first published in Medium, December 13, 2020 & February 22, 2021
Guy Diehl, Forging an Art Life
(Parts One & Two)
A biography of minimalist still life artist Guy Diehl, covering his early days in Pennsylvania and the development of his art career in California. Part Two covers the period after Diehl received his Master of Arts degree from San Francisco State in 1976 to the present.
By Matt Gonzalez
Guy Diehl is an important contemporary still life artist whose biography is not well known, given Diehl reticence to talk about himself. This essay explores aspects of his story not previously known and includes a plethora of images that help to contextualize his career. Diehl is best known as a realist painter who studied with important first-generation Pop and photorealist artists such as Mel Ramos, Richard McLean, and Robert Bechtle. His significance as a major artist in his own right, who has exhibited in Bay Area galleries for over 40 years, and is included in numerous public collections, is evident and underscores the need to amplify the information available about his life and career.
The Early Days — Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania
Guy Diehl’s elegant and carefully composed contemporary paintings disguise the tensions and challenges that he first confronted at the start of his art career. In many respects, it can be said that Diehl’s path as a professional artist was compelled by uncertainty. This began with his family’s belief that his dyslexia would keep him from finding a job that could provide for his needs in adulthood. Additionally, there was personal apprehension that he would be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, a feeling many of his friends shared, which buttressed the reasons to stay in college and secure a draft deferment. While distinct, the two concerns worked to strengthen Diehl’s focus as he learned to render subjects with deft realism. His skill at drawing was the one thing that he fully embraced, and that would extend as a thread, through his formative years.
Guy Louis Diehl was born in 1949 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and grew up in Sharpsburg, just 20 minutes north, in the Western part of the State. He began to manifest difficulty reading at an early age, something that has persisted to this day, albeit with far less intensity. Although more accepted today, in the 1950s, being the only child in a working-class family, his parents struggled to come to terms with Diehl’s learning difference. Although they arranged for Diehl to have phonics tutors and teaching aids, his parents exhibited frustration that their only child was not destined for a future filled with words in what they imagined would be a professional occupation. What Diehl lacked in reading comprehension, however, he eventually made up for in art aptitude. Diehl found his expression in drawing, and he soon learned that he had a talent for it.
When he was eight years old, Diehl recalls drawing in his family’s living room while his father and grandfather watched Friday night boxing on television. Diehl was trying to copy an image of a paddle-wheel steamboat he had found in a National Geographic magazine. All of a sudden, as he used a ruler, pencil, and crayon, elements of formal perspective fell into place. Diehl knew he had discovered something special. He had rendered a three-dimensional illusion onto a two-dimensional surface. The epiphany changed how he would interpret the world around him. Today, the drawing, once in his grandfather’s barbershop, hangs among the paintings in Diehl’s own art collection at his home in Marin County. It’s a reminder of how that moment has shaped his life.
Even earlier, Diehl already professed interest in art. In kindergarten, at the age of five, Diehl’s mother noticed that he was particularly fond of the color purple, manifested in part by his affinity for drinking grape juice. One school art assignment, which he proudly brought home, demonstrated this interest: he painted a glass bear container, that likely once held honey or juice, bright purple with gold accents.
At age six, Guy was intrigued with two religious paintings hanging in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where he attended parochial school. Each morning at mass, before class, his eyes would be drawn to the sheer realism rendered in the scenes that flanked either side of the altar. When his mother explained that someone had painted them with oil paints, the young Diehl was captivated; he wondered how it was possible to make it look so real.
Diehl was held back in the first grade and found solace in art, which increasingly became a private escape. Diehl’s dyslexia didn’t invert letters when he read, or see them reversed or upside down; rather, he would anticipate the next words incorrectly, thus causing a kind of alphabetic traffic jam. His mind would substitute what he thought the next word was going to be, often incorrectly. Interestingly, the phenomena of “filling in” is a staple of good vision, where our minds populate our visual field, in effect generating most of it from memory and other sensory experiences. In the case of reading however, Diehl experienced that this tendency could block reading rather than enhance it.
Just shortly after completing his steamboat drawing in 1957, his parents took him to see a large-scale 28 x 28 foot mobile sculpture, by Philadelphia native Alexander Calder, that was installed at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. U.S. Steel, headquartered in that region, had fabricated the aluminum and iron metal used and commissioned Calder to make the large-scale sculpture to coincide with the 1958 Carnegie International exhibition at the museum. The episode was a major event for the region, which took pride in having an important artist assemble modern art in their community. As a result, Diehl was taken to a museum for his first time. While his father took particular note in the construction aspects of the sculpture, the younger Diehl was engrossed in all the art he was able to glimpse. This included the Calder, but his attention was particularly drawn to a row of small collages that hung along one corridor. For the first time, Diehl was exposed not just to art, but also the way a community relates to it.
Diehl recalls the 1950s Draw Me advertising campaign series that appeared on the Strike Diamond brand matchbook covers. Aspiring artists were encouraged to mail in their copies of the image depicted on the matchbook, to get feedback and qualify to enroll into an art program. While Diehl didn’t mail in any drawings, on at least one occasion, he tried his hand at the exercise.
As he advanced through grade school, Diehl increasingly played to his strength. He would compose boyhood fantasies from model planes and battleships (that a teenage neighbor had gifted him, before enlisting to serve in the Korean conflict), then would render them with graphite pencil. These self-imposed exercises depicting airplanes, naval destroyers, and submarines, emphasized realism and gained compliments from friends and family.
Diehl also followed a step-by-step drawing show that appeared on television, hosted by Jon Gnagy. The weekly NBC program was the first of its kind in the United States and was a seminal influence on the young Diehl. His parents bought him the accompanying drawing set which came with charcoal, pencil, white chalk, and an explanatory lesson book. While they still doubted that art could make a dependable livelihood, his parents didn’t seek to curtail his art interests. Diehl used these materials to follow Gnagy’s broadcasted lessons, which also included techniques in perspective, which augmented what he had already learned on his own.
These various experiences convey Diehl’s commitment to pursuing an art education, even if he orchestrated it himself. Diehl never passed up an opportunity to expand his knowledge about drawing. The accolades he received for his illustrations encouraged him and served as a counterbalance to his reading hardships.
In 1960, when Diehl was eleven years old, his father accepted a job in California, to work at General Electric’s plant in Oakland. At the time, the senior Diehl was working for the Snyder Electric Company, a small shop that repaired electric motors and small generators. Rewinding light industry motors were the typical job assignments, but the senior Diehl excelled at math and science. As a young man, he had been forced to relinquish a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University, located in Pittsburgh, because of the financial hardships caused by the Great Depression. Instead of attending college, he worked in his father’s barbershop cutting hair to help support the family. Now, with a family to care for, Diehl’s father answered an advertisement in the Pittsburgh Press looking for skilled electrical engineers, willing to relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area. He was interviewed and thereafter promptly hired by the G.E. manager who recognized his talent.
Clayton Valley High School — James Enemark
The decision to move his family to the West Coast was a bold decision, given that they had no friends or family connections there. It would prove to be fortunate for the young Diehl, who could better avail himself of the training he needed to be a professional artist. This started with shop classes as a freshman at Pleasant Hill High School, where he learned the fundamentals of metal and woodworking. It would become most evident in the art instruction he received from his teacher James Enemark, after his family moved to Concord and he began attending Clayton Valley High, in the second semester of his freshman year. In Concord, the Diehl family lived in a mid-century modern Eichler home, which also imparted practical architectural ideas to Diehl.
Jim Enemark was best known for his watercolors. A member of both the American Watercolor Society and California Watercolor Association, Enemark was well versed in technique and a favorite teacher of many students. Diehl’s natural talent was augmented by instruction in composition and technique. For instance, Diehl recalls Enemark teaching him not to use white paint in a watercolor, but rather to let the white of the paper reveal the highlighting he wanted to render. While a basic lesson, it is one that has remained with Diehl throughout his life.
Enemark utilized a number of different class assignments to instill the importance of drawing from life to students. He would have them pair off and draw portraits of one another, in other cases, they would select objects from a prop shelf he maintained in his classroom to draw. The objects Diehl rendered include a sports trophy, brace and bit (hand-drill), and a folding box camera. In one assignment, Diehl’s drawing of an empty cologne bottle shows an early fascination with rendering glass and reflective objects. The decision of how much detail to include, plus the challenges conveying refractive elements of glass, are already present in this early exercise.
Enemark also used the copying of another artist’s work as a teaching tool. In one such assignment, Diehl rendered a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s red chalk, three quarter view, self-portrait. In Diehl’s copy, one can see Enemark’s playful comment, written in pencil in the lower right of the drawing, “your father?” The results of these daily pencil drawing assignments, and others like them, would be rendered in a student’s sketchbook which would regularly be turned in to Enemark for review.
Additionally, Enemark challenged students to work in a variety of media. In one assignment, students were asked to collage with colored tissue paper. Diehl chose to add pen and ink elements to his, as did some other students, thus introducing them to mixed-media.
Enemark was friendly toward students. It was common for him to engage them about popular television programs which fostered camaraderie among the class. Though obviously older than the students, these discussions helped break hierarchical barriers. Diehl recalls that Enemark would walk into a class and ask “Who watched The Man from U.N.C.L.E. last night? referencing the popular 1960s spy themed television program starting actors Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. Or he’d say “Did you see the latest episode of I Spy?” which stared Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. The kids loved that Enemark genuinely wanted to engage their interests outside of the classroom.
Diehl’s other art class was dedicated to making jewelry and experimenting with leather-crafting and other multimedia. Diehl was assigned to make a hanging mobile after reviewing photographs of Alexander Calder’s work from various book images. Diehl’s sketchbooks of the period, show his utilization of preparatory drawings for his three-dimensional sculpture. The exercise served to remind Diehl of his youthful encounter with Calder’s work at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which in some respects gave him an advantage over other students who hadn’t ever seen a Calder in-person, and brought back memories of his early experience with fine art.
In 1966, Enemark selected Diehl for inclusion in a group show, along with about a dozen other Clayton Valley High School students, as part of a Mount Diablo Unified School District exhibition. Students, from kindergarten through high school, were invited to showcase their work alongside that of students from other local schools. The exhibition was held in an enclosed corridor at a local shopping center, located on Monument Boulevard in Pleasant Hill, between Montgomery Ward department store and Century Movie Theater. Diehl proudly showed one of his watercolors which depicted a rural landscape. The experience, his earliest formal opportunity to exhibit his work, ended with disappointment as Diehl’s watercolor was stolen from the exhibition. Regardless, Diehl was enriched by his first opportunity to present his work and the positive feedback he received.
