Bay Area Art!

Wayne Thiebaud, 1920 -  Three Machines , 1963
oil on canvas 30 x 36 1/2 (76.2 x 92.7 cm) inches
Form: Oil on canvas. This piece was done with very thick impastos of paint, one of Thiebaud's signature techniques for some of his oil paintings. He was as interested in the texture of the paint as he was in the compositions themselves.

Iconography: Thiebaud is interested in capturing scenes of Americana, easily recognizable and in most cases with the ability to let the viewer bring up their own memories of childhood or simple pleasures. His work is not photo-realistic, but in this case it is 'real' in it's own way. He has captured the 3-dimensional aspect of the gumballs and machines through his masterful use of paint. In life, the paint is so thick that it literally projects off the canvas. He has also chosen to represent the machines in a pure form, simplified down to their basic shape and function. He is not interested in making any deep statement about what a gumball machine can 'potentially' mean, it just is what it is, simple and unassuming. The colors used are saturated, bright and almost stark, perhaps to further remind the viewer that these are sugary confections, man-made and impossibly colorful. It is also interesting how he has used a symmetrical composition and still managed to make it interesting and engaging to the viewer. It may be because he has used three gumball machines instead of one, or because the choice of color and lack of background make it easy for the eye to rest for long periods of time on any point of the painting. Regardless of the cause, it is a strong piece of work.

Context: ..."Born in 1920 at Mesa, Arizona. Before becoming an artist in 1947, he worked as a sign painter, cartoonist, commercial artist, illustrator, designer and publicity manager in New York and California. From 1942 to 1945 he served in the Air Force and painted murals for the army. In 1949-50 he studied at the San José State University and from 1950 to 1953 at the California State University, Sacramento. In 1951 he had his first one-man exhibition at the Crocker Art Gallery,
Sacramento, California. From 1954 to 1957 he produced eleven educational films, for which he won the Scholastic Art Prize in 1961. From 1951 to 1961 he taught at Sacramento City College, and from 1960 to 1976 at the University of California, Davis. He has had many exhibitions in the USA, including one at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1981. In 1972 he was in the documenta "5", Kassel. "  (taken from

Wayne Thiebaud, Clown, 1979 Color etching and aquatint
Form: Color etching, aquatint on paper. Symmetrical, with the figure in the middle. No background, and the clown in the foreground. A few bright colors but the over all tone is bleak and dark. 

Iconography: Again, Thiebaud has used a symmetrical composition in placing the clown in the center of the page. Though he is depicting what may be seen as another piece of Americana, this particular portrait fails to be as benign as the gumball machines or his other works depicting cakes, pies, or lipstick tubes. The portrait of the clown is almost sad, he is not smiling and his eyes appear bleak, dark and recessed. There is a lack of background to put the clown into any kind of context, the viewer is unsure where he is or what his purpose is. It forces the viewer to focus solely on the clown as a person. He is facing the viewer full on, almost confronting them. Unlike most portraits, where the viewer is invited to behave almost voyeuristically, this one engages the viewer. Further humanizing the clown is the addition of the strap that holds the nose in place, reaffirming for the viewer that there is a man underneath that costume, that the clown is not in itself an independent entity.

Context: Thiebaud's' background as a cartoonist and illustrator is evident in this piece. It is created in a traditional media, etching, in which the lines are the most important element. How they are used to compose a form as well as add shadow an depth is extremely important in the setting the mood of a work. Since line is primarily used in illustration, it is easy to see how masterful Thiebaud is at using it. He is able to create a sense of depth and emotion well, while still maintaining the feel of an illustration, as opposed to a portrait. 

Wayne Thiebaud, Steep Street, 1993
transparent and opaque watercolor, colored chalks, 
and charcoal over etching and aquatint 55.4 x 40.1 cm 
(image); 86.3 x 65.4 cm (sheet) inches
Form: transparent and opaque watercolor, colored chalks, and charcoal over etching and aquatint. The paint quality and type on this piece is much different than those of his oil paintings. Whereas his oil paintings depend on the thickness of the paint to create a sense of depth and richness, his cityscapes use thin washes and a variety of paint quality (from transparent to opaque) to create the light, shadows, and ambiance of the city.

