In a review of the first show of Ocean Park paintings at the Poindexter Gallery in 1968, John Canaday 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 #50 is testament to Diebenkorn’s transformation.
The luminous sunlight of the Ocean Park neighborhood is perhaps most eloquently described by the poet Peter Levitt in his essay for the 2011-2012 travelling exhibition of the series. Arriving in Ocean Park in the same year as the artist, he elegized his first impressions, stating, “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 #50’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…” (Peter Levitt, ‘Richard Diebenkorn and the Poetics of Place’ in Exh. Cat. Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (and travelling), Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, 2011, p. 55) Vividly exuding what Levitt describes as a “poetic of place,” Ocean Park #50 possesses this passage’s sense of the interactivity between sun, sea, and sky. The limpid blues ebb and flow across the rubbed diagonals traversing the majority of the picture, as our eyes rise upward to the cool and bold band of blue, we are met by warm yellow and peach horizontals that evoke the bright sunlit sky.
In 1970, Diebenkorn was invited by the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior to document the water reclamation projects in the Colorado River Valley and the Salt River in Arizona. Contemplating the landscape by means of aerial views through the window of the helicopter, Diebenkorn was drawn to the architectonic design of the skin of the earth. From the air, land became flattened to reveal irregular grid-like patterns, emulating the surface of one of his pictures. Unveiled to Diebenkorn was a topographical viewpoint that emphasized intricate visual variety across a broad expanse—a pictorial snapshot of the junction between natural landscape, sunlight, and human intervention in the earth that categorically influenced the artist’s Ocean Park paintings. In Diebenkorn’s own words, “Many paths, or path-like bands, in my paintings may have something to do with this experience, especially in that wherever there was agriculture going on you could see process-ghosts of former tilled fields, patches of land being eroded.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, 1997, p. 112) The variegated gossamer bands of blue, yellow, peach, and light green that characterize Ocean Park #50 reflect Diebenkorn’s aerial fascination in uneven land, pictorially mapping an abstract geographical territory of indistinct pathways and the quality of daylight as it hits abstract coordinates of the earth.
At a time when much critical attention was being paid to the ostensible “death of painting,” Diebenkorn’s work reaffirmed and reassured the perpetual potential of the medium. His Ocean Park paintings live in the forever now, never reaching a precise resolution within the eye of the viewer. Their maturing brushwork, dynamic surface activity, and rich fluctuating zones of color maintain an identifiable continuity—unlike his minimalist contemporaries, Diebenkorn pushed against a clearly defined verdict in his painting. He declared, instead, the opposite—revealing painting as an evolving process in which the kinetic surface of Ocean Park #50 continues to shift before the eye and avoid laying claim to a final solution. Diebenkorn’s unadulterated love of paint is embedded in every sumptuous stroke, announcing within the arena of his canvas the interminable possibility of painting.
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