In 1966 Diebenkorn moved to the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica to take up a teaching position at University of California, Los Angeles, amid an experimental art scene, represented by the L.A. Pop of Ed Ruscha, the light and space movement of Robert Irwin and the conceptual work of John Baldessari. Diebenkorn reveled in the sense of freedom he encountered, but he ultimately worked in the solitude of his studio and pursued his own innate impulses, grounded in his knowledge and experience in pure modernist abstraction. A few months after his arrival in the neighborhood, he moved from a windowless studio into the larger studio formerly occupied by the painter Sam Francis, just as his aesthetic focus shifted irrevocably from the figurative to the abstract. That same year, Diebenkorn visited the Henri Matisse retrospective at UCLA. Having first become familiar with the great French colorist during his time as an undergraduate at Stanford, the 1966 retrospective was arguably the catalyst behind Diebenkorn’s aesthetic breakthrough. Matisse’s View of Notre Dame (1914) with its delicately constructed black scaffolding and flat planes of chalky blue washed in translucent gold light set down the last stone along the path to abstraction. The Ocean Park pictures, begun only months after seeing the Matisse show, seem to leap from this stone. In Untitled (1980) the blue print of Matisse’s pivotal 1914 picture are still evident; like Matisse, Diebenkorn allows the temporal quality of his picture to reveal itself in the subtle pentimenti that float just beneath layers of pale blue, butter yellow and soft peach. Diebenkorn’s blue marks traverse the paper and whisper of an ocean landscape in the same way that Matisse’s lines imply cathedral arches, albeit literally.
Between 1967 and 1980 Diebenkorn remained more or less occupied with the architectonic vocabulary of his Ocean pictures. Then, as Diebenkorn explains: “In 1981 I did accept both a theme and a motif in the form of the black playing card pips, clubs and spades. I had used these signs in my work almost from my beginnings, but always peripherally, incidentally, and perhaps whimsically. So at this point I dealt with them directly – as theme and variation. I discovered that these symbols had for me a much greater emotional charge than I realized. I had intended to involve myself with them only briefly but found that their impetus kept me with them almost a year and a half” (the artist quoted in: ibid, p. 13). Untitled (1981) is one of the smallest in scale from this briefly explored but richly inventive body of work. The contours and color of the bright emerald green spade evoke organic imagery; the lush form of a large palm tree fans out in the breeze. Joan Miro’s influence is most evident in Diebenkorn’s drawings from this period – in the playful way that a simple landscape emerges from an abstract work. Diebenkorn had discovered Miro’s work in the late 40s; from it, he learned to curve whimsical, suggestive shapes. This paring down to essential lines and evocatory colors recalls the sign-making of Paul Klee and anticipates the street-style of Keith Haring.
Like Willem de Kooning, Diebenkorn honored both figuration and abstraction with lyrical ease, departing from conventional artistic orthodoxy of any variety. Even in the Ocean Park pictures, considered a defining body of work in the history of American abstraction, there is a figurative core; sunlight floats through windows and across sidewalks, the ocean rolls in and recedes, buildings take shape against the horizon. Newlin explains, “The point of his radiant geometry is to transform the visible signs into meaning and to compress meaning into the briefest possible indication of the character of a thing. His medium of transformation is light as it irradiates the colors and illuminates the forms.”
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