“The paintings call forth how it actually felt to live bathed in a wash of such color and light, to feel the steady, calm and gradual movement of time reflected in the environment as one lived one’s moments, days, months, and years in a small seaside town whose primary quality was the interaction of this extraordinary light with everything and everyone it fell upon.” (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. 58)
“The Ocean Parks…are certainly among the most beautiful declamations in the language of the brush to have been uttered anywhere in the last twenty years.” (Robert Hughes in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, 1997, p. 73)
A sublime paradigm of Richard Diebenkorn’s momentous Ocean Park series, Ocean Park #41 stands at the apogee of the artist’s articulation of light and landscape through abstraction. Here we are presented with and engulfed within an arena that is replete with inconceivable permutations of color, tone, and atmosphere. Ocean Park #41 stands at the culmination of the painter’s innovative advancements in abstraction, during which he ceaselessly interrogated the limits of representation and the nature of perception. 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, indisputably regarded as the signature core of the artist’s oeuvre. Ocean Park #41 marks a transformative moment in the Ocean Park series, following an evolution in the tenor of the paintings that began to take hold in 1971. In the late 1960s, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings were composed of rigid structural diagonals and high-contrast juxtapositions of intensely saturated colors starkly divided by severe geometric edges. Ocean Park #41 exemplifies the shift begun in 1971 as the spaces within Diebenkorn’s paintings grew, perpendicular lines blurred, and color become increasingly diaphanous, multifaceted, and difficult to classify. While the upper left quadrant and top edge bear remnants of this earlier propensity for hard-edged color, as the painting moves diagonally to the bottom right, lines acquire shadows of their own construction, and color expands to a more complex ethereality. This stylistic development re-oriented the emotive focus of the series, heightening the paintings’ intellectual rigor and contemplation as their reduced muscularity amplified the introspective resonance of each canvas.
As described with extreme praise by Gerland Nordland, “Ocean Park No. 41, 1971 is a primarily monochrome work in a gray-blue-green, with a smudgy vertical and horizontal linear scaffolding that in some cases echoes the color of the large areas. Three areas of strong color emerge in the upper quadrant of the canvas—a tricolor at the upper left corner, a rectangle of blue at the upper left center, and two bars of yellow and golden brown, horizontally placed one above the other at the upper margin extending to the right edge of the canvas… Dore Ashton felt ‘drawn immediately into a visual journey by the existence…of three small rectangles of color such as you might find on the color photographer’s chart. They are the keys to the whole composition. Because they are small but intense in hue, they make everything else seem vast. Because they are rectangular, they insist on a rhyming rhythm of rectangular planes.’ Each red, yellow, and blue touch in the canvas is given resonant body by the tiny tricolor, invigorating the lines, under-paint, and the rectangles, even as the expansive but shallow atmospheric space provides an embracing environment.” (Gerald Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1987, p. 161) Diebenkorn’s restless attention to material process underlies the relational effect of the Ocean Park canvases, and Ocean Park #41, in particular. 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. Ocean Park #41 discloses a compelling tension between the improvisatory nature of his instinctively revised lines with the disciplined scaffolding of the picture. Like the planes of color laid thinly atop one another, colored lines of paint are drawn and redrawn, nearly covered and then retraced. 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.
The framing of the light as it appears in the Ocean Park paintings is highly particular to how it appeared in the painter’s studio: the orthogonal armature and stacked geometric forms of Diebenkorn’s composition echoed the tilted panes of his studio’s transom windows, through which daylight poured. Seemingly constructed of alternating pillars and beams that hold the surface of paint resting atop a discernible exoskeleton, Ocean Park #41 retains a compellingly synthetic character, as if built from inside out. The angular vectors of color and line in the present work reverberate like the bending of a ray of light refracted through tilted glass against the studio walls. Diebenkorn’s particular attention to the window as a portal through which interior and exterior are dissolved magnifies the artist’s kinship with Hopper, Cézanne, and Matisse, artists whose work similarly blurred the divisions between the studio and the landscape. Whilst studying in Stanford University's art department in 1943, Diebenkorn was taken to lunch at the collector Sarah Stein’s home in Palo Alto, where he had a revelatory first look at paintings by Henri Matisse. Matisse’s paintings would remain a touchstone for Diebenkorn throughout his entire oeuvre, particularly Matisse's 1916 painting The Piano Lesson—both artists notably examined the tension between interior and exterior light within the same pictorial space, segmenting their pictures into planar compartments that at once imply flatness and perspectival depth. Impressed by Matisse’s 1916 painting Studio, Quai St. Michel, Diebenkorn said in 1974, “I noticed its spatial amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room yet the surface is right there… right up front.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Art Of Richard Diebenkorn, 1997, p. 23) Like Diebenkorn, Matisse also often left in the pentimenti resulting from repositioning his compositions, particularly in the years 1914-1918.
In 1970, just a year before the artist painted Ocean Park #41, 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, Ibid., p. 112) The variegated gossamer bands of blue, red, yellow, peach, and light green that characterize Ocean Park #41 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.
The vigorous, sprawling surface of Ocean Park #41 harbors a perpetual balancing act between boisterous motion and calm gentility. Multiple layers produce a myriad of hues, each with subtly different chromatic values in tone, saturation, and luminescence. Ocean Park #41 emanates light from within, imparting depth across the tectonic plates of glowing color. Here we witness a phenomenon that is both terrestrial and meteorological, juxtaposing simple corporeality with a heightened, transcendent state of altered contemplation. Hypnotically enveloping us in its monumental grandeur, the inexplicably dazzling Ocean Park #41 confronts the viewer with a pure unadulterated expression of the defining tenets of Richard Diebenkorn’s oeuvre. Simultaneously evoking Rothko’s philosophical meditations on color, Pollock’s instinctively gestural mark-making process, Matisse’s destabilization of perspectival space, and Mondrian’s distilled formal erudition, Ocean Park #41 is ultimately without comparison—a testament to the transformative and vital brilliance of Richard Diebenkorn.
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