Diebenkorn’s widely renowned Ocean Park series, begun in 1967 and extending nearly twenty years, represents a remarkable feat of creative reinvention and dexterity that is as impressive as it is rare. The 145 numbered canvases that comprise the Ocean Park series are indisputably regarded as the signature core of the artist’s oeuvre and represent a singular achievement in the sublime beauty of light, color and abstraction. The magnanimous import of these paintings within the canon of art history is evidenced by the illustrious exhibition history and museum presence of the series as a whole. The Ocean Park paintings are held in more than forty-five pre-eminent museum collections in the United States, as well as the most distinguished private collections worldwide.
Contrary to the initially idyllic impression conveyed by the overwhelming atmospheric beauty and lush chromatic density of the Ocean Park paintings, the eponymous neighborhood was in fact not the bucolic Eden that Diebenkorn’s depiction of light and sky would suggest. When Diebenkorn moved in to Sam Francis’ old studio in the Ocean Park neighborhood in 1967, Ocean Park was more a half-residential and half-industrial urban area than a pastoral seascape. Located at the very edge of Los Angeles, and the country itself, the inexpensive rent in the region allowed artists to move in, creating a gritty, bohemian arts community in the environs of Santa Monica. The meditative crux of Ocean Park #89, and the entire Ocean Park series as a whole, arises from this cohabitation of Arcadian landscape and human experience communicated through the entirely subjective aperture of Diebenkorn’s paintbrush. Rather than merely representing his surroundings, the artist deployed highly complex metaphoric spatial relations and rich chromatic studies to capture the pure essence and rhythm of the environment. As Sarah Bancroft noted recently, “…the Ocean Park works were never abstract landscapes of his surroundings; they were a far more personal synthesis of his own decisions, attitudes, and process within a particular microcosm to which he was sensitive.” (Sarah Bancroft, ‘A View of Ocean Park,’ in Exh. Cat. Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (and travelling), Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, 2011, p. 16)
Indicative of Ocean Park’s grittiness is the zone of grisaille draftsmanship that dominates the upper left quadrant of Ocean Park #89. Swelling with a quietly portentous chiaroscuro, this ghostly region interjects a somber note into the uplifting sunrise palette that occupies the greatest expanse of the canvas. The axial lines that are erased, overpainted, brushed, and reworked veer toward darkness, while conjuring an image of the artist’s process in his studio. The juxtaposition of light and dark is exemplary of Diebenkorn’s most accomplished and nuanced syntheses of Ocean Park’s variety, capturing through color the confluence of the utopian vista of sea with the urban character of the land. Diebenkorn described in earlier years that his Ocean Park paintings convey the “tension beneath calm.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery (and travelling), Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1976, 1977, p. 42) Fusing the spontaneous motion of his line with the controlled grid-like configuration of his composition, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #89 brings together plan and chance in a way that apprehends the contradictions inherent in the landscape. According to John Elderfield, “His pictures live in their mistakes: in the splendid clumsiness of their drawing; in their unfinished sections; in the parts that appear to have been done when he was not quite thinking what he was doing; in their offenses to received taste and to his habitual sensibility.” (John Elderfield in Exh. Cat., London, Whitechapel Art Gallery (and travelling), Richard Diebenkorn, 1991, pp. 20-21)
Diebenkorn’s restless attention to material process underlies the relational effect of the Ocean Park canvases, and Ocean Park #89, in particular. Like the planes of color laid thinly atop one another, colored lines of paint are drawn and redrawn, nearly covered and then retraced. Washes of pinks, peaches, blues and yellows are demarcated by a delicate tracery of sinewy, shadowed lines that organize the composition into provisional zonal compartments. Diebenkorn adjusted this linear architecture as he constructed the composition, leaving pentimenti as trace records of old ideas and hints of what might have been; and yet the final solution, the topmost layer, lays claim to a restful, seemingly indispensable solution. Diebenkorn took pains to show this painting as a process of alternating decisiveness and recanting, all advanced through the tactility of oil on canvas. As Sarah Bancroft has explicated, “Each work was for Diebenkorn an exploration of ‘rightness’: an attempt to set up problems, welcome mistakes, push through objections and self-doubt to come to a balanced resolution. The compositions were built up through periods of activity in which erasures, revisions, accretions, reworkings, and ultimately hard-won resolutions would coalesce into balanced compositions.” (Sarah Bancroft, ‘A View of Ocean Park,’ in Exh. Cat. Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Op. Cit., 2011, p. 22)
The richly underpainted zones of color and scrupulously scraped, erased, and reworked axes characterizing the visibly porous surface membrane of the canvas point to the Ocean Park paintings’ revelatory announcement of the painterly process. Ghosts of earlier decisions suffuse every inch of the painting. The surface’s luxuriant, chalky pastel texture gathers its own history through the gestural directions of Diebenkorn’s paintbrush and his persistent experimentation with his handling of the medium. Diebenkorn leveraged his deep commitment to process and revision in order to expose the intensity of his studio practice, unique for a time when his California artist contemporaries such as John Baldessari and Michael Asher were escalating their conceptual practices and forging routes away from the studio. Ocean Park #89 discloses a compelling tension between the improvisatory nature of his instinctively revised lines with the overwhelmingly disciplined scaffolding of the picture. In the artist’s own words, “I want a painting to be difficult to do. The more obstacles, obstructions, problems—if they don’t overwhelm—the better. I would like to feel that I am involved at any stage of the painting with all its moments, not just this ‘now’ moment where a superficial grace is so available. With rare exceptions I respond most to painting that cuts across grain rather than following it. I think the artist here can get in touch with that grain rather than simply feel its flow. And he really can’t cut right across it anyway.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, 1997, p. 67) Connoting a sense of rigorous labor and re-thinking, Diebenkorn’s paintings possess a heroic quality, analogous to the mythological macho mark-making of Abstract Expressionism.
The gestural brushwork associated with Diebenkorn’s incessant trial and error aligns the painter with action-oriented Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose surfaces record the process of their making similar to Ocean Park #89. Meanwhile, the banded fields of atmospheric color that provoke metaphysical contemplation are akin to Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. This inherent duality of influence encompasses the fundamental balance between control and spontaneity that lies at the heart of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. The surface is achingly open to time, not only mechanically recording the process of its own creation, but emulating a temporal passage in the chromatic sunset it elegantly evokes.
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