With the Ocean Park series, Diebenkorn sought to occupy the space between figuration and abstraction with lyrical ease. Unbeholden to artistic orthodoxy of any variety and seemingly unconcerned with art critics of any stripe, Diebenkorn left a legacy as an iconoclastic alternative to the dominant strain of art in his time. Thus, like Willem de Kooning, Diebenkorn honored both figuration and abstraction, never abandoning one for the other; indeed, traces of each co-exist within the other throughout his oeuvre. Realistic interiors and landscapes such as Window from 1967, which portrayed a sparse interior with a flat edge-to-edge composition, was his last representational image before embarking on the Ocean Park series. Simple but grand expanses of bright color dominate the canvas, and one can see Diebenkorn begin to shift toward the heavily abstracted and geometric forms of the Ocean Park paintings. The strong verticals that frame the window and the diagonals of the lone folding chair hint at the innate structure and reductive, non-objective abstractions exemplified by Ocean Park No. 46. Intuitively, Diebenkorn fused enclosed form and spontaneity of line with a strong sense of structure, light, color and space, regardless of the presence or non-presence of objects. As Robert T. Buck noted, the Ocean Park paintings “[combine] a new interpretation of structural, formalistic concern with expressionistic and lyrical tendencies.” (in Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright Knox Art Gallery (and travelling), Richard Diebenkorn, Paintings and Drawings, 1943 – 1976, 1976, p. 42)
For all his independence, Diebenkorn considered himself a traditionalist and welcomed identification as a landscape painter. His work is truly a synthesis of a lifetime of observation, both of his own surroundings – whether in Albuquerque, Urbana, Berkeley or Ocean Park – and of the art historical past. He explored the works of the great colorists Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, 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 and the year prior to beginning the eponymous series. Famously, Diebenkorn saw paintings such as View of Notre Dame (1914) and Open Window, Collioure (1904) which depicted the dissolve between interior and exterior, as well as architecture and setting, so sympathetic to his own visual proclivities. The strong horizontal, vertical and diagonal structure of Ocean Park No. 46, with its unifying chromatic choreography, can be glimpsed in the flattened spatial compositions of The Piano Lesson from 1916, in which the “open window” trope that recurs throughout art history melds so completely with the picture plane that the viewer is uncertain of the spatial relations between the indoor and the outdoor elements. Such modernist qualities would naturally strike a chord for Diebenkorn. As noted by Gerald Nordland in his essay for the 1976 retrospective that included Ocean Park No. 46, “Diebenkorn seeks the wholeness and completeness of a unitary visual expression and he cannot be satisfied with partial, fashionable or convenient solutions.” (Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Ibid, p. 41)
It is Diebenkorn’s restless attention to material process which undergirds the effect of the Ocean Park canvases, and No. 46, in particular. Like the planes and facets of color laid thinly and delicately, one on top of the other, colored lines of paint are drawn and redrawn, nearly covered and then retraced. Washes of pinks, peaches, lavenders and yellows are embraced by bolder stripes of blue, red, green and yellow, banding and marking off geometric fields. Diebenkorn shifted them 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 inevitable solution. Diebenkorn took pains to show this painting as a process of alternating decisiveness and recanting, all advanced through the tactile materiality of paint on canvas. As Jane Livingston describes, “One of the most important hallmarks of the Ocean Park painting, 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.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, 1997, p. 65)
Ocean Park No. 46 and its sister paintings bear a kinship with Paul Cézanne’s revered 19th century landscapes of the environs of Montagne Sainte-Victoire that were the portal through which all artists of the time glimpsed the path to modernism. Cézanne was considered the father of non-objective abstraction despite plying his vocation in the realm of objective art. He described planes of color with non-contoured brushstrokes to form complex landscapes and still lifes, and sought to simplify forms to their geometric essence. Of further importance to Diebenkorn, Cézanne pioneered a vision of multiplicity, rendering different yet simultaneous perceptions within a seemingly single point of perspective. In similar fashion, John Elderfield has noted in his essay for the 1997-98 retrospective of the artist’s work that “Diebenkorn, too, is a painter of emotional mood. ... The Ocean Park paintings do evoke architecture in their geometries and they do evoke the passage of time in their revisions. Evoking architecture, they seem ‘possibly haunted by the erasure of human presences,’ as Arthur Danto mused. Evoking the passage of time, they possibly record the transitoriness as well as the continuum of human endeavors.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Ibid., pp. 111-12)
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