Richard Diebenkorn, the versatile artist best known for his association with the Bay Area Figurative Movement and later for his “Ocean Park” series of paintings, will have his catalogue raisonné published this fall by Yale University Press in conjunction with the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. Documenting the complete known works of an artist is always a huge undertaking, but especially so in the case of Diebenkorn, who produced thousands of works in his lifetime, many of which have since been spread out across the country, or in some instances, never saw the light of day at all. Jane Livingston, a co-editor of the catalogue raisonné, estimates that “well over half” of Diebenkorn’s works never left his studio, and remained unpublished, unframed, and hardly even viewed by the artist himself in his lifetime. (Diebenkorn died in 1993.)
Diebenkorn’s widow, Phyllis, who passed away in 2015, helped initiate the project around the time that a number of works with questionable authenticity appeared on the market. Diebenkorn was one of the artists at the center of the forgery scandal that brought down the Knoedler & Co. gallery. He was discussed extensively at a civil trial earlier this year regarding a fake Mark Rothko painting that Knoedler & Co. sold in 2004. Works that were presented as unknown entries in Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series were the first forgeries that Knoedler sold after they were brought to the gallery in 1994 by Glafira Rosales, who would go on to operate a 14-year con through Knoedler that resulted in the sale of some $80 million worth of fake artworks.
“It was kind of disconcerting, to know these things were out there,” Livingston said in an interview. “We had a committee that did authentication, and we saw all of them, and we knew they were there. It was the first time it became apparent that some of what was coming to us wasn’t just [work] that could have been made by an artist that wasn’t Diebenkorn, but that were made with a specific intent.”
Livingston’s professional relationship with Diebenkorn goes back to the early 1970s, when she purchased an “Ocean Park” painting on behalf of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she worked as a curator. She then served as the chief curator of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., which hosted a traveling Diebenkorn retrospective in 1975. She went on to organize a Diebenkorn retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1997.
Diebenkorn has for years held the dubious label of an artist’s artist, which is a kinder way of saying he’s been underrated and under-recognized, certainly when considered alongside his peers, including Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning. But his market and his reputation have risen steadily through the years. In addition to the catalogue raisonné, a show looking at connections between Henri Matisse and Diebenkorn will open this fall at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2017.
“Diebenkorn was known in art schools,” Livingston said. “He had almost a common-man reputation. But it’s more recently that the big money kind of reputation has taken hold, sort of slowly but surely. He’s always been loved, but I think more and more he’s entering the canon.”
The catalogue raisonné contains 5,500 works and will be published in four volumes. Livingston said the project began with “several hundred” works with unknown whereabouts. The number is now down to about 100, she said. Some of the works were compiled with help from scholars and the artist’s family, while others were found by placing advertisements about the project in newspapers across the country. (Some of these works materialized through chance encounters and happy accidents. Livingston said an employee of the Diebenkorn Foundation was standing in line at a post office one day in Berkeley, California—where Diebenkorn lived for many years—carrying some mail with the foundation’s name and address written on it. A person standing in line noticed the name, and the two started talking. The person, it turns out, owned two Diebenkorns that the foundation wasn’t aware of.)
“For me the biggest problem was sequencing and dating, and putting it together logically,” Livingston said. “And of course getting provenance is always a struggle. But if you’re patient and you keep at it, it gets done.”
For scholars of Diebenkorn’s work, the catalogue raisonné will be a revelation, revealing a vast output that has remained largely unavailable. For the public, Livingston hopes it will further solidify Diebenkorn as a crucial figure in the history of postwar American art.
“It’s only in the last few years that he’s becoming known as something other than a quote-unquote California artist,” she said. “He didn’t think of himself as a regional artist. My feeling always was that he was a member of the highest-ranking artists of his generation. And I feel that more strongly all the time.”