Richard Diebenkorn's Masterful "Ocean Park" Series Is Presented in a Comprehensive Touring Exhibition

Richard Diebenkorn's "Untitled #26," 1984, gouache, acrylic, and crayon on joined paper
(© The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn; Image courtesy The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn)

Richard Diebenkorn
Orange County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
February 26–May 27

During the Summer of Love in the Ocean Park neighborhood bridging the L.A. coastal communities of Venice Beach and Santa Monica, a well-established middle-aged painter moved from one studio into another, better lit one. Physically, the shift was nominal, but it prompted Richard Diebenkorn to abandon his successful signature style of saturated Matisse-like depictions of seated women and tabletop detritus to embark on a radical new direction. It wasn’t the first time he had done this—but it was the last. The “Ocean Park” series was the artist’s big shift into pure abstraction. It would hold his attention for the remaining decades of his life (which ended in 1993) and represent one of the most acclaimed bodies of work in the history of 20th-century painting—lyrical drafting-table palimpsests; layer upon layer of incrementally reconfigured rectilinear lozenges of nuanced chroma; a squashed cubist armada endlessly jostling in a Pacific-hued harbor. Edward Hopper in Flatland, deprived of his magic hour shadows and intricate architectural scaffolding, but finding new life in crisp aerial origami topographies enclosing cloudy washes of muted complements. Stained glass permutations and combinations, dripping beauty. The Bomb.

Unlikely as it seems, Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series—ultimately comprising hundreds of paintings, drawings, collages, and prints created between 1967 and 1988—has never been the subject of a comprehensive museum exhibition until just now. “Richard Diebenkorn: the Ocean Park Series” seems to have been hovering in the Coming Attractions section of the Orange County Museum of Art’s schedule for half a decade.

Apart from the economic crisis, the major obstacle has been logistics—as curator Sarah Bancroft points out, “There are ‘Ocean Park’ works in over 45 museum collections in the U.S., but only two institutions own more than one of them.” More widely acknowledged than deeply understood, Diebenkorn’s magnum opus has been fragmented and scattered across the landscape. “The grand diaspora of major works,” opines Bancroft in the awesome, copiously illustrated catalogue, “has ensured that audiences rarely have the opportunity to view ‘Ocean Park’ works in their depth and their diversity of media.”

Audiences finally have their chance. “Richard Diebenkorn: the Ocean Park Series” debuted at the co-organizing Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth last September and arrived in Bancroft’s Newport Beach base of operations in late February. After May, it moves on to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., for the summer, which will give Americans one more chance to reassess their tippy canon.

The OCMA installation will be hard to beat—most of the museum’s half-dozen galleries are devoted to the exhibit and each of the large canvases is apportioned an expansive wall unto itself, a masterful curatorial decision that allows each work to unfold its architectonic structure into the nooks and crannies of the white cube (if ever there was an argument in favor of institutional white cubism, this show is it!) and initiates a complex four-way dialogue between the occupants of each room. The curious non-linear stylistic development of the “Ocean Park” series subverts the exhibition’s chronological sequencing, resulting in a larger, more complex—and somewhat arbitrary— version of these intimate arguments. Epic.

Two narrower galleries feature prints, collages, and smaller paintings, all remarkable in that they are lesser works only in size and dollar value. It is apparent that Diebenkorn put some effort into conquering the bugaboo of scale, and these miniatures—along with a sequence of painted cigar-box lids the artist presented to his friends, which anchor a wall in one of the larger galleries—more than hold their own in the company of the big boys: A small gouache on paper such as the atmospherically flesh-tinted Untitled #8, 1988, contains all the compositional intricacy and exquisite color of a similar gargantuan work, Ocean Park #83, 1975.

It took me some years to warm up to the pieces in Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series, and I came to them through his earlier work. At the time—the early 1980s—the “Ocean Park” works held center stage. It was the most visible and best received of his oeuvres. Its popularity and adherence to the still-powerful modernist obsessions with geometry and flatness in painting had all but pushed Diebenkorn’s earlier, gushy abstractions and contrarian figurative work into the wings. To me, the paintings seemed like so many impressionist envelopes and file folders scanned from above.

When I discovered the heavily impastoed, loosely gestural still lifes and luminous abstract patchworks of color from Diebenkorn’s previous incarnations, I was shocked (a not uncommon response I later found out) to realize that this was the same Diebenkorn whose serene and cerebral geometric abstractions seemed to owe more to Sol LeWitt than to Willem de Kooning.

