In 1966 Richard Diebenkorn left the San Francisco Bay Area, where he’d been making some of the most thoughtful, rich, figurative and representational paintings in art, to teach at UCLA. The next year he moved into a new studio in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica and started making new paintings, paintings that were radically flat and abstract. Diebenkorn would continue to work in this manner for 20 years. These works are the subject of an exhibition “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series,” at the Museum of Modern Art Fort Worth. The show was co-organized by the Orange County Museum of Art.
OCMA curator Sarah C. Bancroft has included about 80 works, not just paintings but also drawings, paintings-on-paper and prints made between 1967 and 1987, when Diebenkorn worked at the intersection of Main Street and Ashland Avenue in what is now downtown Santa Monica. While Diebenkorn didn’t necessarily embrace the term ‘Ocean Park series,’ he didn’t resist the moniker too strenuously. (In part because studio and space had a significant impact on his output, Diebenkorn’s abstractions had long been semi-titled under the geography of their making, such as ‘Berkeley,’ ‘Albuquerque,’ or ‘Sausalito.’) Bancroft’s exceptional exhibition confirms our idea of Diebenkorn as the greatest painter of his period, the second-generation abex-and-forward era, and suggests that the Ocean Park paintings are the pinnacle of modern abstract art. [Image: Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #116, 1979. Collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]
The MAMFW installation opens with a small gouache, charcoal and ink on paper, Untitled (View from Studio, Ocean Park) from 1969. As Bancroft explains in a catalogue essay, the little sketch is a three-part view. The middle features the view from Diebenkorn’s studio window: A couple of palm trees, a telephone pole, some houses and possibly fog. The top third of the painting is filled by the open transom window in his studio, the bottom-third by the window’s opaque lower panel. It’s easy to see where Diebenkorn took inspiration for at least some of the geometry that inspired the paintings that were to follow for the next two decades. (The catalogue includes a somewhat representational 1970 painting Diebenkorn made that seems to feature the same studio window.)
Still, however fascinating they are art historically, neither of these paintings are quite what we consider ‘classic’ Ocean Park paintings. They’re too divided, broken up into thirds, and are plainly transitional. While Diebenkorn’s move to Santa Monica created the same opportunity to re-invent his art that a new studio typically provided for him, the key transitional moment in Diebenkorn’s work seems to have come several years after he moved into Ocean Park. In 1970 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation invited Diebenkorn to make art informed by massive engineering projects in Arizona known as water reclamation. Diebenkorn accepted the invitation and viewed the bureau’s earthworks, such as the Central Arizona Project Aqueduct, from both mesa-top and from helicopter. That experience directly led to Diebenkorn’s acrylic-on-paper series, Lower Colorado #1-#8 (1970). [Image: Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #27, 1970. Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.]
Five of these eight paintings were first exhibited in an art museum at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2010. I wrote that they showed “Diebenkorn approaching the peak of his powers, mixing color in geometry in ways that would soon lead to the best of his Ocean Park paintings.” In her catalogue essay Bancroft agrees, and includes aerial photographs of the Central Arizona Project that approximate what Diebenkorn might have seen from the bureau’s helicopter.
These eight works on paper were a pivotal point in Diebenkorn’s career. Before the Bureau of Reclamation project, the Ocean Park paintings were often sometimes stilted rectangles in which disparate colored spaces were held at bay by wide swaths of white, a painter’s equivalent of a two-by-four. They were nice sections pushed together, but not quite completely resolved whole compositions. After the Reclamation pictures, the two-by-fours became longer, canvas-spanning, narrow pipes of white, or were eliminated altogether. Suddenly — with four paintings from 1970 the exhibition makes clear how quickly this change happened — the paintings came together as they had not before.
The only disappointment of Bancroft’s exceptional exhibition is that these eight Lower Colorado pieces are not included. Instead they’re relegated to a two-page spread in the catalogue. (Another highlight of the catalogue is Susan Landauer’s feisty essay, which suggests that there is much scholarship and study left to be done on Diebenkorn, his sources, and the context in which we might consider his art — and that Landauer believes that Jane Livingston, the curator of the last Diebenkorn retrospective and of the ongoing Diebenkorn catalogue raisonne project, got a lot wrong.)
The Bureau of Reclamation paintings, acrylic on paper with occasional collage, are important in another, slightly paradoxical way: They reveal how important landscape was to Diebenkorn and, well, how unimportant it was. (In general, landscape as a source of Diebenkorn’s art has often been overstated by historians.) Yes, landscape — particularly Reclamation’s man-altered landscape of the desert Southwest — was critical to the maturation of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park work. In addition to how that trip seems to have helped Diebenkorn to smooth the composition of his paintings, it seems to have informed his palette: Before Reclamation his Ocean Park paintings were full of ruddy reds and a range of pastel tones. Afterward, his color took on greater brightness and intensity. Landscape informed, but it did not motivate. Diebenkorn seems to have carried what he saw in the desert Southwest with him into his Ocean Park studio, where he mixed it with other influences, including that transom window, his own masterful understanding of color, and his own study of Matisse, Cezanne, Hofmann, Bonnard and more. [Image: Diebenkorn, Lower Colorado #5, 1970. Collection of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.]
And what a run it was: For 18 years, from 1970 until the end of the Ocean Park series in 1988 (when Diebenkorn moved to Healdsburg, Calif.) Diebenkorn made paintings, works on paper and prints that consistently reached the apex of 20th-century abstraction.
