In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — the federal agency that manages water in the West — commissioned over 30 artists to make work inspired by Bureau projects such as dams, power plants, wildlife refuges and canals. Artists such as Ralston Crawford, Allan D’Arcangelo and Richard Diebenkorn all journeyed West to make something informed by the Bureau’s impact on the Western landscape.
For the first time, five of the works Diebenkorn made as part of the project have surfaced at an American art museum: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has quietly begun a two-part hang of all eight works Diebenkorn made for the Bureau in 1970. (Despite the mini-discovery, the museum has not publicized the installations. Three of the works were exhibited at the National Gallery and at other museums in 1972-73.) Lower Colorado #1 (below), Lower Colorado #4 and Lower Colorado #7 (above) are on view now, with the other five paintings to be featured once those three rotate out of the museum’s galleries.
The three paintings on view now show Diebenkorn approaching the peak of his powers, mixing color in geometry in ways that would soon lead to the best of his Ocean Park paintings. Each acrylic-on-paper is small — between 23 1/2-by-17 1/2 inches and 29-by-23 inches — but each is so deeply colorful that it seems larger.
To make the works Diebenkorn traveled to the Lower Colorado River Basin and to the Salt River in eastern Arizona, where he studied the landscape from both high mesas and from a helicopter. (Diebenkorn’s study of the Arizona landscape recalls his World War II experience in the Marines, for whom he served as a mapmaker.) Diebenkorn’s Arizona trip came almost three years after he started his Ocean Park paintings and these works are plainly informed by the geometries and spaces Diebenkorn was concurrently exploring in his Santa Monica studio.
However, the Reclamation paintings are different from Diebenkorn’s 1969-70 Ocean Park canvases in a key way: They’re much more vibrant, even brilliant. Compare the paintings on view at the Hirshhorn with Ocean Park #22 (1969) at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Ocean Park #24 (1969) at the Yale University Art Gallery, Ocean Park #27 (1970) at the Brooklyn Museum, Ocean Park #36 (1970) at the Orange County Museum of Art, a 1970 drawing in MoMA’s collection, and Ocean Park #41 (1971) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Those (mostly) Ocean Park paintings feature geometry that is every bit as hard or acute as the Bureau of Reclamation paintings, but the paintings informed by the desert feature strikingly different colors.
The deep blue that radiates from Lower Colorado No. 7 seems right out of Diebenkorn’s mid-1960s palette, a period during which Diebenkorn was at the height of his engagement with Matisse, particularly the Matisses he’d seen in 1964-65 while traveling through Europe and the Soviet Union. Like many painters who abstracted from landscape, Diebenkorn liked to say that viewers read too much land or water into his paintings. (For that matter, he frequently said that he was too often linked with Matisse, but c’mon…)
These eight works, so easily linked to a specific landscape by virtue of the works’ origin and commissioner, reveal how much Diebenkorn owed to landscape, especially when it came to color. The blue in No. 7 — a color almost certainly inspired by water, which the Bureau of Reclamation was in charge of moving and using — is in all seven Lower Colorado works, typically surrounded by colors that are easy to read as landscape. No. 2 (above, right), not yet on view at the Hirshhorn, features desert browns, a green square that reads as an irrigated field and only a very thin strip of blue.
(All works shown here are in the collection of the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. Special thanks to the Hirshhorn and to Lee Stalsworth for photographing them at my request.)