Iconography:  The viewer can easily get a feel for the sometimes imposing hills and steep streets that comprise the landscape of the city. He has also mastered the feel of the unique San Francisco climate, affected by its' proximity to the bay. The light tends to be filtered through the ever-present fog, creating softer shadows tinged with blues and grays, and it is evident by his ability to capture that feeling that he is intimately familiar with it.

Context: As a bay area artist, this work along with his other cityscapes shows how truly connected he is with San Francisco. The viewer can almost feel that while Thiebaud's place of residence is currently in Sacramento, and he has spent time in other Bay Area cities, he is comfortable and familiar with San Francisco. He is also adept at capturing the feel of the city, with its' unique geography and history.


Diebenkorn, Richard
Cityscape I (Landscape No. 1) 1963
Oil on canvas 60 1/4 x 50 1/2 in
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Form: Oil on canvas. The paint quality for this piece is thin, the brushwork is quick and instinctual, the emphasis is not on precision, but on feeling. The shapes and colors are geometricized, though still in a recognizable form. The brushwork is loose and visible. 

Iconography: Some art critics place this piece as a landscape of Ocean Park, in Santa Monica California, and others who place it squarely in San Francisco. It is known that Diebenkorn's' parent lived on Telegraph hill in San Francisco and that he spent his younger years there. For comparison, we will look at this cityscape in comparison with Thiebaud's cityscape, and see how the composition, light, and paint quality compare. Like Thiebaud's view of the city, there is a distortion to how sharply the streets slope and a sense of unreality to the landscape. In both paintings it is clear that in reality a city could never exist as distorted as these are shown, but they still manage to make sense. There is a different light quality to Diebenkorn's work, perhaps because he is showing a residential suburb, the light has a brighter quality, less affected by the fog, and the shadows cast are darker and more gray than they are blue. Compositionally, Diebenkorn uses more of the canvas to show a smaller segment of the city. Instead of showing a big slice of it with the surrounding geography, he is giving us an intimate glimpse into a quiet neighborhood. the picture plane has been nicely divided into thirds, with all the pertinent 'action' happening on the far left, and open fields to the right where the viewer can 'rest' their eyes. 

Context: According to his unofficial biography, "Richard Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon in 1922, and  attended school in Berkeley, California. He went to New York in the 1940's, where he met William Baziotes and Robert Motherwell, immersing himself in the Abstract Expressionist milieu. In the 1950's, Diebenkorn painted abstractions marked by strong compositions and gestural brushwork. His work alternated between abstraction and figuration, but always with vibrant colors defining planar compositions. The figurative work is composed of large areas of color to form spaces into which Diebenkorn placed a simplified standing or seated figure. In the mid-1960's, Diebenkorn turned away from imagery to the abstract Ocean Park series. These paintings are vertical, geometric abstractions of subtle line with visible evidence of reworking, reminders of the previous permutations of each work. The canvases are suffused with California light and color, and with coastal allusions to sky, ocean, seaside and sun. Each work is a self-contained chromatic universe, although every painting in the series is connected through color and compositional similarities." (taken from 


Diebenkorn, Richard Ocean Park No. 54. 1972
Oil on canvas 100 x 81 in
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Form: Oil on canvas. Geometric abstraction, the brushwork on this piece is more linear and deliberate than with his cityscape. The colors are washed out and diluted looking, instead of bright saturated colors. This piece is  geometrical forms and color. The paint quality for this piece is thin, the brushwork is quick and instinctual, the emphasis is not on precision, but on feeling. Vertical, geometric abstractions of subtle line with visible evidence of reworking.

Iconography:  Ocean Park No. 54 is abstract, the colors and shapes only alluding to light, shadow, houses and sea, but never actually representing them. The colors are those that can be easily associated with an ocean side community, faded blue for the sky and ocean, tans and yellows for sand and earth, and various pastel hues to represent the houses one would find in an ocean side community. 

