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In a review of the first show of Ocean Park paintings at the Poindexter Gallery in 1968, John Canady celebrated Diebenkorn’s unique achievement when he wrote that the painter “has not returned to abstraction (as I see it) but has discovered it in a form that has little to do with abstraction as he knew it before or, for that matter, with most abstraction as it is served up to us today. …He is an artist with a powerful command of expressive structure that he employs in paintings that are – almost incidentally – non-figurative." (John Canaday, “Richard Diebenkorn: Still Out of Step," New York Times, May 26, 1968) The artist confirmed at the time that his abandonment of the figure was not a planned program, and it may have been more a filtered result of his life-long sensitivity to the light and tone of his surroundings. In 1966 he had 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, and the proportions of his canvases grew just as his aesthetic focus shifted irrevocably and permanently from the figurative to the abstract. The environs of Ocean Park also had their seminal effect on the birth of the Ocean Park series and the vivid palette and vertical format of Ocean Park #20 is testament to Diebenkorn’s transformation.
The area takes its name from a local amusement park, and parts of the neighborhood had the gritty feel of streets and buildings of most semi-urban settings, but it was also a village of bungalows and above all, it had access to beach views and glorious skyscapes. Diebenkorn and others treasured the quality and beauty of the light, most eloquently described by the poet Peter Levitt in his essay for the 2012 travelling exhibition of the series. Arriving in Ocean Park in the same year as the artist, he elegized his first impressions (“This is where color is born”) which he later encountered in painterly form with Diebenkorn’s work. He could be describing the saturated richness and spaciousness of Ocean Park #20’s expanse of blue when he wrote, “…I would go outside to marvel at the unique and beautiful quality of the light, how from morning to night the sky’s variable shades of blue seemed to retain a moist translucence, as if the color rose from the nearby sea to cool the heated summer air. And yet, by some magical trickster sleight of hand, the air retained enough of the desert dryness, where it also was born, to almost flatten out the blue color of the sky…” (Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Ibid., p. 55) The luminosity of Ocean Park #20 also infuses its delicate violet, warm yellow, verdant green and dusky orange and peach, counterbalanced by bands of white, peach, red and brilliant yellow, which all betoken the “poetics of place” in Peter Levitt’s essay.
Ocean Park #20 is also a summation of the geometric abstraction found in this first mature phase of the eponymous series, roughly from 1968 to 1971, in which the rigid geometries of later work are here more limpid and gentle with a preponderance of graceful verticals. In a review of the 1968 Poindexter Gallery show which first exhibited the series, Lawrence Campbell observed, “The dominant verticals determine the edges of forms the way rivers find their banks – by spreading until stopped” which perfectly describes both the present work and Ocean Park #30 from 1970 in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Lawrence Campbell, “Reviews and Previews: Richard Diebenkorn,” Art News 67, Sumer 1968, p. 14) Sarah Bancroft had in mind Ocean Park #19 of 1968 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when she wrote of wider bands “articulating planes and panels of jewel-toned colors …evocative of the translucency and radiance of stained-glass windows.” (Ibid., p. 19) This most apt observation also applies to the present work and alludes to a deeper appreciation for the innovations of Ocean Park #20; namely that color is not merely illustrative but also constructive in nature. Diebenkorn’s paint application is delicately ephemeral, as epitomized by the sublime violet in the present work, allowing the pigment and colors to be as much about process as about result. His thin glazes of color refuse to mask what lies beneath; instead each layer gently modifies the colors which are now veiled. Multiple layers produce a myriad of hues, each with subtly different chromatic values in tone, saturation and luminescence. The yellow, white and peach verticals angle artfully toward the left, revealing and overlapping new chromatic tones and linear traces. Such pentimenti are a tale that hints at ideas which might have been and records what came to fruition, all balanced in a final resolution that appears inevitable and inexorable.
In Ocean Park #20, Diebenkorn’s work is truly a synthesis of a lifetime of observation, both of his own surroundings and of the art historical past. He explored the works of the great colorist Henri Matisse and in fact, visited the Matisse retrospective at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1966, the same year that he moved to Ocean Park. Like Willem de Kooning, he honored both figuration and abstraction with lyrical ease, departing from conventional artistic orthodoxy of any variety and seemingly unconcerned with art critics of any stripe. To stand in front of Ocean Park #20 is to bear witness to a singular event, as expounded by Jane Livingston: “One of the most important hallmarks of the Ocean Park paintings, evident from the very beginning, is that each one creates its own, self-contained chromatic universe, and each functions within that universe in a structurally self-sufficient way. The sheer complexity is unrivaled in the abstract painting of the era. It might well be argued that, in this sense, Mark Rothko takes a distant second place to Richard Diebenkorn.” (Jane Livingston in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, 1997, p. 65)
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