Diehl found other like-minded young men of his age, who were also fully committed to making art, and who used their graphic skills to make posters for school dances and local events. According to an article from that period, “Poster Making Business Here,” published in the Clayton Valley High School newspaper, The Talon, they called themselves The Print Project and promoted a business making psychedelic posters. Alan Kikuchi led the group which included “his acid aids” Diehl, Steve Hamm, Dave Harvey, and Paul Vaughn. Enemark was supportive of the student’s efforts believing this art making related to “the students’ awareness of life.” He said “We are trying to get the students interested in things, not just art.”
One 24 x 18 inch poster that Diehl silkscreened in collaboration with Kikuchi, promoted a music event at Redman’s Roller Rink in Fairfield, California. It caused quite a stir in 1967, after it was disseminated throughout the school and some parts of town. It was during the early days of the Vietnam War, and the pair had populated the poster with peace signs, mushrooms, and a hookah-smoking caterpillar (influenced by Alice in Wonderland) in the psychedelic style of the then-popular San Francisco Fillmore poster artists. Diehl and Kikuchi were a bit lax in concealing their youthful interests, as they also rendered five-fingered marijuana leaves on either side of the composition.
Some parents who saw the design complained to the local school board, whose administrative building had displayed the poster on its bulletin wall. The California Committee for Better Schools also lodged a protest raising concerns about “such words as ‘trip,’ appearing on the posters, [and] the questionable taste of exhibiting a worm enjoying a ‘hookah pipe’ as it reclines on a mushroom.” The incident resulted in a story being published on April 25, 1967, in the local Mount Diablo newspaper, The Daily Transcript, which reproduced the student poster side-by-side an illustration from Alice in Wonderland. The paper’s unnamed writer obviously had fun with the story “Alice Takes A ‘Trip’” quoting the students as saying “the hippily-worded posters are being used to advertise their dramatic productions, and any reference to ‘travel agents’ is purely coincidental.”
The young men were apparently influenced by the 1967 Jefferson Airplane album, Surrealistic Pillow, which included the track “White Rabbit”. The song is about curiosity and is credited with being the first of its kind to sneak drug references by the censors on mainstream AM radio. The closing lyric “feed your head, feed your head” was a call to experiment and engage in independent thinking, something one would hope the Mt. Diablo School Board would have supported.
According to an article “’Hippie’ Posters Pass Inspection”, in The Daily Transcript, which appeared May 10, 1967, the California Committee for Better Schools (CCBS) presented objections to Diehl and Kikuchi’s posters at a meeting of the Mount Diablo Unified School District Board. The article, by an unnamed staff writer, noted: “The contention of the Mt. Diablo Unit of CCBS was that the influence of these posters, containing ‘symbols’ of drugs and ‘Communist front’ peace organizations, would lead local students into illegal and immoral behavior.” A representative of the CCBS went so far as to say that allowing the dissemination of such posters “condoned explorations of youth in the field of erotica and tempted them to go further.” The superintendent of schools, Dr. James Merrihew, defended the poster, saying “as an ex-farmer” the so-called marijuana leaves depicted on the poster “might well be oats or any other vegetation.” He stated unequivocally that “linking the posters to dope addiction was ‘purely ridiculous.’” Fortunately for Diehl, Kikuchi, and The Print Project, the school board members “indicated they believe there are no deleterious effects in so-called ‘psychedelic posters.’”
The fallout from the poster protests didn’t have negative repercussions for Diehl or his co-designer, other than resulting in the removal of the poster and the requirement, that henceforth, posters produced by The Print Project would have to be approved by an art department teacher before being disseminated. Most importantly, however, the poster controversy left Diehl with a sense that art could affect people in ways he hadn’t thought about previously.
As Diehl prepared to graduate from high school, he had a sense of foreboding that he might not return, if drafted. He was surrounded by many young men who had misgivings about the war. Some were opposed to American foreign policy for political reasons, others didn’t like the direct and sudden impact it was having on their young lives. They simply didn’t understand why the government wanted to send them to Vietnam. The often-repeated anti-communist rhetoric wasn’t convincing them. In Diehl’s case, it compelled him to seek a deferment because of the very personal premonition he was having. It was that simple; his efforts in seeking a deferment were not meant as an affront to those that did serve, but he wasn’t in favor of the war either.
Continuing with school seemed to be his best bet to avoid the already-apparent carnage of the war. In 1968, Diehl enrolled in Diablo Valley College, thus qualifying him for an educational deferment from the draft. There he studied general education and beginning painting classes with Edward Higgins, who gave Diehl his first serious fine art instruction. Higgins would later encourage him to continue his studies with first generation Pop artist Mel Ramos, who was teaching at California State University, Hayward.
Diehl had an old wrist injury caused by a fall in a karate class, at age thirteen. His left wrist had broken and thereafter set awkwardly while healing. This would later qualify him for a 4F deferment, thanks to the father of a schoolmate, who was a doctor and attested to the wrist’s lack of military usefulness. Obtaining a deferment wasn’t assured, even with this medical assessment. Diehl recalls the anxiety he felt upon receiving his draft notice, which was amplified as he traveled with a busload of possible draftees from Martinez to the Oakland induction center, where his military physical was conducted. Letters from two doctors in hand, along with an X-ray of his wrist, Diehl was relieved to receive word that he was deemed physically unfit to go to war. He could now set aside his worries.
Dedicating himself to school to avoid the draft wasn’t the only reason he went to college, of course, but it was the reason he never doubted the decision to remain in school. Since art was what he excelled at, the war assisted in keeping him focused on what he already believed was his life’s calling. The gradual acceptance by his family that Diehl would attempt to make it as an artist still posed challenges. His family would have to further relinquish their expectation that he would be a commercial artist working as an illustrator or graphic designer. His college and university instructors were steeped in the fine art trends of the day and Diehl followed their lead.
It would be many years later, around 1980, that Diehl’s acceptance of himself was finally realized. He permitted himself to say, “It’s okay to be dyslexic and, it’s okay to be an artist.” Seemingly simple enough, Diehl credits his youthful skill and determination in making this personal declaration possible.
Diablo Valley College — Ed Higgins
In 1967, after graduating from high school, Diehl enrolled at Diablo Valley College (DVC), a community college in Pleasant Hill. The period of study was typically two-years, although Diehl extended his time there both because of the strength of the art department and because of his dyslexia, which he was able to manage by spreading out the required curriculum over various semesters.
Prior to starting college, and during the summers between school years, Diehl had a variety of jobs. He worked at a Chevron gas station at 40th and San Pablo Streets in Emeryville, that serviced big rigs. There, he pumped diesel, cleaned windows, and checked tire pressure. He also worked as a service department shop boy for the Lee Bowman Volkswagen-Porsche dealership in Concord. He ran errands, such as picking up parts or otherwise assisting the mechanics. Being around cars only contributed to his fascination with the automobile, which most young men experience at this age. This would later manifest itself in various car and engine paintings he completed, predating the pool series, which would comprise his first mature group of paintings.
In 1968, for six months, Diehl also worked as a delivery boy for The Chinese Kitchen, a restaurant in Concord. Diehl used his own car for drop-offs and was paid minimum-wage plus the tips he received while making deliveries. He worked a four-hour shift from 5–9 p.m. Years later, during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Diehl painted a series of “take-out only” paintings depicting the white folded paperboard containers most take-out Chinese food gets delivered in (sometimes referred to as an oyster pail); it’s an ironic link to his past as a delivery boy.
At DVC, Diehl enrolled in general education requirements but was still coping with his dyslexia. Reviewing his transcripts from that period, Diehl struggled in his first semesters receiving failing grades in both Advertising and General Humanities; and barely passed classes including 20th Century History, American History, Ecology, and Ancient Art. However, these difficulties don’t tell the whole story. Through his determination, as he progressed in school, he managed to receive “B” grades in English, U.S. History, and Film Criticism; and an “A” in Contemporary Art History, and Social Science Fieldwork.
Whenever possible, Diehl embraced the art career he envisioned for himself. He immersed himself in the various art offerings the college included in its curriculum where he received “A” grades in classes such as Basic Design, Figure Drawing, Elementary Painting, Photography, Photo Workshop, and in Art Projects. Diehl spread out the courses with heavy reading and writing assignments to avoid problems with his dyslexia. Diehl also received an “A’ in a badminton class, helping to satisfy his physical education requirement. In the Spring of 1970, at least for a single semester, Diehl managed to make it onto the Dean’s Honor List.
Diablo Valley College was about six miles from his home in Concord. The art department occupied an old army barracks building that had been physically relocated to the school campus. The converted barracks included offices and studio space for the art students. There, Diehl worked with Ed Higgins, who was one of three painting instructors at the school, including Norman Stiegelmeyer and Gerald Gooch.
Higgins’ Painting 101 class fit with his schedule and Diehl was eager to take the class given Higgins’ reputation as a committed teacher. The class itself, which met twice a week for three-hour sessions, included about 15 to 20 students, each provided with a painting easel. The class included both lectures and studio instruction. The latter involved drawing and painting exercises utilizing live nude models arranged through the San Francisco and Oakland Modeling Guild.
Higgins was associated with a group of artists based in Sacramento and Davis, including his friends Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, and Roy De Forest. At the time Diehl studied with him, Higgins was in his mid-30s, had a large mustache, long hair which was slightly grey, wore Western shirts, and projected a larger than life quality as he commanded the classroom. He had a congenial personality but expected students to attend class. He gave students freedom; yet was demanding with individual critiques of each painting assignment. His lectures, which preceded his assignments, would entail the viewing and discussion of reference paintings, via 35mm slides, so that students could properly contextualize assignments. It was a method Diehl would use years later when he started teaching art.
Among Higgins’ painting assignments for the class was to view a Wayne Thiebaud solo exhibition at the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery (now the Crocker Art Museum, in Sacramento) and make a painting influenced by what they encountered. Diehl painted Four Beets (acrylic on canvas, 14 x 16 inches, 1969/70) which utilized, with Higgins’ encouragement, Thiebaud’s blue shadows and horizontal dividing plane. It would be an early lesson in composition and evoke the subtlety of still life. Importantly, the assignment brought Diehl in contact with paintings by the already acclaimed Thiebaud, who would influence him throughout his career.
