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. 

Charlotte Strick