Diebenkorn had something of a charmed career, especially for an artist so inextricably identified with the West Coast. After winding down World War II by doing various artsy chores for the marines, he landed a yearlong painting sabbatical grant after his first semester as a student at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art institute), and he lit out for the East Coast. After a year in Woodstock, New York, he returned to a CSFA faculty position and began producing the work that would establish him as one of the most gifted practitioners of the West Coast iteration of Abstract Expressionism. After a highly productive graduate school stint in New Mexico (the Albuquerque period—itself the subject of an acclaimed traveling exhibit in 2007), Diebenkorn spent a year teaching at the University of Illinois (the Urbana period) before settling in Berkeley.

Throughout these travels, Diebenkorn was perfecting an extraordinarily robust abstract visual vocabulary, synthesizing historical influences as various as Matisse, Cézanne, Arshile Gorky, Joan Miró, Hopper, and Piero della Francesca and contemporary influences from Mark Rothko and Franz Kline to fellow Bay Area painters and friends, Elmer Bischoff and David Park, as well as popular and industrial visual affinities, ranging from Krazy Kat comics to aerial photography. The resulting amalgam is an intensive exploration of landscape-inspired shape, line, and color unrivalled in its virtuosity—except perhaps by the work of Willem de Kooning.

Like de Kooning, Diebenkorn shocked his supporters in the mid ’50s by abruptly and emphatically embracing figuration, joining Bischoff and Park in what became known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Overnight his loose, complex planar compositions dissolved into perspectival landscapes, then interiors and still lifes, and finally they began to be populated by people—usually women, especially his wife, Phyllis.

This heretical turn was greeted with dismay by Abstract Expressionism’s coterie of true believers: Diebenkorn was a backslider, a reactionary, a sellout. Problem was, by 1955, when he made the switch, Ab-Ex had already become the prevailing orthodoxy, and Diebenkorn was comfortably ensconced in its canon. With Pop art still just a twinkle in Eduardo Paolozzi’s eye, it was in fact a courageous— possibly foolhardy—leap into the unknown.

But Diebenkorn’s luck held, and his representational work eventually brought him an entirely new audience on top of the one that was actually able to discern his undiminished formal chops, now operating under the thin veil of narrative. The images were not putting the carefully honed, abstract painterly techniques at the service of pictorial storytelling, but rather allowing the paintings’ formal elements to rearrange themselves around the psychological gravity fields of identifiable figures. Bay Area figuration was a feat of legerdemain that led many a diehard abstractionist to reconsider what was actually going on across the history of painting.

Without a cutting-edge theoretical mechanism behind them, though, the Bay Area figs were generally perceived as retreating from the inevitable Modernist juggernaut into what many, after Duchamp, disparaged as “retinal art.”

But like Duchamp, Diebenkorn was not really much of a joiner. And like Duchamp, whenever things got a little too peer-groupy, Diebenkorn shifted locale. By the time Duchamp’s final figurative masterpiece was posthumously unveiled in 1969, Diebenkorn had taken a job at UCLA, moved to the beach, and was two years into the prismatic territorial negotiations of the “Ocean Park” series.

Ironically, the “Ocean Park” series dovetailed quite neatly with the post-Duchampian Conceptualism (and post-Stella geometric Minimalist painting) of the 1970s, and won over many skeptics. But it seems to me that there’s more than stylistic compatibility at work here. It wasn’t trumpeted at the time, in the midst of an era-defining explosion of heterogeneous art practices, but I would contend that with the “ocean park” series, Diebenkorn successfully mapped out a neutral zone between Conceptualism and painterliness, striking a balance between the romantic formalist sensuality of Matisse and the precise mathematical serialism of Mondrian, and effectively reconciling the aesthetic/philosophic extremes that had polarized the art world since the French Revolution.

That he accomplished this in what amounts to a hermetic practice marked by studio isolationism, a famously antisocial approach to the art world (though he was just as famously generous toward his students), and an emphatically handmade and idiosyncratically personal visual vocabulary is a welcome antidote to the mandatory relational and post–studio production dogmas of the last decade.

If the “Ocean Park” series’s main selling points are its consummate craft and intellectual rigor, its most surprising payoff lies in its testimony to the possibility that a single human consciousness in deliberate contemplative isolation can—in spite of operating within parameters that may be identified and dismissed as old-fashioned— take in everything that is going on, fit it all together, and come up with something no one has ever seen before.

Click on the slide show to see images from Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series.

This article will appear in the May issue of Modern Painters magazine.