Diebenkorn’s Notes on Painting and Interview

The following list was found among the papers of the painter Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. Spelling and capitalization are as in the original.

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.

3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.

6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Oral history interview with Richard Diebenkorn, 1985 May 1-1987 Dec. 15

Diebenkorn, Richard, b. 1922 d. 1993
Santa Monica, Calif.

Size: Sound recordings: 10 sound cassettes.
Transcript: 153 p.

Collection Summary: An interview of Richard Diebenkorn conducted 1985 May 1-1987 Dec. 15, by Susan Larsen, for the Archives of American Art.

Diebenkorn speaks of his family background and early life; his education and his service in the Marine Corps; his introduction to modernism; his early abstract work; the formation of the Bay Area figurative school and the relationship between art in New York and in the Bay Area; teaching; critical and public reaction to his work; important exhibitions of his work; vacillating between the figurative and the abstract in his painting; his working methods. He recalls Daniel Mendelowitz, Erle Loran, Raymond Jonson, David Park, and Elmer Bischoff.

Biographical/Historical Note: Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) was a painter from Calif.

These interviews are part of the Archives’ Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and others. [Another interview of Diebenkorn was donated by Larsen, 1977].

Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America’s Treasures Program of the National Park Service.



This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Richard Diebenkorn, 1985 May 1-1987 Dec. 15, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Interview with Richard Diebenkorn
Conducted by Susan Larsen
1985 May 1, 2 & 7 and 1987 December 15

May 1, 1985 session
May 2, 1985 session
May 7, 1985 session
December 15, 1987 sessionPreface

The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Richard Diebenkorn on May 1, 2 & 7, 1985 and December 15, 1987. The interview was conducted by Susan Larsen for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Richard Diebenkorn and Susan Larsen have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.


RD: Richard Diebenkorn
SL: Susan Larsen

Session 1

Interview with Richard Diebenkorn
Conducted by Susan Larsen
1985 May 1

[Tape 1, side A]

SL: So, I think we will start at the beginning, and I just wanted to check certain things that have been common knowledge, but just to affirm with you. You were born in Portland?

RD: Yes.

SL: In 1922?

RD: Yes.

SL: And your family had been there a long time or a short time?

RD: Short time. They were, my mother was a Californian. She was born in San Diego. And my father came here from Cincinnati in nineteen-o-something-or-other. His business moved him to Portland briefly to start a new office. They eventually became a West Coast company. And he got the office going in Portland, and it took years, I think, and then they moved back to California, back to San Francisco.

SL: Is that where they met and got together?

RD: I think they met in Los Angeles.

SL: And what sort of business did your father. . . .

RD: Hotel and restaurant supply company.

SL: Oh.

RD: And it was the leading restaurant and hotel supply company on the West Coast. And what else?

SL: Okay, that was. . . . I just wondered.

RD: This [the microphone–Ed.] is close enough?

SL: I think so. So, your family moved to San Francisco then in 1924? Is that about right?

RD: About, yes. ’24 or ’25. I’m not just certain of the dates.

SL: Okay. And you were the only child?

RD: Yes.

SL: And did you have a family surrounding you? Cousins and grandmother and aunts and uncles.

RD: Grandmother, on my mother’s side, and grandfather, on my father’s side. So I. . . . My mother and father and me. And my grandmother I saw a lot of, especially during the summer.

SL: This was Florence Stephens?

RD: Florence Stephens, yes.

SL: You’ve mentioned her. Many people have mentioned her. She was an important person in your young life, I gather.

RD: Extremely.

SL: She was the one who encouraged your interest in art and reading and many other things?

RD: Yes.

SL: She sounded like an interesting lady. From what I gather she went back to school in her thirties and was very active in. . . .

RD: She became a lawyer, and, well, she was a painter. There’s a painter–I mean, painting in the kitchen that I’ll show you later of hers. She was a poet, poetess, I guess. Is that a word? No. [laughter]

SL: Was she very lively, or quiet?

RD: Very lively. Irish-type disposition, since she was born in Dublin. She came to this country in the. . . . She came to San Francisco in about 1870.

SL: My.