Another exercise that Higgins gave his class related to the importance of learning how to render the figure. He instructed Diehl to look at Amedeo Modigliani’s work and to consider what could be achieved with less. At the time, Diehl was steeped in studying the classical painters because he was interested in attaining as much visual accuracy in his work as possible. Diehl visited the library and looked through monographs of Modigliani’s work. “I wasn’t ready for it” he would later recall, yet it was an early effort by Higgins to expose his student to 20th Century modern art. Prior to attending DVC, Diehl’s art history knowledge was limited to such prominent artist as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Norman Rockwell, and the aforementioned Alexander Calder. Over the years, Higgins’ lesson materialized; Modigliani would figure into Diehl’s own art-about-art still life paintings beginning in the mid-1980s. He’s referenced the Italian painter over a dozen times in these carefully crafted compositions. Diehl views Paul Cézanne and Modigliani as anchor points of the Modernist period. “I go back to them like they are fundamental building blocks. Modernism drives my spirit” he says.
In addition to Higgins’ class, Diehl studied drawing with Norman Stiegelmeyer, who taught an evening figure drawing class, also utilizing live models. Furthermore, Diehl studied basic design, ceramics, sculpture (including metal sculpture and casting), and photography while at DVC.
For a couple of semesters, Diehl considered becoming a photographer as he captured images and enjoyed developing and printing photographs as part of class assignments. In addition to using the photos that he took as source images for his paintings, he was drawn to the photographic process itself. Eventually, however, he relinquished the idea, because he loved painting and the new Photorealism movement was being lauded as fine art and Diehl wanted the prestige that working within the medium seemed to offer. As a result, Diehl continued to take courses taught by Ed Higgins, his seminal teaching influence at DVC.
At the time, Abstract Expressionism was still popular, and Higgins was then painting in a surrealist manner. However, Photorealism was making inroads, and had just been featured in a magazine cover article in Art in America in 1968. Diehl found the space he needed to explore realism, which was possible given the emphasis on figuration all students were expected to learn at DVC. Importantly, Higgins didn’t expect students to emulate his style, but rather to acquire the skills to work through problems a composition might pose.
Higgins encouraged everyone to learn from one another, even the students they may not think they had anything in common with. He believed drawing was important and often critiqued proportions and compositional choices. He wanted to know what students learned from an assignment, but also questioned what else they might have learned had they been more focused. Importantly, he would try and solve compositional problems with students while they were still working on their paintings thus giving them the tools to work through these issues when painting alone.
On one occasion, Diehl recalls Higgins making a comment that stuck with him. Higgins said simply “If you paint a Coke can, it’s not a Coke can. It’s an illusion. It’s not real.” While obvious, it served to underscore that the painter’s purpose was to use paints to make someone believe what they were looking at. Whether he was questioning Diehl’s effort at precision of detail or simply making a rhetorical point, for Diehl it would be a recurring lesson. In later years, Diehl would refer to this as being able to paint what is necessary to be convincing, or believable. But in this early lesson, it was posited as if no matter how good you make it, it’s still a two-dimensional representation.
Although Diehl made some paintings in oil, he quickly transitioned to using acrylic at the suggestion of Alan Kikuchi, his high school poster collaborator who was also attending DVC. At the time, acrylic paints cost less than oils, which fit into Diehl’s budget; plus, they didn’t emit volatile solvents. However, some artists were reluctant to use acrylics because of problems with the texture and color. Commercially available acrylics first emerged in the mid-1950s, when the Politec Acrylic Artists’ Colors and Liquitex brands were developed from earlier synthetic paint discoveries. By the late 1960s, high-viscosity versions were available with greater pigment concentrations such that artists were able to manipulate the new physical characteristics of the medium to compete with oils. Diehl believed the quick drying time of acrylic was both the best and worst thing about using them. Although the paints are water soluble, once they dry, they become fixed and its properties cannot be reactivated or dissolved using water. As a result, Diehl made adjustments in his painting practice, losing the wet-on-wet application oil paints are known for, but developing techniques that worked within the new medium.
Around 1969, Diehl recalls a first time visit with Kikuchi and other friends to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see a show of contemporary art, focused on art from the 1960s. Ed Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge’38 (an assemblage sculpture of a couple in the back of a dimly lit car which included beer bottles, chicken wire, and recorded music and player) stood out to Diehl; along with a target painting with sculptural elements by Jasper Johns; and Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram sculpture (of a goat with a rubber tire around its midsection). Looking at this work, elevated to museum worthy status, gave Diehl an immediately positive yet puzzling feeling. He knew, somehow, he needed to be a part of it.
Diehl studied Contemporary Art History with sculptor David King in a course which covered the period from World War II to the present (which was then 1968). The class covered Abstract Expressionism, including Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko; as well as the Pop Art movement; and Photorealism, which had emerged in the early 1960s.
In 1970, King arranged to have his friend Wayne Thiebaud visit DVC and give a lecture. Thiebaud was living in Sacramento and teaching at University of California, Davis at the time; he was 50 years old. Diehl recalls that the 200-seat lecture hall was filled to capacity. Afterward, Thiebaud took a tour of the art department and walked through the art studios, where a young Diehl was photographed with the elder Thiebaud, along with some other students and instructors. Thiebaud enjoyed being an art star, as is apparent from the photograph taken that day, yet for Diehl who was 21 years old, Thiebaud represented an example of how quickly someone’s fortune could change in the art world. Thiebaud’s Allan Stone Gallery exhibition in New York City, seven years earlier, had already catapulted him to fame.
By the time he was graduating, Diehl wanted to study at U.C. Davis because he believed it was the leading art department within the U.C. system. and that was also where Thiebaud was a professor. However, he was not accepted into their B.A. program. With hindsight, given Diehl’s likely cumulative grade point average, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Diehl had difficulty being admitted into U.C. Davis. It likely wasn’t a repudiation of his skills as a painter as much as a commentary on how his dyslexia was impeding the development of academic skills, something Diehl never spoke openly about. King and Higgins would both encourage him to consider California State University, Hayward, where Thiebaud’s protégé Mel Ramos was a painting instructor. Diehl already was emulating Ramos in many respects, so it was a natural fit. By 1969, Diehl had made a series of paintings exploring popular imagery from magazine advertisements and also had become adept at realism, as seen in his garage door and Volkswagen painting “4161 Sacramento Street.” The combination of Photorealism and pop elements were precisely the ideas Ramos was exploring.
California State University, Hayward — Mel Ramos
When Diehl first arrived at California State University, Hayward (now California State University, East Bay) in April 1971, he tried to enroll in Mel Ramos’ painting class, but the registrar told him the class was already filled to capacity, so enrollment was closed. Naturally, Diehl was frustrated by this news given that studying with Ramos was why he had chosen to attend Cal State Hayward. At the time Ramos was already an important Pop artist. He had studied with Thiebaud and had been exhibiting in New York galleries receiving critical acclaim as part of the prevailing Pop Art movement that was coming to prominence. Diehl desperately wanted to be in his class.
Diehl was told his only option was to attend the first class and hope some students had changed their minds about taking the course. Enrollment in the class wasn’t limited to art majors, since the class counted toward satisfying humanities course requirements, which only made things more difficult. The Art Department shared space in a three-story building with the Humanities Department. The painting studios were on the 2nd floor, where Ramos taught his painting class each quarter.
Ramos was a popular teacher. His beginning oil painting class would only admit 16–20 students and when Diehl got there, there were already about four wait-listed students vying for admission. At the end of the class, after Ramos explained the list of materials that would be needed and gave a first assignment, Diehl waited for the other students to leave before approaching Ramos. He asked him if there was any way he could get into the class and Ramos said simply “I’m sorry, I’m not taking any more students.” Undeterred, Diehl asked if he wouldn’t mind looking at slides of his paintings, he had brought with him. Ramos had a quick look and gave a slight smile. He paused briefly, then told Diehl, “Come back on Wednesday.” Diehl’s tenacity had paid off, resulting in one of Diehl’s most important life-long artistic relationships.
The class met three times a week, for 2-hour sessions. It was a studio course, so there were easels arranged throughout the space, and students would move their stools to the front of the room for the lecture portion of the class. For twenty minutes, Ramos would discuss the assignment, show slides of work from historically important artists, and show images of previous student work responsive to the exercise that had been particularly successful. Thereafter Ramos would make the rounds critiquing each student’s work. While he didn’t typically demonstrate how to paint to the students, he would take the brush out of a student’s hand and render small areas of a canvas to teach them practical techniques. He would also show a student how to properly arrange colors on their palette.
Diehl recalls one instance where Ramos rendered the shadow underneath a windowsill in a painting Diehl was working on (Window, 1971). Ramos used the side of the bristles to blend the colors just right; a technique Diehl would later use himself. There was something about seeing Ramos do it with Diehl’s own brush that conveyed more than any verbal explanation could.
Ramos was a serious teacher who projected a sense that art came first in his life. He expected students to be punctual, complete all of their assignments, and to participate in discussions. Regardless of painting skills, satisfying those basic expectations would result in a passing grade. Higher grades were reserved for students who followed those rules and showed proficiency with each assignment. One thing Diehl recalls well, Ramos wanted students who were willing to learn a representational style of painting. “I don’t want to see any metaphysical stuff in this class,” Ramos would say to deter students that thought the class might be easy credit.
In October 1971, just six months after starting at Cal State Hayward, Diehl was selected for a two-person exhibition at the Concord Center for the Arts, curated by Charles Baker. The show “Reflection” paired Diehl with his DVC and Clayton Valley High School friend, Alan Kikuchi, who was then a student at U.C. Davis. It was early recognition of their talents. In one article “Former Students’ Art Works on Display Now,” Vicky Hutchings noted “Diehl is basically a realist, viewing his work in a super-realistic manner. His acrylics are tightly rendered to their fullest potential for an accurate representation of the subject matter.” The article goes on to note that Diehl “is interested in specific problems on reflective surfaces, for example chrome, pane glass windows, and high gloss painted surfaces.”
