first published in Medium, December 13, 2020
Guy Diehl, Forging an Art Life
A biography of minimalist still life artist Guy Diehl, covering his early days in Pennsylvania and the development of his art career in California.
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 for having 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 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 amplified 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 disability. 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 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 counter-balance 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 West Coast Watercolor Society, 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 must be learned.
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.
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.
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 you would hope the Mt. Diablo School Board would have supported.
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, he was compelled 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 support. 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 wasn’t physically fit 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 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 Swimming Pool Series, which would comprise his first mature group of paintings.
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.
Diablo Valley College was about 6 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 Edward 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 and William T. Wiley. 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 getting to DVC, Diehl’s art history knowledge was only to such well known 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 getting 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 really 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, gave a slight smile and paused briefly; he told Diehl, “Come back on Wednesday.” Thus began one of Diehl’s most important life-long artistic relationships. Diehl’s tenacity had paid off.
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 your painting skills, satisfying those basic expectations would get you 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 one assignment, 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, design a wall mounted easel based on the one Ramos used in his 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 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. Diehl replied that he would ask her, and she agreed to pose. It was common for artists to share models, albeit through a modeling guild, and Sue was posing for Diehl’s swimming pool 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 would learn 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, in 1972 at the insistence of Ramos, Diehl applied for and won, one of three 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). 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.
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 photorealist 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 work from his Swimming Pool Series, which included 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 Swimming 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 swimming pool 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 didn’t even appear in print until 1970, in a Whitney Museum exhibition catalogue; it is credited to art dealer Louis K. Meisel.
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. 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 opportunities to speak about art with such skilled 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 emotional 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 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 he 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 would to visit 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 agreed. Diehl didn’t know anything about Gutmann at the time, except that he understood that Gutmann was near the end 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.
Bechtle and McLean didn’t say much about Gutmann although Diehl remembers being warned that Gutmann had an obsession with death which was manifested in the various Day of the Dead artifacts and alters he had in his home, which Diehl saw when he first visited him. Gutmann lived in a small bungalow house in the Sunset District of San Francisco. At first, Diehl was intimidated by Gutmann, who had emigrated from Europe, was older (in his 70s), 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 came to admire him.
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 push 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 commitment to this idea, a reality.
END OF PART ONE
Selections from the Still Life Series — 2015–2020
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 January 19, 2021, in San Francisco and Marin County.