Malibu

Richard Diebenkorn, untitled, 1944-45
"Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942–1955" is the prequel to the artist's better-known franchise.  The show has just landed at Pepperdine's Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. Organized by the Crocker Art Museum with the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation (which has lent all the works), it's a must-see for Diebenkorn fans. Most of its 75 watercolors, paintings, and drawings have never before been exhibited. Originating in Sacramento, the show is traveling to just five smaller museums nationwide.
The selection ranges from literal student efforts, working out cubism and surrealism, to Diebenkorn's early mature paintings of the Sausalito, Albuquerque, and Urbana series. There are hits, misses, and one-offs, yet even the earliest works show a rigorous rethinking of convention.
Richard Diebenkorn, untitled
Richard Diebenkorn, untitled, 1943
Diebenkorn began studying art at Stanford, against his father's objections. He admired the Precisionists and produced several works in that mode. (Come to think of it, the much-later Ocean Park works have Demuth diagonals. L.A. smog was Diebenkorn's Egypt.)

Diebenkorn's studies were halted by the war. While training on the East Coast, he drew quick portraits of fellow soldiers, giving or selling them to the sitters. Diebenkorn described these drawings as "kind of Holbein-derived." Tom of Finland also comes to mind.
Richard Diebenkorn, untitled, 1945
While stationed in Hawaii, Diebenkorn produced innovative semi-abstract watercolors. The one shown here seems to record the prow of a ship.
Richard Diebenkorn, untitled, 1946
After the war Diebenkorn studied and taught at the California School of Fine Arts. It was a high point for that institution and for San Francisco as rival to New York. Diebenkorn's fellow CSFA students and teachers included Elmer Bischoff, Claire Falkenstein, David Park, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Hassel Smith, and Clyfford Still.
Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled #32 (Sausalito), 1949
Diebenkorn's breakthrough came at CSFA, about 1948. He produced a painting series named for Sausalito (and would continue using geographic identifiers the rest of his career).
Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled (Albuquerque), 1952
In 1950 Diebenkorn turned student again, moving to the University of New Mexico for his masters. He went to get away from the luminaries at CSFA and for the New Mexico landscape, already home to mid-century artist's colonies.

After his GI Bill tuition ran out, Diebenkorn hoped to return to California with a teaching post. Unable to get an offer, he moved east, to the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. But Diebenkorn hated the midwestern landscape: "There was nothing to look at. It was just flat," said wife Phyllis Diebenkorn.
Richard Diebenkorn, Urbana #2 (The Archer), 1953
The Urbana works are different. Before the move to Illinois, Diebenkorn visited California in-laws and saw the MoMA-organized Matisse show that came to San Francisco in 1952. The Urbana works are more colorful, playful, and figurative. Urbana #2 shows an archer, maybe a centaur. It heralds Diebenkorn's return to figuration.

Diebenkorn moved back to the Bay area and did the Berkeley series (1953–1955). By late 1955 he had issues with the "stylistic straightjacket" of AbEx. He responded with Goya-dark, Rohrschach-blot-y ink drawings spoofing the whole action painter-psychoanalysis deal. Jack (or Jane) the dripper makes a fine mess of everything.
Richard Diebenkorn, untitled, 1955