The exhibition was also highlighted in the November 6, 1971 issue of Artweek, a publication which featured West Coast art news, with an image of Diehl’s painting “Window” reproduced. Art critic Mark Schroeder favorably reviewed the show in an article in the Contra Costa County Times entitled, “Two Artists Star In Show.”
In one assignment at Cal State Hayward, Ramos wanted the class to collaborate on copying a painting by Spanish artist Salvador Dalí, with each student taking one 2 x 2 foot square section (of the 10 x 8 foot total) of the image as their personal assignment. The painting, The Madonna of Port Lligat, depicts the artist’s wife Gala as the central figure with a child in her lap, invoking references to the many Renaissance paintings of Mary holding the Christ Child. Diehl’s assigned portion included part of the fabric folds in the elaborate dress Gala wears, with the main portion of her right foot.
Diehl was determined to excel at this assignment. He wanted Ramos to see how capable he was at fulfilling the required segment of the collaboration; he knew his work would be contrasted with the surrounding sections by other students. Ramos’ reaction to Diehl’s portion was high praise coming from the reserved Ramos, “Wow, you’re a good painter,” he said to Diehl. The painting was displayed in the Student Union cafeteria for many weeks.
Slowly, Diehl got to know Ramos better. Since Ramos and many other faculty members were relatively young, in their mid-30s, it was common for them all to socialize at museum and art gallery events. Diehl had opportunities to discuss his experiences at Diablo Valley College with Ramos and they talked about the instructors Ramos knew there, including David King and Ed Higgins. At some point that first quarter, Ramos agreed to be Diehl’s faculty advisor.
In all, Diehl would take five courses with Ramos, all of them painting classes. Each time, Ramos would invite the class to visit his studio in Oakland; near Mills College to impart how a professional artist studio was arranged. Ramos’ studio occupied an old storefront and provided the students with a chance to discuss paintings Ramos had in progress. In one instance, what looked like a completed painting in Ramos’ art-about-art series, still needed another 20 hours of work, according to Ramos, who pointed to the areas that didn’t look quite right to him. Diehl was learning the importance of self-criticism from Ramos, who had the highest expectations for his own work.
Diehl looked forward to these visits and paid close attention to Ramos’ own process. He studied Ramos’ easel, his painting taboret, and brushes. Because of the various visits, Diehl focused on more and more details; how Ramos set up his lighting, and what kind of watercolor paper he used (Arches 300 lb cold press paper). Of course, none of these things were secrets, but to a young artist they were a way of obtaining knowledge as if he were an apprentice. Diehl would later, in fact, replicate a wall-mounted easel based on the one Ramos used in his own studio.
Ramos got to know Diehl, and the young woman Diehl was dating at the time, from various classroom visits and gallery openings. Sue was two years younger than Diehl and was majoring in Child Development at Cal State Hayward. One day Ramos asked Diehl if he thought Sue would pose for him; he wanted a distinctive female figure to superimpose into the compositions he was working on. At the time, he was referencing imagery by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Amedeo Modigliani. Ramos favored shapely models in his Pop paintings, and Sue fit that description. Once Diehl asked her, she agreed to pose. It was common for artists to share models, albeit through a modeling guild, and Sue was posing for Diehl’s pool series drawings and paintings, which Ramos may have already seen.
Once she agreed, Ramos arranged for Diehl and Sue to visit his Oakland studio. The arrangement was fully professional. She signed model release forms and the artist took pains to make sure the model was comfortable. He spent roughly an hour taking black and white photographs in various poses, which he later used in a number of paintings, including one emphasizing the model’s elongated back, for a painting referencing Ingres’ 1814 painting Grande Odalisque. Diehl sensed he was watching contemporary art history unfold, as Ramos obtained source imagery for his art-about-art paintings, and ideas Diehl is still thinking about. In all Ramos used a couple of rolls of film. When the photo session was completed, the three enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a café near his studio.
Diehl would sometimes be frustrated by Ramos’ failure to respond to comments he made when they were assessing or critiquing a painting. Ramos would be lost in his own thoughts. Later, while attending a party, Diehl learned from Leta, Ramos’ wife, that he had hearing problems in his right ear. He noticed that Leta spoke louder to Mel, when she was one the side of his “bad” ear. Suddenly, Diehl knew that what he had mistaken for aloofness or unresponsiveness was a physical limitation Ramos had. Like his own dyslexia, Diehl understood that Ramos didn’t openly discuss it.
In addition to Ramos, Cal State Hayward had a number of skilled faculty members. Diehl studied Lithography with Kenjilo Nanao and Silkscreen printing with Harold Schlotzhauer, both quite adept at their medium. Although Diehl did not study directly with multi-media artist Raymond Saunders, Saunders was teaching at Cal State Hayward when he was a student there. The community of artists and students was small, and Diehl was exposed to what Saunders was doing at the time, no doubt soaking in some influences in composition, particularly the compartmentalization of areas of the canvas.
While Diehl enjoyed the collegial experience of Cal State Hayward, his dyslexia remained a constant interference in his course work, as it continued to challenge his reading ability. He would try as best he could to find alternative ways of learning information and often struggled with test taking. Just as he had at DVC, Diehl performed poorly in some classes, but a slight improvement is discernible in reviewing his transcripts. While Diehl received a single failing grade in Anthropology, his transcripts show a greater consistency achieving passing grades in courses such as 19th Century European Painting, Aesthetics, Introduction to Logic, and Contemporary Art Criticism.
Diehl counterbalanced these average grades with stronger ones, indicating he was learning to cope with his reading challenges. He received “B” grades in: Art of Ancient Near East, California History, Environmental Challenges, Japanese Aesthetics, and American History. Notably, he received “A” in each of his art practice classes (Lithography, Silkscreen, and Drawing classes) including the five painting classes he took from Ramos, who was unaware of his learning challenges.
In addition, Cal State Hayward, at Ramos’s recommendation, nominated Diehl for one of ten Alameda County Art Commission Purchase Awards that year, which resulted in the County purchasing one of Diehl’s paintings, Window #3 (see the photo below), in 1973. Diehl last saw the painting in the reception area of the Oakland Tax Collector’s Office in the 1980s. This early recognition gave Diehl a reason to believe that he might, in fact, be able to make a career in the arts.
Diehl completed his studies at Cal State Hayward in late 1973. Before ultimately entering the master’s program at San Francisco State in fall of 1974, Diehl again tried to gain admittance to U.C. Davis, to finally have a chance to study with Wayne Thiebaud. However, as before, Diehl would be denied entry into the program at U.C. Davis, this time he was rejected twice, having applied two successive semesters.
In the first rejection letter, dated 3–12–73 and addressed to “Dear Applicant,” Robert Arneson noted that the graduate committee had selected only ten finalists out of 165 applicants. The letter’s opening sentence “[w]hile the slides of your work were very interesting,” is likely a generic passage, since the letter isn’t even address to Diehl individually. The second rejection letter, sent in March 1974, is signed by William T. Wiley. It is also a form letter; although it bears more of Wiley’s own personal style. “Thank you for submitting your portfolio for our consideration. I wish there was a better way to convey this information — but I don’t know how.”
While the painting slides, which he submitted with his application, showed advanced art skills, and Ramos had written a letter of recommendation, Diehl’s overall grade point average, which included his grades from DVC, did not satisfy their admissions standards. Looking back on these events, it’s obvious that Diehl was struggling because his dyslexia had impeded his learning rather than any issue with his skill as a painter. His paintings were mature and showed clear talent, but it’s unlikely his grade point average was high enough to get anyone to pay attention to his slides. The program at U.C. Davis was more exclusive than many other schools. Undeterred, knowing he wanted to continue his art studies, Diehl sought admittance to San Francisco State University, where he would be able to study with renowned first-generation photorealists Richard McLean and Robert Bechtle. All in all, it was not a bad outcome or disappointing place to land. McLean and Bechtle were as talented painters as anyone working at the time and Diehl had already made a series of window paintings, including Window #3 (1972), based on a detail from Bechtle’s ’60 T-Bird painting which he had seen at the U.C. Berkeley Museum.
After graduating from U.C. Hayward, Mel Ramos stayed in touch with Diehl. He attended Diehl’s gallery openings and in 1979 invited the younger artist to house sit for him while he and Leta were spending the summer in Spain. Diehl again was able to see how Ramos arranged his home studio. Diehl painted various watercolors there and saw how Ramos cataloged his work. He kept index cards for every painting he completed; with information about the title, medium, dimensions, year, and identified who owned the painting. Each card had a 35mm slide reference number. Diehl would follow suit and learned to keep meticulous records of all of his work.
San Francisco State University — Richard McLean & Robert Bechtle
At San Francisco State, Diehl was one of six or seven students in the two-year M.A. graduate painting program. In addition to coursework focused on his development as an artist, Diehl was expected to present a body of completed artworks, with an extended artist statement, as his master’s thesis, by the end of his graduate studies. Over the course of those two years, Diehl’s work would focus on his pool series, which comprised eight acrylic on canvas paintings and nine similarly themed watercolors.
By this point in his education, Diehl had learned to sufficiently cope with his dyslexia, managing to receive “A” grades in all of his classes, even those which required the completion of written papers. His thesis, which essentially explained his pool series, would be difficult to write, but did not pose the obstacle it would have just a few years earlier.
San Francisco State was fortunate to have two of the foremost photorealist painters teaching in its art department. Robert Bechtel and Richard McLean would be equally important to Diehl’s development as an artist. Photorealism had only emerged in the late 1960s, so although Diehl is not part of the first generation, per se, his proximity to it is striking when one considers that he began his photorealist window paintings at Cal State Hayward by 1971 and his pool series drawings by 1973. In fact, the early phone booth painting “The Telephone Call” dates from 1969 when Diehl studied with Ed Higgins at Diablo Valley College. Importantly, the term Photorealism, first coined by art dealer Louis K. Meisel, didn’t even appear in print until 1970, in a Whitney Museum exhibition catalogue.
One can imagine the ease both Bechtle and McLean had teaching a student like Diehl. He was already working in a photorealist style, and arrived at the program with developed skills and work habits. Many of the other students, by contrast, were exploring abstraction that was less related to both professors’ own style. McLean told Diehl it was difficult to teach undergraduates because their undeveloped skills needed continuous attention. Like many art educators in universities, McLean and Bechtle saw teaching as interfering with their own art making. It doesn’t mean they weren’t good instructors, but they welcomed having graduate students that needed less technical attention and who desired verbal theorizing. In Diehl, they had a student that was eager to have wisdom imparted and who relished any opportunity to speak about art with such knowledgeable instructors.