RD: And lived on Telegraph Hill.

SL: (chuckles)

RD: In her later years, she had a radio program in San Francisco, a book review program.

SL: Was she involved with new literature, or was it classics?

RD: Well, new for the time, I guess. She wrote. She wrote stories and I think she got about a third of them published. She always had something out with, sweating out the response in the mail.

SL: I see.

RD: What else about her?

SL: Did she have you writing stories? Drawing, from an early age?

RD: Well, it wasn’t exactly that she had me doing it, but she was very appreciative. I think I did the painting on my own, and I think that in a backhanded way, my father was important to the beginnings of my drawing, because I think Richard was totally occupied, and no trouble at all when he had shirt cardboards to draw trains, pictures of locomotives on. And so I really can’t remember when I wasn’t engaged in that activity for some part of the day–of drawing.

SL: That’s what you started on, shirt cardboards?

RD: Shirt cardboards. I remember they were chipboard surface on one side, that, just, I hated, and the other side was a smooth white, and that I liked to draw on.

SL: I know just what you’re talking about. So you would spend the summers with your grandmother and. . . . For a short period of time, or long period of time.

RD: Well, the whole summer.

SL: The whole summer?

RD: Yes. She had a small house in Woodside, California. And there was just wild country there then. And so I was loose in the forest [or, and] the hills with bow and arrow or whatever.

SL: Really, oh. What else did you like to do besides painting and drawing?

RD: Well, I guess I had a pretty good fantasy life during those summers, because I remember I carved–a couple of summers; I must have been eleven and twelve–and carved swords and made shields, and emblazoned them with insignia and. . . .

SL: Just like King Arthur and that kind of thing?

RD: Sure. Yeah.

SL: That was also something you read, I gather, too.

RD: Oh, yes. It just occurred to me, talking about my grandmother, I wanted to correct something in this book [Richard Diebenkorn Paintings and Drawings 1943-1976, catalogue of Albright-Knox exhibition,1976.–Ed.]. They made a very funny mistake. Or a mistake that’s very, very misleading. If I were reading it, I wouldn’t know what to make of this. It says, it’s involved with my grandmother’s law activity.

SL: Is this something that you. . . .

RD: Oh, here. “Mrs. Stephens had returned to school at age 35 to study law. . . . during World War II took on 28 cases defending German-Americans whose civil rights had been violated, and won them all.” Well, the mistake there is the “II”; it should be World War I, obviously, and there wasn’t that kind of defense of German-Americans in World War II, and there was no. . . . I don’t think they, there was any requirement for it, either, that it was a very serious proposition in World War I, and she was sympathetic with the underdog.

SL: Um hmm. It would be more likely the Japanese-Americans in World War II.

RD: Yeah, yes.

SL: Also it didn’t make sense if she came to San Francisco in 1870.

RD: No.

SL: I mean, how could she be 35 in World War II?

RD: Yes, exactly. I thought that came out in a very puzzling way.

SL: Thank you! [cookies are offered–Ed.]

RD: Oh, yes.

SL: Thank you very much.

Another voice: Don’t let the dogs see the cookies.

RD: Oh. We have cookies.

SL: Oh, okay. That’s a magic word always with me. Something I hadn’t asked you is what kind, nationality of name is Diebenkorn?

RD: Well, I’d always understood it was German, and my father’s grandfather came to this country in the, during the Civil War. I say that because they were going to land in New York and they had to go around the Mississippi, come up the Mississippi River. And he died going up the Mississippi River, so my grandfather, who was five, and his mother went to Cincinnati and she immediately remarried someone named Howard. And his. . . . Grandfather kept the name Diebenkorn and. . . . But because of that, really a lot of history was lost that the. . . .

SL: Um hmm, the family. . . .

RD: . . . that that, that my father’s, my great-grandfather would have. . . . My great-grandmother immediately got involved with a different family and so on. But then, so it was, all we knew was that it was a German name, and we knew that history of coming to Cincinnati, and that was all. But then, Phyllis and I were interested to find out really for sure, and we, so we went [to] Europe, and. . . . It was shortly after my father died that my mother had a friend who was Dutch and had been born in Holland and told my mother that she had grown up very close to a community, very small community named Diebenkorn.

