Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting

Richard Diebenkorn's studio notes

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.

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

5. Don’t “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.

Rolf Nelson

A Dealer's Collection

Rolf Nelson at the Rolf Nelson Gallery, ca. 1964–66. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Rolf G. Nelson, 2010.M.38. Image courtesy Jerry McMillan and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica. © Jerry McMillan

In the mid-1950s when Abstract Expressionism began to give way to Minimalism, Rolf Nelson was there. A resident of Coenties Slip, a rundown seaport turned art colony at the lower tip of Manhattan, Nelson became friendly with fellow inhabitants Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and Agnes Martin. The cheap rent, large loft spaces and views of the East River made the Slip an attractive locale for artists, writers, and the budding gallerist. In the late 1950s, Nelson was hired by Martha Jackson Gallery and cut his teeth in the contemporary art world alongside Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow. In 1962 he moved across the country to set up the Los Angeles branch of San Francisco Dilexi Gallery, and opened his eponymous gallery on La Cienega Boulevard just one year later. 

Nelson’s impact on the art world still resonates today, and his albeit brief time spent on the West Coast helped launch the careers of many visionary artists.

Nelson quickly established himself as a central figure in the vibrant Southern California art scene, exhibiting both emerging and established artists including Llyn Foulkes, George Herms, Irving Petlin, Robert Indiana, Ron Nagle and H.C. Westermann. In 1965 Nelson hosted the first solo show of Midwestern artist Judy Gerowitz, dubbing her Judy Chicago because of her thick accent. The same year, David Hockney started a portrait of the gallerist (completed in 1968 and published in 1975), a lithograph with pink hand-colored cheeks. The Rolf Nelson Gallery was short-lived however, and in 1966 Nelson moved back to New York to work as a private dealer. Before closing, he held a single-painting exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s masterpiece Sky Above Clouds IV, now at the Art Institute of Chicago. Nelson’s impact on the art world still resonates today, and his albeit brief time spent on the West Coast helped launch the careers of many visionary artists.

The selection offered here comes from Rolf Nelson's personal collection and is comprised of works he admired and gifts from artists he represented, but also called friends.

Works from the Collection of Rolf Nelson

Richard Diebenkorn

Rising to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, Richard Diebenkorn shaped an evocative style of post-war abstraction widely celebrated for its lyrical quality. A founding member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Diebenkorn explored the spaces between figuration and abstraction to great effect, creating distinct and critically lauded series initially inspired by epiphanic glimpses of aerial views of surrounding landscapes.

Born in Portland, Oregon, Diebenkorn’s family relocated to San Francisco when the artist was two years old, and he would spend the majority of his life in California. He began drawing at the age of four or five, and studied art at Stanford University beginning in 1940. In 1943, he enlisted as a Marine and served until the end of World War II. Upon completing his military service, Diebenkorn used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the California School of Fine Arts, where he would soon become a faculty member teaching alongside Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Hassel Smith, and Clyfford Still.

Diebenkorn’s first solo exhibition with a commercial gallery was in 1952, at Paul Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles. He went on teaching and creating work, crossing back and forth between strict abstraction and more representational styles. In 1966, Diebenkorn and his wife Phyllis moved to Santa Monica, California, and he took a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1967, he began his most famous series of paintings, the Ocean Park series, which comprised roughly 135 large-scale abstract works painted over an 18-year period.

Diebenkorn retired from UCLA in 1973, eventually settling in Northern California with his wife in 1988. Today, his works are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, among others.

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