Nevertheless, at the time Diehl sensed a Good Cop — Bad Cop quality to their approach. Bechtle would astutely point out the areas in Diehl’s painting that needed work. He always found the details Diehl knew he needed to improve, but he offered less explanation as to how to resolve the problem areas.
Diehl found McLean, on the other hand, to be very friendly; he would use these opportunities to relate problems back to fundamental painting exercises. Diehl sensed McLean’s intuitiveness; he would articulate the emotional push and pull of the composition Diehl was struggling with. His uncanny ability to verbalize the struggle Diehl faced as a young artist created a closer bond between the two men and Diehl welcomed the mentorship he offered as he problem-solved with the younger artist. McLean would frequently reference other artist’s work, both historical and contemporary, which Diehl could research, as he advised what direction Diehl should go in next.
In many respects, what Diehl interpreted as aloofness from Bechtle, who had a naturally reserved demeanor, was probably an acknowledgment that Diehl was on the right track. Diehl was already adept at realism and there wasn’t a need for Bechtle to teach him how to paint in a medium Bechtle was not directly familiar with in his own practice. Acrylic paint, which Diehl uses differs from oil paint in its texture and color, as well as its quick drying time. By pointing to the areas that needed attention, Bechtle was giving Diehl guidance on where to focus his energies, and with his silence, acknowledging that other areas were already working.
On some occasions both instructors would visit Diehl’s West Grand Avenue, Oakland studio together to see how his work was advancing. McLean frequently led discussions revolving around how Diehl was resolving the conflict of edges and color transitions between objects in the painting. Diehl recalls that McLean lived in Montclair, Oakland and his wife Darlene always greeted students warmly when they occasionally visited their home.
Diehl summarizes the approach each instructor had, partly in jest, with this analogy “if you asked Bob [Bechtle] what time it was, he’d give a precise answer. Dick [McLean] would start to assemble a clock, and once completed, tell you the time.”
Given his already developed skills, McLean asked Diehl to informally assist him in a drawing class that included graduate and undergraduate students. After an introduction to the students, McLean asked Diehl to go around the room and review technical and compositional problems that the students might be having. It was important recognition for Diehl, to be asked by McLean, and also early exposure to what it would take to be an art instructor someday.
Diehl recalls that at the time McLean was particularly interested in Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s work, the German-American illustrator, who had achieved success with the Arrow Collar Ad campaign, promoting the Arrow brand of men’s clothing. Leyendecker, a precursor to Norman Rockwell, was also known for producing hundreds of covers for the Saturday Evening Post. McLean encouraged Diehl to look carefully at his work and how he rendered the human figure and its complementary surroundings.
During his graduate studies, Diehl took intaglio classes with John Ely during which time he successfully printed four zinc plate etchings, including an image of Sue at the pool. The sculptor Stephen De Staebler was teaching at SF State, although Diehl did not study with him. He does recall that De Staebler enjoyed coming around the painting studios to kid around with McLean, saying “Oh, you’re still teaching that two-dimensional stuff?” The joke never seemed to get old.
At some point in 1975, Diehl was introduced to John Gutmann, an art instructor at SF State who was teaching a drawing class. McLean and Bechtle both urged him to apply to be Gutmann’s teaching assistant and Diehl obliged. Diehl didn’t know anything about Gutmann’s own work, but understood Gutmann was nearing the completion of his teaching career. Gutmann, who was in his 70s, had fled Nazi Germany as a young man and would later become to be regarded as an important photographer in the photo-journalist style.
Diehl doesn’t recall Bechtle and McLean saying much about Gutmann, although he remembers being warned that Gutmann had a fascination with death which was manifested in the various Day of the Dead artifacts and alters he had in his home. Diehl saw these when he first visited Gutmann’s bungalow in the Sunset District of San Francisco. At first, Diehl was intimidated by Gutmann, who had emigrated from Europe, was older, and had longish hair and an imposing beard. He regarded Diehl with little interest other than assuring himself that Diehl had the skills to help teach the class.
It was Gutmann’s custom to show his class various 35mm slides in class and Diehl recalls that students approached his presentation with some humor as Gutmann would use a hand-held metal toy Cricket clicker to make a click-click sound when he wanted Diehl, who was operating the projector, to advance to the next slide. All in all, it was the first time Diehl acted as a formal instructor himself, helping students to resolve problems in their compositions. Years later as he acquainted himself with Gutmann’s photography, he regretted not taking a greater interest in his work.
The artist statement Diehl submitted for satisfaction of the Masters in Arts degree in May 1976 includes a number of themes that will permeate his thinking in the years that follow. He writes that he is preoccupied with “painting the human figure in the leisurely environment of the swimming pool” in a photorealist style; and specifically, trying to “express the effects of the sun’s light on these figures.” Diehl reflects on “record[ing] observations of my friends” and hints at the deeper purpose in capturing “psychological conditions which interest me as a painter” in part because of the repose invited by the swimming pool scenes but also because the setting’s “advantageous effects can reveal a part of their personality as well as their vanity.” Diehl related that he avoided “contrived” poses which would give “the impression of a rigid or tense individual.”
Curiously, although he is working in a style that achieves great detail at the time, Diehl notes “I don’t feel that excessive detail is needed for my painting to succeed” presaging his later move away from photorealism.
Most importantly, Diehl ends his statement by taking note of the limitations of 35mm film photography: “The photo seems only to give partial information, not what really happens to light and color. I have been curious as to what happens to color and detail that is not sufficiently revealed in a photograph. One has to rely on memory to fill in where the photo fails to provide. Here is where constant visual observation and drawing from life helps. This augmentation of information can rescue the painting from appearing to be just a copy of a photograph.” Even within the genre of Photorealism, Diehl notes that painting isn’t just the rendering of the source photograph, because of the photo’s limits, but rather, continuing to interpret real life augmented by careful observation.
Diehl’s statement, satisfying the written part of his Masters of Arts degree, was signed by Robert Bechtle, Richard McLean, and chair of the Art Department, sculptor Wesley Chamberlin; all Associate Professors at San Francisco State University.
In later years, after he had graduated from SF State, both Bechtle and McLean would each have occasion to attend openings Diehl had in San Francisco Bay Area galleries. Neither man was obligated to do so, and their attendance was a recognition that they wanted to support Diehl and keep an eye on what he was doing. Diehl, reciprocated by always making an effort to attend any event that included his two graduate school advisors. To this day, Diehl acknowledges the significant impact they had on his development.
As he graduated from San Francisco State, Diehl confronted new challenges. He had to set his sights on finding gallery representation and he started looking for a university teaching position that could pay his expenses as he pursued an art career. The two fears that had pushed Diehl toward college had dissipated in large part. The Vietnam War was over, and while Diehl still had to manage his dyslexia, it was clear that it wasn’t going to interfere with his having a successful career. Diehl knew he had acquired the skills to make it as an artist, and he set out to make his boyhood dream, a reality.
Guy Diehl, Forging an Art Life — PART TWO
After obtaining an M.A. from San Francisco State in 1975, Guy Diehl knew success as an artist might not come quickly, but he wasn’t prepared for it to be as challenging as it was. The preceding nine years, between when Diehl started school at Diablo Valley College (DVC) and graduated from SF State, would be followed by an equal number of years before he found a gallery that supported his developing style and understood his place in the lineage of California painting. Although Diehl never lacked gallery representation after leaving graduate school, he credits his relationship with the Jeremy Stone Gallery, which began in late 1984, as being critical to his success as a painter.
After the Stone gallery closed in 1991, Diehl exhibited with various fine galleries, including Modernism and Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco, before he started working with Dolby Chadwick Gallery in 2010, where he still exhibits today. Lisa Chadwick had started her gallery thirteen years earlier and emerged as one of San Francisco’s premier galleries by the time they started their collaboration.
In the decade following his graduation, Diehl moved away from Photorealism. His pool series, within that genre, had started with figurative elements, such as bathers gathered by the pool, dominating the compositions. Eventually the emphasis shifted to only depicting still life objects; those commonly seen at the pool or beach, such as sunglasses, visors, and beach towels.
Diehl staged these compositions, but he did so in outdoor lighting which was relatively fleeting. Diehl would capture the scene with photography, but he wouldn’t have the luxury of being able to reexamine the live arrangement of objects at his leisure, since these scenes were happening on location in public areas.
The subsequent paintings, what Diehl refers to as his still life series, are the paintings that follow the pool series, and which exclusively focus on object placement (of items with personal or art historical significance) in a staged indoor setting with arranged lighting. These constructions, as Diehl sometimes calls them, allows for closer observational study, since Diehl isn’t strictly working from a source photo image or his memory. The studio setting allows Diehl to return and closely observe the carefully arranged objects as many times as he wishes, something he couldn’t do with the pool paintings.
Despite the opportunity to view the still life repeatedly and glean as much detail as he wants from it, Diehl is often interested in stripping away the exact details he can see with the naked eye and in the source photographs, to achieve a more nuanced, even minimalist, viewing experience. If there is irony here, it is that the opportunity for greater focus has corresponded with his interest in rendering less. He continues to be attentive to color relationships that emerge and the dialogue between those color fields and object angles, and particularly the transitions between the things he is rendering. But the primary influence shifted to emphasize the manner in which light affects color, and how manipulating studio lights, allows the composition to be more compelling.
Diehl uses the same tools and methods as he transitioned into the still life series, particularly the use of source photos. Importantly, he continues to sometimes supplement what the reference photographs showed him, relying on his memory, his ability to create color variations with acrylic, and the human eye’s superior vision; all with the visual experience he seeks to create for the viewer in mind. Diehl also utilizes exposure bracketing, which is the process of examining both under and over exposures of the same staged photograph to reveal elusive visual cues in the still life.
After graduating from San Francisco State, Diehl had to confront the challenges of making a living as an artist. Diehl moved back home with his parents to ease the financial hardships he faced. A room in the 4-bedroom Eichler home was already dedicated as a studio, which Diehl had used during his high school years. The first year was the hardest. Although living with his parents made economic sense, it still represented something of a defeat. His parents had been skeptical that an art career made sense and living with them after years of schooling served as proof of that. They did, however, cling to the hope that teaching art might be a way Diehl could support himself. Looking back, Diehl recalls the anxiety he experienced wondering whether the path he had embarked on years earlier would ever turn into success.
