Although most famous painters lived in New York in the 1950s, Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93) established a reputation as the leading West Coast abstract expressionist. His paintings significantly shaped the history of modern painting and inspired
legions of modern painters.
With that pedigree, it’s remarkable that the best known works by Richard Diebenkorn, The Ocean Park Series, are being featured for the first time in a museum exhibition. Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series is at the Corcoran for its sole East Coast showing.
Richard Diebenkorn. Ocean Park Series, No. 6, 1968. Oil on canvas, 91 3/4″ x 71 3/4″. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
After garnering acclaim for his abstract expressionist paintings, Diebenkorn shifted to figurative painting and with fellow painters David Parks and Elmer Bischoff, founded the Bay Area Figurative Movement. This loosely-formed group resisted Abstract Expressionism as it was practiced (and preached) on the East Coast, while championing its stylistic qualities.
Despite earning critical praise for these figurative paintings, the mercurial Diebenkorn again shifted his style in 1966 and returned to abstract painting. One year later, he embarked on The Ocean Park Series, which would consume two decades and yield 145 abstract paintings and nearly 500 works on paper, including collages, drawings and paintings.
In some of Diebenkorn’s earliest works like Ocean Park Series. No. 6, one senses hints from figurative paintings. Are those legs, or the backside of a woman? His pink-toned area on the right reinforces the presence of flesh.
Several years later, though, no figuration remains. Typified by Ocean Park, No. 27, these Diebenkorn paintings consist of architectural rectangles carved out by thin colored or black lines, while the tops and sides of the canvas feature reworked strips of color.
Richard Diebenkorn. Ocean Park Series, No. 27, 1970. Oil on canvas, 100″ by 80″. Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY.
Sections of the canvas are expanses of layered colors that have been scraped, erased, revised and repainted. The consistency of the paint itself varies from opaque to translucent, with the latter exposing the marks, brushstrokes and hues of prior iterations.
Seeing the Ocean Park paintings in mass, you realize that these are not abstract representations of Ocean Park itself, the Santa Monica neighborhood in which Richard Diebenkorn had his studio. Surely he was influenced by the brilliant light, atmosphere, space and water around him, but I think the greater inspiration came from elsewhere.
Diebenkorn commented that while he was often pigeonholed as an abstract painter or a figurative painter, he considered himself a landscape painter. In 1951 he took a flight from New Mexico to San Francisco, after which he observed,
The aerial view showed me a rich variety of ways of treating a flat plane – like flattened mud or paint. Forms operating in shallow depth reveal a huge range of possibilities to the painter.
It’s these possibilities that are so brilliantly explored in Ocean Park Series, and that define Richard
Richard Diebenkorn. Ocean Park Series, No. 116, 1979. Oil on canvas, 82″ by 72″. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Diebenkorn’s legacy in the history of modern painting — he’s a landscape painter.
Do you see these works as landscapes, as I do, or as purely abstract paintings? Have you seen this exhibition? Please weigh in.
Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series will be at the Corcoran Gallery of Art until September 23.
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