Richard Diebenkorn (1922–93) kept artist sketchbooks throughout his career. He described the sketchbook as his “portable studio,” where he could privately observe and explore a wide range of subject matter in a variety of media.
His late widow and longtime muse, Phyllis Diebenkorn, recently gave twenty-nine of these sketchbooks to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Diebenkorn’s alma mater. Flipping through them can feel akin to sneaking a peak at a loved one’s diary. Stray bits of personal text are often dashed off in faint graphite next to the sketches. One reads, simply, “The day of my father’s death,” beside contour drawings of an oxford shoe, a fedora hat, and an embroidered handkerchief. Another note is more introspective: “I think that all my problems with painting, my failures, arise from not knowing or being in touch with myself at a given moment.”
Diebenkorn seems not to have favored any particular brand of sketchbook, so the collection ranges in format and style and includes a broad assortment of spiral and perfect-bound pads spanning fifty years of his life, up to and including his very last. The covers of these sketchbooks reveal decades-old masking tape, nobly gripping at well-worn bindings. There are splatters, smudges, and faded spots from years of studio and sun exposure. Tucked inside some of the books are scraps of ephemera—torn newspaper clippings, inspirational photographs, and postcards. The sketchbook pages themselves overflow with figure drawings, studies for landscapes, early watercolor compositions for future Ocean Park paintings, and many movingly intimate portraits of his wife. Collectively, these sketchbooks reconfirm Diebenkorn’s mastery of figuration as well as pure abstraction and give unique access to the process and daily inspiration of an enormously prolific mind.