During those years, Diehl did, in fact, have a number of promising opportunities. With hindsight, it is clear Diehl’s artistic success was starting to manifest, though his struggles resembled those faced by artists of his generation. Fortunately, friends he had made during his school days reappeared in the ensuing years, offering opportunities for work as an artist.
Las Medanos College Exhibition – 1976
Christie Marchi, who had studied with Diehl at Diablo Valley College arranged for his first one-person show, post-graduation, in 1976. She had attended graduate school at Sacramento State and was now trying to balance her own art career with teaching. She served as a curator of exhibitions, as part of a gallery management class she was teaching, at a new community college in Contra Costa County, in Pittsburg, CA. Las Medanos College art exhibition space was above the administrative offices, and Diehl was invited to have a solo exhibition of his paintings.
Marchi taught at the college, and Diehl had remained in contact with her via mutual friends. Like Diehl, Marchi was connected with Allan Kikuchi and with Diehl’s friend Kirk Henderson who lived in Marchi’s mother’s home, which was routinely rented to students attending DVC. Marci would later teach at DVC and marry Diehl’s DVC art instructor Ed Higgins.
Three separate press stories promoted and discussed the Las Medanos exhibition; each reproducing images and including photographs of Diehl. “Poolside on canvas” by a staff writer in the Post-Dispatch, December 2, 1976; “One man art show on campus” by Bill Holt in The Experience, the Las Medanos College campus newspaper, December 3, 1976; and “Exploring life at a pool” by Carol Barcklay in the Pittsburg Press, December 10, 1976.
The Post-Dispatch article noted that “Diehl’s subjects include the swimsuit-clad residents of modern apartment complexes in the Concord-Walnut Creek areas, often clustered around their swimming pools.”
Holt’s article in The Experience explained the new art style Diehl worked in “Photo realism is a style of painting in which the art work appears to be a photograph. Diehl’s paintings, many of them done in acrylics, deal with people taking it easy at poolside.” The article quoted Las Medanos art instructor Marchi: “Photorealism is a nation wide art form, but it has very strong representation here in the Bay Area.”
Barcklay’s article in the Pittsburg Press quotes Diehl talking about how the photograph can “only provides so much information” which he tries to strengthen “by creating an illusion of life with even greater detail.” Diehl explains that “the subtleties of color and mood can be explored far more broadly in a painting than in a color print. Also mood tones can be more fully expressed using acrylic paint or watercolor.”
California’s statewide ballot initiative, Prop. 13, passed in 1978 greatly reduced the tax revenue the state collected and made available for full-time public instruction. As a result, teaching jobs were hard to come by. Nevertheless, Diehl pursued a state teaching credential authorizing him to teach in a college level curriculum. His M.A. degree assured his approval. Thereafter, Diehl became a substitute, part-time, teacher at Diablo Valley College, as well as Las Medanos. Later he would also work at Las Positas College in Livermore, a satellite campus to Chabot College, in Oakland. Being a substitute instructor meant that Diehl would fill-in for instructors on sabbatical leave or otherwise unable to instruct their classes. At first, he resented not being able to get a full-time teaching job, but with time, Diehl realized how lucky he was to not have to devote his energies to full-time academic responsibilities allowing him more time in the studio, making his own work.
Walton Gilbert Gallery
Diehl’s first gallery was the Walton Gilbert Gallery, a storefront located on the 500 block of Sutter Street. The gallery director, Walter Maibaum, knew of Diehl’s work because Maibaum’s partner at the time, Suzie Lock, also attended SF State. She was now working as an art consultant and Diehl and Maibaum met through social circles around the San Francisco art scene. Maibaum was a Bauhaus enthusiast with interest in the German design of the pre-WWII art movement. It is likely that Diehl’s precision, and interest in form, caught his attention. Although Diehl did not have any exhibitions at the gallery, Maibaum arranged to take work on consignment, to test collector’s interest in Diehl’s work.
At the time Diehl was making canvas paintings, and still working in the style of Photorealism; although he had begun to eliminate the figure, leaving only the objects bathers typically bring with them to the pool or beach. Diehl would work with the gallery for a single year. Maibaum, himself, acquired Diehl’s painting of “Alice” (1974) depicting the subject reclining, in a Modigliani-like pose, on a patio lounge chair, in a white bathing suit and broad brimmed hat.
In 1977 to 1978, Diehl took a job at the fine arts press Editions Press as a colorist. They occupied a two-story red brick building on Minna Street, near 7th Street. The offices, curation, and print storage operations were upstairs, while the hand lithography and etching departments were on the ground floor. Walter Maibaum of the Walton Gilbert Gallery was the director, making it likely Diehl was encouraged to seek employment there. Master Printer Ernesto DeSoto was transitioning into retirement; Lloyd Baggs and Richard Newlan were the Master Printers during Diehl’s employment.
Diehl’s work at the press entailed drawing on limestone by hand, utilizing a lithography process which would allow the original artist to generate multiples. Although Diehl was the artist drawing on the stone and aluminum plates, he remained anonymous, preparing prints for the source artist to sign as their own.
Diehl recalls making a lithography print for artist Margaret Keane who was experiencing wide popularity at the time. Her distinctive big-eyed subjects, primarily children, became a signature hallmark of her work. Diehl drew an image of a young girl holding a flower based on a painting by Keane. The stone was processed with gum arabic and acid, then moistened and inked by hand using a leather roller. The inky image was directly transferred to paper one at a time under a scraper bar’s pressure of the press. Margret Keane signed the numbered edition.
Another job entailed making lithography prints from a photograph to commemorate a businessman’s retirement. The photo was a three-quarter professional studio photograph Diehl rendered onto the stone. Printers processed the stone and printed (pulled) the edition. The finished prints were distributed to the retirement dinner attendees.
During his work at Editions Press, Diehl met Donald Farnsworth who was one of ten assistant printers. Farnsworth would later open the fine art print studio, Magnolia Editions in Oakland, where Diehl would work and collaborate with Farnsworth on various projects beginning in 1987. At the time they worked at Editions Press, Farnsworth was putting in his time (six years) to become Editions Press’ master printer, a designation which he achieved in 1979, shortly after Diehl left Editions Press.
Hank Baum Gallery
By 1978, Diehl was working with Hank Baum, who showcased exhibitions with Diehl in 1979, 1980, 1982, and 1984. The Hank Baum Gallery was at Three Embarcadero Center in the Financial District of San Francisco. Joy Broom and David King, both art instructors at DVC for whom Diehl substituted, also exhibited with the gallery.
Sometime in 1978, at Baum’s urging, Diehl began working almost exclusively with watercolor. Still composing within his pool series, Baum encouraged the shift because he was having success selling the work. Both Diehl’s talent in the medium and the lower price point, were attractive to collectors who gravitated to the work. Moreover, Diehl could complete a watercolor in a week to ten days as opposed to the many weeks a canvas painting would take.
During these years from 1978 to 1984, Diehl completed nearly 100 watercolors. In addition to six of Diehl’s acrylic paintings, Baum sold twenty-seven watercolors during the time they worked together.
Despite the shortened time it took Diehl to complete a watercolor, it was a challenging medium. Diehl describes it as “premeditative,” meaning you have to carefully consider the physics involved and manage the characteristics of the various elements. Diehl typically used thicker paper, an Arches 300 lb cold press paper which could handle water well and not lose its dimensional stability. Each pigment had its own characteristics: some were transparent, opaque, or sedimentary. The specific gravity of each pigment affected compositional choices too: some mingled with each other, some would separate and, others would settle into the lower areas of the paper’s texture, causing a reticulation effect, making the dropping of color into the composition something of an alchemy. Importantly, there are few ways to erase what you’ve done, so success is dependent on predictive color mixing and knowing how distributing that color would advance the look of the painting. One thing Diehl learned from his instructors was valuable advice: student grade materials, while inexpensive, were not going to lend themselves to the best results.
Looking through Diehl’s curriculum vitae, it’s apparent that other opportunities coalesced for Diehl, many arranged by Baum. Diehl exhibited works on paper in 1979 at the University of Purdue, in Lafayette, Indiana. That same year he also showed one of his pool series figure paintings in a show at the Civic Arts Gallery in Walnut Creek in a show titled “Humanform.” A variety of exhibitions followed: in 1981 Diehl exhibited in a show “California Artists,” at the Spokane Falls Community College in Spokane, WA; in 1982 he was included in “Northern California Realist Painters,” at the Redding Museum, Redding, CA; and in 1984 Diehl was included in an Art Programs Inc. exhibition “Sun and Surf” which was shown in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In March 1979, art critic Thomas Albright reviewed Diehl’s exhibition at the Hank Baum Gallery, “A Photo-Realist Paradox” in the San Francisco Chronicle, writing: “Diehl’s forte is particularly intense, saturated color that suggests a brilliant, directly overhead sunlight, and peculiarly soft, sensuous surfaces. His watercolors are especially remarkable examples of the Photo Realist esthetic: crispy literal from a distance, the essence of well scrubbed freshness and transparency when viewed up close.” In November 1980, in a second San Francisco Chronicle review, Albright again singled out Diehl’s watercolor work, saying “His watercolors have a soft, veiled quality that mitigates the steely crispness of outlines and intensity of light; the paintings tend to harden and congeal.”
From 1980 to 1981, Diehl worked as an artist at Colossal Pictures located at their studios on 9th & Mission streets. Diehl’s friend, and former DVC classmate, Kirk Henderson, who hired Diehl, worked as one of the art directors.
Diehl was hired for his drawing skills, which he employed as an animation colorist. His first job was working on a television advertisement project for Boise Cascade Paper Company. Diehl was assigned to a team of thirty other colorists, working either a day or night shift, six days a week. Each colorist would generate a drawing style to create images that served as separate sequential frames that would be reproduced on film to create animated movement.
The work involved colorizing Xerox copies of a live-action film, frame by frame, with Prismacolor pencils; thereby reproducing the designated image style initially created by Henderson. The process was labor intensive, generating hundreds of sequential frame drawings. Thereafter, the illustrations would be shot on 35mm color film, ultimately producing a thirty-second animated commercial.
