Finding Diebenkorn’s Underpainting
Katherine Van Kirk experiences galleries a little differently than your typical art museum frequenter. When she takes in a piece, her eyes are drawn to that patch of acrylic thicker than the rest of the paint, that unrelated fleck of color peeking through a crack line, that odd bit of texture mismatched with the natural flow of brush strokes. These details, so often overlooked, prompt Van Kirk to wonder if the work is hiding secrets underneath its surface.
Van Kirk’s affinity for art originates from an early age roving through art museums with her family on weekends and playing with paint on the floor of her grandmother’s studio, “probably getting paint where I shouldn’t have gotten paint, but smearing it all around and having a lot of fun in that space,” she adds. But her uncommon perspective first emerged when she learned that Picasso had painted over some of his older works. “It meant there were these hidden paintings hiding in plain sight,” she shares. Intrigued, she determined to hunt down her own underpainting.
As a physics engineering undergrad at Stanford University, Van Kirk believed she could accomplish her mission by leveraging her studies. Her choice of major emerged from her other two passions: a desire to challenge her mind and a thirst to understand the way the world works. “I love it when I read a question and I don’t know the answer,” she smiles. “When I’m doing physics, a lot of times I have to read the question two or three times before I actually understand what’s going on.”
Then Van Kirk found out about the Art+Science Learning Lab Chen-Yang fellowship at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. The intersection of two of her favorite subjects made it the ideal outlet. When the program heard about Van Kirk’s desire to uncover an underpainting, they expressed support but also impressed on her the rarity of making such a discovery, wanting her to come in with realistic expectations.
Eager to begin her search, Van Kirk stepped into the campus art museum wielding a digital camera modified to be sensitive to the infrared part of the spectrum. “I asked myself,” she recalls, “ ‘OK, what are the most famous and well-known works in the Cantor’s collection?’ Because, of course, you have to image those first.” The first painting revealed nothing, but on the second, she struck gold.
The painting in question, Window, by contemporary artist and Stanford alumnus Richard Diebenkorn, depicts a cityscape view from the artist’s studio. Van Kirk’s camera revealed details that didn’t belong. “I saw a pair of glasses in the middle of all these buildings,” she laughs. “That didn’t make any sense.” She also identified a phantom candelabra floating in the background. Beneath Window’s top layer of paint, Van Kirk had discovered a still life. “I’m not really sure what happened the rest of the day, because I was so incredibly excited that we’d found something that no one knew was there,” she admits.
After her initial discovery, Van Kirk couldn’t simply pluck Window off the gallery wall and whisk it away to the lab for further research. The director of the Art+Science Learning Lab, Susan Roberts-Manganelli, advised her to find a well-known, well-loved painting to fill that empty space by flipping through Cantor’s catalogue of contemporary paintings and suggesting 10 possible replacement works to the contemporary curator. “She’s taught me how to get things done,” Van Kirk says of Roberts-Manganelli, “how to be persistent, how to push forward with what you’re trying to do while also being respectful of everybody else’s needs.” In other words, she’s well-versed in the art of “helping other people understand that they want the same thing that you want.”
After receiving permission to take Window to the lab—a facility beneath the Cantor’s galleries, accessed by way of a labyrinth of underground white corridors and a series of card scans—Van Kirk and the Art+Science Learning Lab began seeking a tech upgrade. Their answer came in the form of the Osiris camera, provided by the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. It allowed them to penetrate the thicker layers of paint and expose a third layer: a drawing of a female nude. Further research revealed a striking resemblance to work in Diebenkorn’s earlier sketchbooks.
Beyond surface level, this series of layers holds deeper meaning—they are a visually striking representation of Diebenkorn’s journey, capturing each stage of this artist’s evolution. “You’re seeing him transition,” Van Kirk notes. The female nude sketch reflects his time as a key figure in the Bay Area figurative movement early in his career. The candelabra and glasses hail from the following period as he dabbled in still lifes, and the abstract depiction of the cityscape depicts his progression toward abstract expressionism.
There’s even significance in the chair depicted in the final painting. Initially, it was turned facing into the studio, drawing the viewer’s attention to the present space. “However, when he was reworking the final composition, Diebenkorn decided to turn it facing the land, the cityscape, which then inspired the next series of paintings he did, the Ocean Park series,” Van Kirk says. “So every single part of it plays into the storyline where he starts at the figurative and then ends at the abstractive.”
There are a variety of reasons an artist might choose to paint over a sketch or previous composition. “Whatever it may be, the artist chose to cover it up. The artist chose for the world not to see it. It’s an interesting line that we’re playing with, because the artist didn’t mean for it to be seen,” she muses. “At the same time, when you are able to pull back these layers, you get a window into the artist’s past and the artist’s process of coming up with this final piece…you get to actually be with the artist in the studio and see what he’s working through at different moments in time.”
Van Kirk’s own process is currently on display. Her interactive exhibition, Through Diebenkorn’s Window: Transitions in Time, will be featured at the Cantor from April through August. “Play detective yourself as you walk around the gallery,” she invites museumgoers. Visitors will experience Van Kirk’s discoveries themselves by bringing up an infrared image of the artwork and clicking through objects from the different layers. They’ll also have the opportunity to look through sketchbooks with relevant pages as well as view some of the paintings that came before and after Window in order to truly experience his transitions.
The next step in Van Kirk’s own personal journey? “I tend to live by the mantra of ‘live a great story,’ ” she says, before then emphasizing a desire to continue applying that mantra beyond Stanford and an excitement to see where she’ll find herself next. “I think this research has taught me that everything is a process, everything is transitioning and to go with it, because you don’t know where it is going to take you. Change is OK…because look what Diebenkorn came up with in the end!” Like Window’s layers, Van Kirk realizes life doesn’t remain the same, and it’s precisely the ever-changing nature of those phases that creates a satisfying whole.
Written by Johanna Hickle
Vidoegraphy by Tabrizi Productions
This article originally appeared in Issue 10.3 “Profiles”
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