That’s not to say that Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series is better than Jackson Pollock’s drips or Barnett Newman’s zips or Clyfford Still’s knifed canyons or Vija Celmins’s star-fields or spider webs. But ‘Ocean Park’ is the body of work that most absorbs and considers virtually every key innovation of 20th-century painting. Maybe a better way to put it is this: I can’t think of a series that is as informed by — and effectively sums up — 20th-century abstraction as fully as the Ocean Park series. And still the paintings never feel like they’re doing that — they’re Diebenkorns through and through. You’d never mistake them for the work of anyone else. In this last great burst of his life, Diebenkorn synthesized decades of painterly progress and then found a way to make it all his. [Image: Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #87, 1975.]
True, when it comes to examining the modernist project in painting Diebenkorn had an advantage: His Ocean Park production hit its stride nearer to Nixon than to the Third Republic, 65 years after fauvism and cubism began aggressively flattening space, 50 years after neoplasticism began carving up that flatness and 30 years after abstract expressionism first dominated art in both New York and San Francisco (where Diebenkorn himself was a leading protagonist in the 1940s). Another advantage: Diebenkorn’s commitment to California geographically isolated him from the way so many New York artists were chasing the newest dominant -ism in their bid to escape abex. Pop and New York minimalism had little-to-no impact on Diebenkorn. (In fact, it’s hard to think of a major American artist less impressed by pop.)
Instead of pursuing the present trend, Diebenkorn doubled-down on his examination of the previous 70 years of painting. In the Ocean Parks, as in cubism or fauvism, space is completely flat. Even when Diebenkorn paints a curving diagonal, there is no suggestion of depth or perspective, just line. The composition covers the entire field; Diebenkorn uses every last centimeter of canvas and expands the focal point to include the entire surface of the painting.
And Diebenkorn succeeds in areas where his fellow 20th-century titans failed, such as scalability. There are few Picassos that are both large and great. There are few, if any, small Pollacks as great as his big paintings, such as this giant, almost nine-by-eighteen-foot painting. It doesn’t matter how big or small Diebenkorn’s Ocean Parks are, they still shine. The little cigar-box-lid paintings, which Diebenkorn often gave to friends as gifts, max out at about eight inches square. The color, line, composition and intensity is as powerful at sixty-four square inches as it is in concurrent paintings, which clock in at 8,100 square inches. In the history of art, there are very few painters who made small as well as they made big. There’s Rembrandt, Raphael, Bonnard, Matisse, Diebenkorn — and not too many more.
This scale-up, scale-down was enabled by Diebenkorn’s mastery of composition. Part of the genius of the Ocean Parks is that with this series Diebenkorn hit upon a way to reduce painting to his two greatest strengths: color and composition, or line. Every Ocean Park, down to the smallest drawing, is architectonic. The carefully considered, erased, and re-painted horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines support the colors that sit on and over them. The colors seem to provide structure for, well, the structure. Architecture is a major interest of artists today, of sculptors such as Sarah Oppenheimer and of painters such as Julie Mehretu and Terry Winters. There’s no direct line between Diebenkorn and those artists — or to the artists of the southern California light-and-space movement, who were also interested in architecture — but one of the revelations of this exhibition is how much the construction of Diebenkorn’s late work is likely to have influenced the next generation of artists. [Image: Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1975.]
Certainly there’s no way to take them on directly, pictorially. These are remarkably finished paintings, declarative sentences and lack the sort of open-ends from which other artists most like to pick up. Walking through the MAMFW show I tried to find parts of canvases that were compositionally unresolved, where line broke down, where color was a bit off or a tick out of place. Couldn’t find it. Ultimately, I suspect that if Bancroft had chosen 30 different Ocean Park paintings, the exhibition would have been just as great. There may not be an imperfect post-1970 Ocean Park painting.
Which brings me to the final greatness of these paintings: They’re just astonishingly beautiful. Each Ocean Park artwork is clearly a part of a single, extended exploration, a project, but each stands on its own, too.
Weirdly, one of the triumphs of Bancroft’s exhibition is that by hanging so many Ocean Park works together we have the opportunity to discover how unalike they are: Some are dominated not by washy, foggy grounds, but by the color black, with only faint traces of color. Some are rich studies of blue and green slotted into geometries and compositions that are seem comfortable and easy, but whose pentimenti reveals them as hard-won. Others are dominated by burnt yellows and reds. Another by a not-quite-monochrome blue, broken up by thin diagonals that are mostly white, with perhaps a bit of yellow, and then a dominating just-as-thin line of red at the bottom of the canvas. Many are horizontal, especially from the late ’70s forward. There is even purple. (Purple? Purple.) [Image: Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #138, 1985.]
In the end, I do not know how to explain that for me Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings are simply the most beautiful abstractions of the century. After all, “most beautiful” is a wincingly subjective determination.
Or is it? In a recent lecture at the Museum of Modern Art Fort Worth, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, the painter’s daughter, said that during the Ocean Park period her father was fascinated by the golden ratio, an irrational mathematical constant long believed to be aesthetically pleasing and she suggested that it informed his painting during the Ocean Park period. Maybe Richard Diebenkorn simply found the way to combine color with a storied, magic formula, and thus found a way to paint the greatest abstractions in modern art.