Jeremy Stone Gallery
In late 1983, the young San Francisco gallerist Jeremy Stone bought a small square watercolor painting by Diehl from a fundraising auction. The watercolor depicted the edge of a pool and chrome railing going into water; it was 9 x 9 inches in dimensions.
An artist friend of Diehl’s asked him “Do you know who bought your piece? Allan Stone’s daughter Jeremy, she has her own gallery here in San Francisco.” Diehl had no idea who she was although he was familiar with Allan Stone, who was a prominent art dealer in New York City. The Jeremy Stone Gallery, on the 100 block of Post Street (later on the first block of Grant Avenue), was in business from 1982 to 1991. Stone opened her eponymous gallery at the age of 24, after working with Price Amerson on various projects at UC Davis’ Richard L. Nelson Gallery, while on the staff of Anne Kohs & Associates in San Francisco. Diehl recalls her later telling him that she had been immersed in art growing up; she fondly recalled playing jacks as a child on her father’s gallery floor in New York City. It wasn’t surprising that she gravitated to a life in art.
Although Diehl appreciated Baum’s efforts on his behalf, after an unsuccessful show in 1984, Diehl felt Baum had exhausted his collector base. He had sold a third of the pool series watercolors that Diehl had made up to that point, but it occurred over the course of seven years and wasn’t sustainable, or growing, as evidenced by the final show they had together, where no sales resulted. Diehl recalls driving home from the gallery, in a borrowed truck loaded up with his unsold paintings and watercolors, and deciding it was time to make a move.
In late 1984, Diehl and Stone spoke about working together; she was 26 years old, Diehl was 36. Diehl and Baum made an amicable break, and Diehl started exhibiting with the Jeremy Stone Gallery in 1985. Stone also exhibited two artists who greatly influenced Diehl’s aesthetic, Richard McLean and Wayne Thiebaud.
During the transition to working with the Jeremy Stone Gallery, Diehl was profiled in a Livermore Herald article “Money no motive for this artist.” The article poignantly captures Diehl’s previous nine-year path since leaving graduate school noting “Diehl works six days a week at his painting, striving more for recognition in the art world than commercial success. Artistic acclaim is more elusive than he expected it to be, but he has no regrets about the choices he’s made.”
Within six months of working with Stone, Diehl had a number of encounters with Gordon Cook’s still life paintings that compelled him to depart from his Photorealism pool series and start applying more restraint, within the still life genre.
Gordon Cook was born in Chicago, IL, but had been in California since the 1950s working in intaglio printmaking. He later taught at the San Francisco Art Institute where he became associated with Bay Area Figurative artists Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and Joan Brown (whom he married in the late 1960s). In the early 1980s he would be part of a drawing circle that included Wayne Thiebaud, William Theophilus Brown, Beth Van Hoesen, and Mark Adams.
Cook’s paintings were muted in color and often focused on single still life subjects, such as a bottle or letter box. Small in size, he utilized impasto to convey only the essential details necessary to render realism. His quiet and minimalist paintings were often compared to those of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi.
Diehl saw Gordon Cook’s work at a number of different venues. In close sequence, Diehl saw an exhibition of Cook’s “Recent Works,” at the Charles Campbell Gallery in 1984, then encountered Cook’s painting “One Lb. Garbanzos” (1975) at the Oakland Museum. Later, he again saw Cook’s work at Modesto Lanzone’s Ghirardelli Square restaurant. Lanzone was known for his artistic eye and had adorned his restaurant with contemporary art. For Diehl, these repeated run-ins with Cook’s paintings, compelled him to reevaluate his own work.
Jeremy Stone was representing Susan Hauptmann at the time and upon seeing her charcoal still life work, Diehl was further moved to consider a restrained realism, in the still life genre, as a new focus. The encounters with Cook and Hauptmann’s work caused Diehl to reflect on the limits of painting too much detail. Cook’s paintings spoke to him and Diehl wanted to start painting in a different language. Photorealism had run its course for him.
Diehl started primarily exploring the still life genre, first starting with life-size drawings and watercolors of various hand tools. He initially made about ten early graphite drawings and five watercolors, 11 x 14 inches, of various instruments such as lineman pliers, hammers, awl, screwdrivers, chisels, and vise-grips. He was experimenting with single object still lifes, just as Gordon Cook had done, including an apple, orange, single open dictionary, fetish pouch, and artist brush.
From these drawings, Diehl graduated to small format acrylic paintings. At the time, he worked with a single light source, and preferred the static light for control (as opposed to outdoor daylight used in the pool series). Eventually, he started incorporating art historical references by utilizing artist postcards as objects placed in the still life, including some by Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keefe. In one of these early paintings, Diehl even referenced the San Francisco Chronicle front page Sunday Comics in a painting.
In 1985, Diehl was included in his first Jeremy Stone Gallery exhibition which included four gallery artists; he first exhibited his tool drawings.
The following year, some of Diehl’s pool series paintings were shown in the atrium of a large commercial building that the Lurie Company owned on Market Street at 5th Street. Additionally, his first solo exhibition with the Jeremy Stone Gallery came in 1986 and included various paintings on canvas. He would go on to have two other solo shows at the gallery, in 1988 and 1990. By this point, Diehl’s production had increased. In 1985, Diehl completed 19 paintings. In 1986, he made 25. In 1987, Diehl finished 26 paintings. By contrast, some of Diehl’s photorealist pool series paintings took months to complete.
San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker reviewed Diehl’s show at the Jeremy Stone Gallery in 1986, saying “His work is much in the line of Bay Area artists such as Wayne Thiebaud and Mark Adams. Like them, he lavishes attention on the halations that surround brightly lit objects and on painterly equivalents to details of shadow, reflection and surface texture.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 1986.
Stone promoted Diehl and was able to place him in a number of other exhibitions: In 1986, Diehl exhibited at the Airport Cafe at the San Francisco International Airport; in 1987, he was included in a show “Seven Painters from the Jeremy Stone Gallery,” at Shasta College in Redding, CA; in 1987, he was included in the exhibition “Contemporary Realism,” at the Palo Alto Cultural Center, Palo Alto, CA; and in 1988, he was shown in “Still Life,” at the Airport Gallery, in San Francisco International Airport.
Susan Hinton, of Artweek, reviewed the Palo Alto Cultural Center which included work by ten artists: Wayne Thiebaud, Paul Wonner, Guy Diehl, Charles Griffin Farr, Mel Ramos, Mary Snowden, Joe Draegert, Steven Bigler, Richard Estes, and John Register. Writing about Diehl, Hinton notes “Within this exhibition, Guy Diehl’s work most deliberately comments on its relationship to photography. In each of his small paintings there is one narrow, sharp focal plane, and he rest of the picture gently blurs. A standard lens would cause the same effect in a close-up photograph. This mildly humorous commentary is heightened by Diehl’s centering the droll objects in his still lifes (as do many snapshots).” She adds “In Red Book with Picasso Card, we hover over two books in a three-quarter aerial view and espy the top portion of a Picasso postcard used as a bookmark. Thus art theorist Walter Benjamin’s observation on the faltering aura of unique artworks in an age of photographic reproduction is both acknowledged and reappropriated.” Susan Hinton, Artweek, January 23, 1988.
Hunsaker/Schlesinger Fine Art
In 1987, Diehl exhibited with Hunsaker/Schlesinger Fine Art, originally located on the 800 block of N. La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles and later in Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. The 1987 show “Recent Paintings” highlighted some of Diehl’s earliest paintings from his still life series.
He would also exhibit with the gallery in 2004. A review in the Los Angeles Times noted, “Diehl is terrifically adept at rendering volume, translucency and shadow, and his compositions are always elegant and harmonious.” The review emphasized that “Guy Diehl’s paintings are reverential, above all. A consummate technician steeped in art history, Diehl practices painting as an act of homage.” “Meticulous tribute to other artists,” Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2004.
In 1991, after nine years running a gallery, and after extensive renovations to the gallery to repair damage caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Jeremy Stone closed her gallery. She left an impressive legacy having curated over 80 exhibitions in the preceding years.
Stone started an art appraisal business, Business Matters in the Visual Arts, and worked as a Special Events Manager at the Jewish Contemporary Museum where she ran the Contemporaries group for young professionals (supporting the Art Spiegelman Road to Maus exhibition); and she served as a juror in one of the museum’s invitational exhibitions. She also worked for the LEAP Arts in Education nonprofit, which had been formed in 1979 in response to education budget cuts in California. For many years, Stone taught as visiting faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Importantly, Diehl left the Jeremy Stone Gallery feeling Stone had significantly advanced his career. During the period of transition, Stone worked hard to place her artists in other galleries.
Stone thought Modernism gallery would be a good fit for Diehl’s work. At the time, Modernism was in the Beaux Arts Monadnock Building on Market Street, and Diehl had met Martin Muller at exhibitions of Mel Ramos’ work there. Muller arranged a meeting with Diehl in 1991 to discuss the possibility of working together. Both were eager to give it a try.
Muller, a native of Switzerland, emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. His gallery, which he started in the following decade, exhibited West Coast artists such as Mel Ramos, John Register, and Mark Stock and he also curated exhibitions by early 20th Century Russian avant-garde artists, such as Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky; and also exhibits focused on artists from European movements such as Dada, Cubism, Vorticism, and German Expressionism. Muller featured individual artists such as Andy Warhol, Le Corbusier, Gottfried Helnwein, and Dada collagist Erwin Blumenfeld. Diehl credits Muller with introducing him to Russian constructivist painters which started to appear, as art-about-art references, in Diehl’s own work. Mueller didn’t hesitate to encourage Diehl to utilize particular art historical references he liked himself.
Muller started including some pool series paintings in group shows. Diehl’s solo exhibitions at Modernism occurred in 1993, 1994, and 1997.
Kenneth Baker reviewed Diehl’s 1993 Modernism exhibition noting “Despite their formalistic tidiness, Diehl’s pictures almost always show him thinking about more than structure.” He goes on further to say “Diehl has not exactly reinvented realism in his new work, but he does remind us that interactions of style and content may make depictive painting more adaptable to changing cultural frameworks than we suspect.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1993.