Context: This work has the same subject matter as his cityscape, but in a different form. Whereas Diebenkorn's' cityscape was more literal, with the buildings and landscape easily recognizable. The abstract works were a natural progression for Diebenkorn. He was moving from a style in which he had become adept, representation, and progressing toward a style that was more challenging to the viewer, harder to decipher while still carrying the same feelings and meanings as his earlier works.

God is in the vectors. by Robert Hughes. Time, 12/08/97, Vol. 150 Issue 24, p98, 3p, 3c

Foot for square foot, the current retrospective of Richard Diebenkorn's paintings at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art offers more aesthetic pleasure than any other show--at least of contemporary art--in town. Which isn't to say the Whitney has done the subject full justice. Its heart being where it is, the museum needed lots and lots of space to present a mass of trivia and threadbare junk from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., pointlessly documenting the pallid maestro's effect on advertising and fashion, under the title "The Warhol Look/Glamour Style Fashion." So the Whitney's out-of-house curator, Jane Livingston, found the space for Diebenkorn whittled down to one floor and a small entry gallery of the museum, which is nothing like enough for a just overview of the man's pictorial achievement.

Except for an excellent show of his drawings curated by John Elderfield at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988, Diebenkorn, who died in 1993, never had a fair deal from New York museums. The city's cultural establishment viewed him as, well, a California artist--a bit of an outsider, a bit marginal, insufficiently difficult or radical, too easy on the eye, whatever. Diebenkorn, one of the most flintily self-critical artists who ever lived in America, took this in his stride, and his oeuvre (closed, alas, too early) handily answers his detractors. Nobody who cares about painting as an art--as distinct from propaganda, complaint or "cutting edge" ephemera--could be indifferent to Diebenkorn's work or to the long, intense and fascinating dialogue with the modernist past it embodies.

Born in Portland, Ore., in 1922, Diebenkorn was raised in San Francisco and got his first art education there--a process interrupted by his enlistment in the Marine Corps. This, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since he was posted to Quantico, Va., and while there was able regularly to visit Washington museums, especially the Phillips Collection. One painting there, in particular, got to him: Matisse's Studio, Quai St. Michel, 1916. Though Diebenkorn would continue to meditate on other works by Matisse (and Mondrian, and Cezanne, and Bonnard, and so on through a wide classical-modernist pantheon) for the rest of his working life, this particular Matisse, with its simultaneous inside-outside view, thrilled and inspired him: "I noticed its spatial amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room yet the surface is right there...right up front."

Discharged from the military in 1945, Diebenkorn enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts. Over the next several years, he moved between the East and West coasts. His work from the late '40s to the early '50s was essentially abstract, though with strong overtones of landscape space and color. A considerable influence of Willem de Kooning bore on it. De Kooning, Diebenkorn felt, "had it all, could outpaint anybody, at least until the mid-'60s, when he began to lose it." But Diebenkorn's friendship with the Bay Area painter David Park, who bravely refused to accept the reigning dictum in the American avant-garde that radicalism had to mean abstraction, pointed him still closer toward the figurative.

By 1957, Diebenkorn's figurative phase was well and truly under way, all its parts integrated, in landscape, figure painting and still life. But it's necessary to realize, and the show makes this quite clear, that for all his shifts between degrees of abstraction and figuration, Diebenkorn remained essentially the same artist; he wasn't someone trying on different suits to see which ones fit.

In hindsight one can see the components of his culminating achievement, the Ocean Park series, forming in a small, early landscape like Seawall, 1957. First, the clear marine light that seems to bathe all the forms, whether sharply cut (the tawny beach and wedges of black shadow on the left) or vaguer (the tract of scribbled green grass on the right). Second, Diebenkorn's decisiveness about tonal structure and the way sharp contrast can be used both to hollow out the space of the painting and to create a firm, flat pattern. And third, a breezy lyricism of feeling that was especially Diebenkorn's, an exhilaration at the material fullness of the world, translated into terms of pigment.

