Art review: 'Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series' at OCMA
"Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series" opened Sunday at the Orange County Museum of Art, nearly three years after it was originally planned to debut but was nearly derailed by the national economic crisis. The wait might have been a lucky break. Now, it turns out to be one of those odd and unexpectedly rewarding museum exhibitions that you might have wanted to see but that you didn't know you really had to see -- until you see it.
Let me explain.
The large abstract paintings Diebenkorn made in his Santa Monica studio between 1967 and 1985, in which translucent veils of vaporous color seem suspended in shifting space from a tremulous linear scaffolding, have always seemed like the culmination of something. On a grand scale, they're the end of a century-long wrestling match between color and line as the dual engines driving Modern painting.
For American art in its ambitious, often aggressive postwar efflorescence, they bring a commitment to abstraction to a virtuoso climax. For the artist, who died in 1993 at age 70, they enfold into one grand and glorious whole everything learned in earlier nuanced series, which shifted back and forth between Abstract Expressionist and figurative canvases.
Diebenkorn was 45 when he started the Ocean Park Series. The best of the paintings represent a lifetime of nurturing skill. OCMA curator Sarah Bancroft has turned over almost all of the museum's galleries to the show, and it never flags. The reason, I think, aside from the intrinsic beauty of the handsomely installed work, is that these paintings no longer seem to be saying "the end."
What's striking is the way they record the mysterious and unquenchable activity of an artist at work in his studio. In precisely the years when Diebenkorn was making the Ocean Park paintings, art busted out of what had become an admittedly airless and confining realm. The work from a new era characterized by experimental and interdisciplinary approaches was quickly dubbed "post-studio art." Partly intended to knock painting off its pedestal, it saw Conceptualism, performance, video, Earthworks, site-specific installations and more come to art's foreground.
Not only wasn't Diebenkorn a post-studio artist, he was its polar opposite. Think unadulterated, super-saturated, boiled-down essence of studio art -- paintings that literally embody focused concentration within a confined space.
Looking at the show, I found myself thinking of Bruce Nauman, another brilliant artist whose experiments in sculpture, video and installation could not be more different. "If I was an artist and I was in the studio," Nauman famously explained, "then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product." Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings look like that now -- although they might not have when he made them.
The Ocean Park paintings are not abstracted landscapes glimpsed through an open window -- even though that experience surely inspired them. In the first gallery, a small gouache, ink and charcoal work on paper shows the flat plane of an interior studio wall, a tilted plane of glass that's a transom window, the peaked roofs of bungalows across the street and the marine layer in a gray sky punctuated by palms. Moist atmosphere is certainly felt. Matisse, looking out his window in the South of France a century ago and establishing an equivalence between the framed light and color of the outside world and the paint applied within the confined rectangle of the canvas, is the obvious and acknowledged precedent for Diebenkorn.
But all of that hovers beneath the surface in the Ocean Park series, maturing with great rapidity. The narrative in these paintings is a story of their making -- of a vertical blue line that gains a violet-rose shadow as it tracks down the edge of a canvas, turning off at an angle like a refracted ray of light and then sliding beneath a wash of luminous gray, only to emerge at the other side as a little wedge of canary yellow. Or, of a field of brushy green that, the longer you look, slowly gives up layers of underpainting in hues you can't quite put your finger on. A shape here echoes one over there, a line pulls your eye across to a surprise waiting on the other side, a mark of color that seems to hang in midair vivifies complementary colors in your peripheral vision.
One result is an intensified sense of the here and now, a moment that seems right and sure and achingly ephemeral, poised to slip away. Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings are all about the pentimenti -- the earlier images, forms and strokes that have been changed and painted over. The surface opens to expose what lies beneath it, and the past becomes present.
Tellingly, the few horizontal canvases in the show are the least compelling. Diebenkorn mostly worked on vertical canvases, 8 or 9 feet tall and about 6 feet wide. The horizontals naturally emphasize the configuration of a landscape "out there." (The broad "Ocean Park #131," which is not in the show, even evokes the studio's wide interior wall.) The vertical canvases, which are slightly wider than the outstretched arms of a person standing before them, emphasize perceptual interactivity.
Santa Monica's Ocean Park neighborhood has been called Diebenkorn's Giverny. True enough -- although, unlike Monet, the Californian was never outdoors painting in the landscape, then toting his canvas indoors for adjustment. At a time when artists were moving out of the traditional studio -- John Baldessari and Michael Asher launched their influential "post-studio" classes at CalArts in 1970 -- the intensity of the studio registers profoundly throughout the exhibition.
This is the first show to examine Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series in depth (the catalog, with essays by Bancroft and art historian Susan Landauer, is excellent), and partly it does it by incorporating related drawings, paintings on paper, prints and a lovely group of little paintings made on cigar box lids. Almost never studies for specific paintings, these are instead small excursions into specific problems of color, scale and composition; their resolution makes them feel like complete works of art in their own right.
The only off-note is sounded in the eccentric, mostly unsatisfying group of so-called "heraldic" works on paper Diebenkorn began around 1980, using the spades and clubs of playing cards as a design motif. They look like veiled riffs on fragments of trees and shrubs in Matisse's "The Blue Window," as if Diebenkorn was stuck and groping for direction. Perhaps he was, but not for long; the series was winding down.
OCMA's show is not officially part of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-sponsored museum shows focused on postwar L.A. art before 1980. (A darkly beautiful Ocean Park painting was in the Getty's own survey show, and two Diebenkorn lithographs are included in the Norton Simon Museum's "Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California.") But it benefits from the six months of PST shows that have preceded it, focused as many were on almost everything but painting on canvas. Once, post-studio art was radical. Now that it has been historicized, it joins the pentimenti hovering within Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings.
"Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series," Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122, through May 27. Closed Mon. and Tue. www.ocma.net
-- Christopher Knight
Photos: Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), "Ocean Park #43" (detail) and "Ocean Park #43," 1971, oil on canvas; "Cigar Box Lid #4," 1976, oil on wood; Credit: Orange County Museum of Art