Diehl also started working with the Fletcher Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1994. Introduced to Jay Fletcher by fellow Modernism artist Mark Stock, the gallery was located on the 600 block of Canyon Road, in the heart of the Santa Fe art scene. Diehl participated in a group show in 1994, then a solo exhibition the following year.
Dottie Indyke reviewed Diehl’s solo exhibition at the Fletcher Gallery, writing “Whether the object of his attention is a fruit, vegetable, or article of clothing, California painter Guy Diehl makes it come to life in a new way. Set against a neutral background, Diehl’s subjects nearly glow, exhibiting the artist’s concern for what he calls ‘the seduction of light.’ His presentation is always distilled down to its most basic.” The article quotes Diehl at length about his approach to realism and his concern with light and color. Diehl reiterates a focus of his work saying “I ask myself how I can make a statement by doing less.” Dottie Indyke, “Less is more in Diehl’s seductions of light,” Pasatiempo (Santa Fe, New Mexico Weekly), July 7, 1995.
Kenneth Baker reviewed Diehl’s 1994 exhibition at Modernism which was presented in the gallery adjacent to a show of work by Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer, who had been part of the Fluxus-like “Actionist” group in Vienna in the 1960. Baker wrote “It is a relief to turn from the Rainers at Modernism to the concurrent show of small still lifes by San Francisco painter Guy Diehl. Diehl paints arrangements of books and art postcards in a velvety realist manner. His pictures balance tensions between the literal report of still-life objects, the quotation of other artists’ works and smoothly executed patterns of light, reflection and shadow.” San Francisco Chronicle, June 2, 1994.
In 1997, Diehl made a decision to leave Modernism and look for new representation. Although the gallery was making sales, Diehl was looking for greater growth opportunities.
Diehl had been included in a group show with the Contemporary Realist Gallery while still represented by Modernism. At the time, the gallery was located on Grant Street. Business partners Tracy Freedman and Michael Hackett transitioned into the newly named Hackett-Freedman Gallery, located on the 500 block of Sutter Street, which expanded their offerings to include artists of the Bay Area Figurative tradition. It was natural for Diehl to forge a relationship with them since they had already worked together.
In 1997, Tracy Freedman visited Diehl’s studio in Mill Valley. Freedman liked what she saw, and they discussed what Diehl hoped to achieve in his career. Importantly, Hackett would later call Diehl and inform him that he and Freedman intended to immediately raise his prices 100%. With that, Diehl would be able to stop teaching, and devote his full time to painting, which is something that he was hoping to achieve with new gallery representation.
Diehl had solo exhibitions at Hackett-Freedman in 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2007. The 2001 exhibition was reviewed by Kenneth Baker who noted Diehl’s “smooth, unfiniky realism” and his penchant for stacking objects “on a tabletop under raking daylight, with darkness behind.” San Francisco Chronicle, June 16, 2001.
For some art historians or critics, the question of whether realism and the still life genre could be pushed beyond historical traditions, permeates their assessment of the contemporary artists working within the style. In contrast to this thinking, Steven Nash, then-chief curator at the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, understood that “For Guy Diehl, this has never been an issue. Diehl openly and enthusiastically embraces tradition in his work, finding in it sustenance for both structural and iconographic invention and proffering his dialogues with the past as a major vehicle of communication. Rather than a punishing lesson is ‘what has been,’ it opens doors to ‘what might be.'” Steven Nash, “Guy Diehl and History” in Guy Diehl, Recent Paintings, June 1998. Diehl’s use of artist postcard associations push the still life genre further: “The underlying point is that history, now in a different way, again informs the paintings in their expression and intent. Books and reproductions, as the materials that propagate art history, themselves become the subject of art, reminding us of the treasures of past traditions while positing the interaction of different cultural currents, although certainly without any of the sharp or bitter edge of postmodern irony.” Notwithstanding the historical considerations, Nash’s assessment of Diehl’s work is one shared by many viewers “Highly distilled on the one hand, yet offering much that is rich for the eye on the other, these paintings absorb us into their quiet mood of permanence.”
Diehl’s 2007 solo exhibition “A Dialogue with Tradition: The Art of Guy Diehl” at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art was previewed in The Sonoma Index-Tribute, “Diehl is a contemporary still-life painter with a style that is formally realist yet entirely postmodern. His luminous acrylic paintings focus less on photo-realism than on the relationships between objects and the play of light around and among them. Calling attention to the context and hidden beauty of the overlooked, his compositions juxtapose natural objects such as seashells, flowers or pieces of fruit with manmade objects such as art reproductions, glass bottles and finely bound books.” The newspaper’s staff writer noted “Surfaces are velvety, colors are rich and every object is an exquisite specimen.” The Sonoma Index-Tribune, November 6, 2007.
After four successful exhibitions together, in 2009, Freedman called Diehl to inform him that she and Hackett had decided to close the gallery. The economic downturn at the end of 2008 had made them weary of committing to a lengthy new 10-year lease and Freedman noted they were ready to take a break; they wanted to leave on a high note.
Two years later Hackett would open a new gallery, Hackett-Mill Gallery, with his former gallery director Francis Mill, focusing their energies on the secondary market and a select group of elder, living artists.
Diehl worked with Sullivan Gross Gallery in Santa Barbara for less than a year. Frank Gross had reached out once he heard about the closing of Hackett-Freedman Gallery and Diehl was summarily included in three successive group shows in 2010.
Dolby Chadwick Gallery
In 2010, Lisa Dolby Chadwick, of the Dolby Chadwick Gallery, approached Diehl and started the discussion of working together. Chadwick’s prestige had been consistently rising since starting her own gallery in 1997. An artist herself, having worked as a photographer while in college, she opened her own business after first working in another gallery. Chadwick focused “on works wherein the artist’s dedication to craft, observation, and materials is evident.” Chadwick was representing a diverse group of fine artists including Alex Kanevsky, John DiPaolo, and Sherie’ Franssen. Two other Hackett-Freedman artists, Ann Gale and Terry St. John, also joined her gallery.
At the time Diehl began working with the gallery, Chadwick’s reputation and influence was established. She had started representing sculptor Stephen De Staebler’s estate and had embarked on co-organizing a major De Staebler retrospective exhibition at the De Young Museum in 2012. It was a show cited by San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker as among the best of the year.
Diehl has had solo exhibitions at Dolby Chadwick in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2018, and 2020; additionally, he’s been included in a variety of group shows.
In 2010, Diehl worked with the Davis Mural Team Project in Davis, CA, painting “Still Life with Billie Holiday,” a 9 x 11 foot mural located on the side wall of Davis Ace Hardware in downtown Davis, California.
It was a project coordinated by The John Natsoulas Gallery and part of the municipality’s arts program. Diehl’s mural was based a 36 x 41 inch canvas painting, “Still Life with Billie Holiday.”
In the summer of 2018, Diehl’s solo exhibition opened in the Moradian Gallery of the Fresno Museum of Art. A selection of paintings, etchings, and drawings was exhibited.
Selections from the Still Life Series — 2015–2020
In 1987, Ardis Allport of The Allport Gallery reintroduced Diehl to Don Farnsworth who he had briefly known when he worked at Editions Press. Farnsworth now had his own fine art printing press and handmade paper mill in Oakland, Magnolia Editions, which he operates with his wife Era.
Diehl printed his first multicolored limited-edition lithograph with Magnolia in 1988 and thereafter, for the next thirty-three years, began making editions of various images every few years or so. Additionally, Diehl worked at Magnolia in collaboration with his former Cal State Hayward instructor, Mel Ramos, in 2016 and 2017.
Diehl visits Magnolia on a weekly basis working with Master Printers Tallulah Terryll and Nicholas Price. Before the advent of digital technology, he would often take a proof image home to work from, as in the case of a thirteen color litho, where each color was separately hand drawn, and later transferred onto lithography plates to be printed. Now, he tends to complete the process at Magnolia, devoting whatever time is necessary, sometimes working several weeks or months.
As Farnsworth began developing woven tapestry technology, Diehl worked on that project, making four of his still life images available as a tapestry (in an edition of eight). Farnsworth sought to invite other artists to work with the new technology; as a result, Kiki Smith, Chuck Close, Deborah Oropallo, Hung Liu, William Wiley, Bruce Conner, among others, have produced large scale tapestries at Magnolia Editions.
On occasion, Diehl works at Magnolia without any preconceived idea or purpose, experimenting freely with materials which Farnsworth encourages; sometimes even developing new techniques in collaboration. Diehl also often assists in other projects Farnsworth is engaged in; for instance, the historical re-creation of 15th Century handmade linen paper. Diehl’s long-standing presence at Magnolia Editions has earned him the moniker of “artist in residence,” which at this point in their relationship seems fairly permanent.
In 2020, eighteen years after seeing the original, Diehl made a reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s famous 1912 paperboard constructed cubist guitar. He utilized a number of reference materials, including photographs of the original on display in The Museum of Modern Art (New York) as part of their permanent collection, and a 360-degree rotation video of the guitar, to duplicate its specifications. The completed work was a ⅓ scale in height, facsimile of the original.
After a visit to Diehl’s studio, Era and Don Farnsworth conceived of enlarging the project. At that point, Diehl and Farnsworth began making trial versions of near full-scale guitars. They eventually produced a step-by-step educational construction guide sharing what they had learned about how Picasso created his iconic paperboard cubist guitar, which makers in residence of the United States can download.
The project heightened their already existing respect for Picasso’s artistic vision, as they marveled at the choices Picasso executed to realize his vision of an object typically presented in the utilitarian form. The instruction manual was published as an homage to him and understanding its construction as a three-dimensional cubist object.
In 2019, the Winfield Gallery in Carmel-by-the-Sea began exhibiting Diehl’s work. It is offered among a wide array of fine artists including David Ligare, James Weeks (estate), Pamela Carroll, Amy Weiskopf, and Marc Trujillo.
Guy Diehl’s development as an artist continues to this day. As of the publication of this essay, he’s completed over 420 canvas paintings since the start of the still life series in 1985 and remains deeply committed to the genre and the challenges painting poses. The wonder that his canvases reveal today are as immediate as they were when he first began drawing as a young man in Pennsylvania over 60 years ago.
— Matt Gonzalez
Further information about Guy Diehl
Acknowledgment: Various conversations between artist Guy Diehl and Matt Gonzalez, which informed this essay, occurred between November 5, 2020 and February 22, 2021, in San Francisco and Marin County.