Edward Hopper was one of Diebenkorn's inner jury of admired masters--no other American painter except de Kooning influenced him as much. What he liked in Hopper, Diebenkorn once laconically said, was "the diagonals." Not the mood: you can't extract a Hopperish melancholy from Woman in a Window, 1957, though her face is averted. What she might be thinking doesn't count; she's a model, not a narrative. What does count is the confluence of vectors--the square window with its two planes of blue sea and sky, the tabletop rushing away to the right at a shallow angle, the triangle of the arm propping the head, and the woman's left hand drooping over the upper arm, its slack spiky fingers echoed in the red-and-blue stripes of a cloth draped over the chair arm. All these angles, beautifully integrated, give the image an architecture that solidifies the passing moment, a firmness to which Hopper's diagonals pointed the way.

This virile structure enabled Diebenkorn to explore all manner of nuances, shifts of tone, transparencies and textural quirks in the areas of color it defined. It let the picture bear provisional or openly corrected passages, without degenerating into niggle, mess and muddle. Structure was the key, not just to Diebenkorn's forthrightness as a painter but to his delicacy as well. And it survives even in the little still lifes, which are hardly more than visual nouns--a glass of water on a gray cloth, with orange poppies in it; a knife in another glass, bent by refraction--rendered with the immediacy and verve one associates with Manet's asparagus and peonies.

The precondition of his structure, in turn, was drawing. Diebenkorn drew incessantly. It wasn't only that he belonged to the last generation of American artists to be raised in a culture of drawing. He loved the act. Drawing was sifting the world's disorder. It was making sense of random agglomerations of things, unconscious postures of the body. (In all his drawings and paintings of his wife Phyllis, you only rarely get the sense that she was actually posing.) Every painter has favorite shapes and gestures, which, unless they encounter some resistance, can turn into mannerisms. Diebenkorn's style certainly grew some mannerisms, but drawing--the continuous friction against obdurate motifs--prevented them from getting ingrown, turning into tics.

The climax of Diebenkorn's work was, by general consent, the Ocean Park series, which he began in 1967. Ocean Park is part of Santa Monica, the beachside suburb of Los Angeles where he had his studio. From its high crystalline light, its big calm planes of sea and sky, its cuts and interlacings of highway divider and curb and gable and yellow sand, Diebenkorn produced a marvelous synthesis that, though prolonged through more than 140 large canvases, had very few weak moments.

In the Ocean Parks, with their pentimenti and layering left exposed to view, one sees the summation of Diebenkorn's admiration for Matisse's way of leaving the picture with the traces of its own making. This reworking leaves an impression of curiosity, not indecision. The paintings are broadly brushed and then "tuned" by passages of fine, but not fidgety, detail. The color, glazed or discreetly scumbled, is luminous--now diffuse like sea fog, now hard and bright as direct sun. The Ocean Parks radiate an Apollonian calm, an uncoercive authority. They are the creations of a man with a fully integrated temperament, candid but not showy. There is nothing else quite like them in modern painting, in America or the world.



Richard Diebenkorn. Coffee. 1959
oil on canvas
Form:  Oil on canvas. Thick, busy brushwork. Dark, muted and non-local colors. Occasional touches of saturated colors, such as true red or blue. The figure is set just to the right of the middle, so as not to make it symmetrical

Iconography: The figures is shown alone drinking coffee. The feeling is somber and contemplative because of the dark colors. The look on the figure's face is relaxed and peaceful, and looks like she's deep in thought, closing her eyes to take a drink from her coffee. Her legs are crossed and she's sitting alone by the window. She's relaxed and comfortable being a lone in thought.

Context: As one of Diebenkorn' early works, this is a good example of where he started, and how it led to his abstractions. Hints of this interest lay within the painting itself, in the loose brush quality and large areas of used to represent a pillow, or wall, or window ledge. It is easy to imagine what his work would have looked like had he continued to apply just a bit more color, or just a few more lines, moving it away from the representational and more towards the abstract. This is a figurative, representational work done by Richard Diebenkorn before his cityscapes and Ocean Park works. It shows how he was influenced by works such as Willem de Kooning's' Woman IV, and many of Edward Hoppers' Americana-inspired genre scenes. The influence from De Kooning can be seen in the quick, messy brushwork, non-local color palette, and occasional use of saturated color for visual interest. The scene depicted, however, is very reminiscent of Edward Hoppers' Nighthawks (1942) or Chop Suey (1929). In both paintings Hopper is depicting individuals at rest, in a coffeehouse or eating establishment, partaking of sustenance in a sort of quiet solitude. The difference in feeling between Hoppers work and Diebenkorn's', in that regard, is that while Hopper is showing people engaging in personal reflection while surrounded by others, Diebenkorn's' person is shown as an individual, alone and with nothing else to engage herself with besides the coffee in her hands. 


