“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, “California in Eupeptic Color,” Time, June 27, 1977, p. 58)
A sublime paradigm of Richard Diebenkorn’s momentous Ocean Park series, the present work displays the hallmarks of a painter at the apex of his genius as a colorist and compositional innovator, and testifies to the artist’s illustrious place in the canon of American abstract art. Among the earliest iterations from this iconic series executed over nearly twenty years, Ocean Park #55 illustrates a glorious collision of sandy beach, nearby streets and buildings, furls of ocean and luminous atmosphere. Channeling inspiration from artists as disparate as Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and Mark Rothko, Diebenkorn nevertheless articulated a language all his own, one that pulled in and out of figuration and abstraction with lyrical ease. Since the 1960s and 70s, Diebenkorn has achieved recognition both in the United States and abroad, with examples from the Ocean Park series residing in more than forty-five museums as well as numerous private collections. For its all-encompassing expanse of chromatic brilliance, airy luminescence and peerless formal execution, Ocean Park #55 endures as an important and archetypal painting from Diebenkorn’s illustrious career.
Diebenkorn’s career can be characterized by a hesitancy to commit himself either to figuration or abstraction; in a time when the overwhelming lexicon was abstraction, Diebenkorn continued to paint portraits. It was not until he moved to the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica to teach at University of California, Los Angeles and began the eponymous series in earnest did he shift his focus irrevocably and permanently to abstraction. A few months following his arrival in Ocean Park, Diebenkorn abandoned his windowless studio in favor of a larger space that had previously been occupied by Sam Francis, a move that allowed him to paint larger canvases like Ocean Park #55. In 1970, just two years before he painted the present work, Diebenkorn was invited by the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior to document the reclamation projects in the Colorado River Valley and the Salt River in Arizona. Viewing the earth through the helicopter window, Diebenkorn was struck by the architectonic design of its surface, the irregular grid-like patterns and junction of landscape, sunlight and human intervention becoming a source of inspiration for the methods by which Diebenkorn would paint his own cartography. In Diebenkorn’s 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) Indeed, the vibrant zips of violet, pale pink, red, and blue mark off tectonic plates in a pictorial map conflating territory and perspective. Of equal import to Diebenkorn was a colorist sensibility probed by forebears Henri Matisse and Mark Rothko, depicted in the sheer washes of paint that together impart a singular radiance that has come to define the artist’s oeuvre. Diebenkorn was similarly struck by Matisse’s fusion of interiors and exteriors and his method of fragmenting the picture plane to convey depth and perspective, as in Open Window, Collioure; here, Diebenkorn echoes Matisse's prismatic pinks in a glorious grid of peach, gold and blue.
In a nearly Mondrian-like gridding of the present work, Diebenkorn demarcates passages of the golden background with vibrant primary colored lines; across this sprawling surface, Diebenkorn demonstrates his mastery of painting, hypnotically enveloping the viewer in a sublime and meditative experience. Two axes of dark navy and brilliant red run parallel to the top of the canvas, interrupted at the upper right hand corner by perpendicular lines and a diaphanous wash of paint that blurs the edges of the neat bars. A small passage of vivid sky blue draws out the lavenders and echoes of purple against the overwhelmingly warm toned palette. One third of the way down the canvas, a royal blue bar runs horizontally across, echoing the parallel strata above. At the very bottom edge of the canvas, a modulated line of teal and royal blue bookends the painting, visually framing the light-infused composition. What at first may appear as a solid quadrilateral field of peach colored paint reveals inconceivable permutations of tonality and saturation; indeed, upon closer inspection, light blue, lilac and dove gray bloom into being, lending Ocean Park #55 a delicate, almost translucent ethereality. Pentimenti of Diebenkorn’s previous and discarded architecture emerge in light line tracings, indicative of perhaps an earlier structure to the present work. The broad expanse of Ocean Park #55 emanates light through its subtly varying tones and hues of apricot pink, marigold, and cream, producing a luminescent depth across the blocked panes of color.
The Ocean Park paintings provided Diebenkorn the freedom to explore, through repetition, the vast array of nuances in line, color, and structure visualized in each individual painting. Of this ambitious series, Sarah C. Bancroft writes, “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. To describe the works formally, bit by bit, is almost to miss the point, to miss the totality of the self-contained system. To experience them – how they seep out slowly and reveal the artist’s intensive process and capture an emotive quality – is the real goal.” (Sarah C. Bancroft, “A View of Ocean Park,” Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (and travelling), Richard Diebenkorn, 2011-12, p. 22) Inexplicably dazzling and simultaneously evoking Rothko’s philosophical meditations on color, Matisse’s destabilization of perspectival space, and Mondrian’s distilled formal erudition, the present work testifies to the transformative, enduring, and vital genius of Diebenkorn’s remarkable career.
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