SL: Ah hah!

RD: And so my mother informed–she was getting a little bit on, then, in age–but she informedPhyllis and me one evening, when we had her for dinner, that “It’s possible that your name is Dutch,” that because of so-and-so who said that. So this sort of threw us in a quandary and it made us–made me–more than determined than ever to figure out what. . . . So we were going to take this trip, and we were–Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy. First time we had done that part of Europe, and. . . . I’m making too long a story of this. But at any rate, we traveled through Holland and Kroller-Muller Museum and all those treats, and we just had this gorgeous time. But all the time, from south of Holland, when we’d stay someplace, I’d look in the telephone book and. . .

SL: Did you find any?

RD: I found all sorts of names that were very much like it, especially in central, central-eastern Holland. And Holland is sort of a vertical country, and central and eastern. And the names would be right except for one word [means letter–Ed.] here and there. Very, very close. So then finally, then when we got to the south, the names changed character and so [I] sort of gave it up. Well, this isn’t true. Oh! Even asked there about a community of Diebenkorn in, and the people who should have known, would have known, said that, “We have no record of anything like that.” So then we went on around the coast into Germany and I just, I wasn’t even, I’d given up the project, and, but then we went to Hamburg, and we were in the hotel there, and I passed this lobby and this large telephone thing–telephone books and girls sitting around answering questions–and so I went up and looked in the book, and no names like it [but spelled differently–Ed.] at all. But there were four Diebenkorns in the. . . .

SL: Perfect, just the same?

RD: Yeah. Yeah, God! And no names like them really either. And this gave, made my flesh sort of crawl, because I’d never seen my name other than referring to me or my family.

SL: Yes.

RD: So, well, to make a long story short, I called one, and the person was very hospitable, had us for tea–I think it was coffee–and this man, who was my age, had his son and his wife-to-be, who was an engineer, and it was all very nice. And they went, they, I guess the son was there because he and his fiance both spoke English. So we got to talking about the name, and they had recalled the–or the man who was my age had recalled hearing about a great-grandfather who had gone to America and disappeared.

SL: Oh, is that right? Fabulous! That must have, it very likely could be.

RD: Yeah, yeah. And then they talked about the name and they said that the name originated in Sweden. It was in a dialect. The name meant the grain stacked in the shape of a house. You know, when you see. . . This is a Diebenkorn, but it was spelled different, but I mean, you know, it was essentially. . . .

SL: Very interesting.

RD: And these, they were farmers, the Diebenkorns, and they came in the, I guess they were at least 17th century or late 16th. It was when Sweden was occuping the northern part of Germany, Prussia, after the Thirty Years War, I guess. At any rate, they came down there about that time, and in [Mecklenberg]. I’m really answering your question, aren’t I?

SL: That’s fine.

RD: Then some of them moved, or one branch of the family moved from Mecklenberg to Hamburg, and they in Hamburg–the people we were talking to–said that there are a lot of Diebenkorns in Mecklenberg, whereas there are just very few, just this single branch of the family in Hamburg. So the mysterywas cleared up once and for all.

SL: That’s great.

RD: I don’t know about my mother’s friend who had the Dutch. . . .

SL: Maybe she had the German Mecklenberg. . . .

RD: And I had always understood that Diebenkorn meant cornfield, but apparently the derivations didn’t. . . .

SL: Much better. (chuckles) I looked up at that little house-like thing up there. It’s sort of like a, almost like a. . . . Oops. [referring to dog?–Ed.]

RD: But in the. . . . I had told the photographer, Leo [Holub] . . . . Do you know him?

SL: No, I don’t.

RD: Oh. He’s from Northern California, photography. He’s very, very good one. Worked for Stanford for a long time. Bruce, no! [speaking to dog–Ed.]

[Break in taping]

5 responses to “Diebenkorn’s Notes on Painting and Interview

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    • Honestly Juli, I am not certain. There are a lot of academic sources…I have found some great articles and interviews in the books on Diebenkorn. He is mentioned a lot in the autobiography on David Park. Good luck!

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