Elmer Bischoff American , 1916 - 1991Yellow Lampshade, 1969 oil on canvas
70 x 80 (177.8 x 203.2 cm) inchesGift of Nan Tucker McEvoy
in memory of her mother, Phyllis de Young Tucker 1992.10
Form: Oil on canvas, liberal use of non-local color and an impressionist palette.  The brushwork is quick and loose and more suggestive of form than truly descriptive. He uses bright touches of saturated color. There are two figures facing each other, both standing. Between them is a table with a lamp on it, the lamp has a yellow lamp shade.

Iconography:  Even though the figures are standing still, and it seems to be an everyday genre scene, the piece seems alive with action. All the bright colors and the way it was painted promotes an energy that is buzzing around the painting. Even though its an abstract painting, it feels as if you could enter the room. By allowing the brushwork to remain evident, and with liberal use of color and line, he was able to lend movement into a scene where the people themselves seem to be standing still, engaged in quiet conversation. This ability to create movement, not by the figures, but with the paint, is one that causes the viewer to become absorbed and interested in the painting not only for the overt message the artist is sending, but for the less evident, but equally strong, message in the brushstroke.

Context: Bischoff was best known for his figurative work. He began his career by creating beautiful abstract-surrealist works, which lent themselves well towards the development of the loose brushstrokes and bright touches of saturated color which gave his figurative work a strong, energetic quality.

( Culled directly and extensively from 

"......the work of Elmer Bischoff, the artist who, with Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, is credited with launching the Bay Area figurative movement."...  "Elmer Bischoff's role in the Bay Area figurative movement was central. He was a Bay Area native: born and raised in the Elmwood district of Berkeley, the son of a successful architectural designer who made frequent visits to Southern California for design ideas, taking his talented son with him to make sketches of homes in Pasadena and Brentwood. Rejecting his father's proffered career in architecture, Bischoff studied art at the University of California under the Berkeley School modernists Worth Ryder, Erle Loran and Margaret Peterson, where he became a self professed disciple of Picasso. Following the war, he joined David Park, Hassel Smith and Douglas MacAgy on the faculty at California School of Fine Arts (CSFA; now the San Francisco Art Institute), where he also played trumpet in the Studio 13 Jazz Band with other faculty members (Park played piano). 

Bischoff's lifelong residency in the Bay Area would be interrupted only by a three-year teaching engagement at Yuba College in Marysville, California after he had resigned in protest from CSFA following Hassel Smith's dismissal.  This would be an intensely productive period, and his return to San Francisco in 1956 would be followed in 1957 by a seminal group exhibit at the Oakland Art Museum (precursor to Oakland Museum of California) titled Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting. By 1959 his work was being handled by New York dealer George Staempfli, he had received a Ford Foundation grant, and he had moved into a permanent studio on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Throughout the sixties Bischoff continued taking his figurative work in a succession of new directions, drawing praise for his heated, emotionally charged paintings of isolated figures and his ambiguous, atmospheric interior studies of figures, frequently focusing on couples. He accepted a teaching position at U.C. Berkeley and, for the first time, traveled extensively. But by the early 1970s Elmer Bischoff would again reinvent himself as an artist, beginning to work in a new medium--acrylic--and painting in a style of gestural abstraction that evoked elements of Kandinsky and Miró but also referred back to his earlier interest in surrealism and the cartoons of George Herriman. In their improvisatory bravura, the paintings were signature Bischoff. The artist Christopher Brown would later remark that the mood of these canvases was so lively that they have the look of noise. (Bischoff referred to this break from figurative work as leaving a church and entering a gymnasium.) He would continue to explore this style until his death at age 74 in 1991 in Alta Bates Hospital, Berkeley. "