Richard Diebenkorn put Santa Monica’s Ocean Park on the map the world over. Every major museum owns at least one of the iconic paintings in his “Ocean Park Series” — only two own more than one. He worked on them in his studios on Main Street at Ashland Avenue over a 20-year period. There are nearly 500 pieces in the series; 140 paintings, many drawings, collages, paintings on cigar box lids and prints, his most celebrated body of work.
At Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) in Newport Beach, 80 selections from the “Ocean Park Series” are together for the first time, all in one place. It’s a monumental, historic achievement.
In this 50th anniversary year of OCMA (through its various incarnations), the show is also a homecoming for Diebenkorn, championed early on by OCMA’s forerunner (Pavilion Gallery), which presented a survey of his work in 1965. LACMA followed suit in 1977, with a widely acclaimed career retrospective.
There’s a personal connection to his art for me: For many years, when meeting in former KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour’s office, we’d look up from our basement bunker to see part of an Ocean Park painting that Ruth had replicated on the inner wall of the well beneath the grate that gave us the only outdoor light we received downstairs. It was a reminder of the nearby neighborhood above ground.
A shorthand version of Diebenkorn’s trajectory sees him moving from abstract expressionism in the late 1940s, early ’50s to figurative/representational painting in the ’50s and ’60s, back to abstraction in the late ’60s, ’70s and beyond. But this is far too simplified a description for an artist so deeply consumed with achieving “rightness” — the changing quality of light, dimensionality, layering of colors, sense of place, geometric balance within the frame, or as he put it, “The idea is to get everything right — it’s not just color or form or space or line — it’s everything all at once.”
Diebenkorn was influenced by many artists but his eyes were opened especially by Cezanne and Matisse; he underwent another visual revelation while flying over the Southwest, struck by the flat plane of the landscape, the gridlines of the “Earth’s skin” and the intersection of geographic features. These all play into the “Ocean Park Series.”
Diebenkorn pursued his own path, continuing to paint after painting was declared dead, painting figures when abstraction reigned, returning to abstraction and architectonic shapes when hyper-real Pop and conceptual art were capturing the art world’s attention.
Already a recognized artist, he’d also taught elsewhere by the time he joined the UCLA art faculty in 1965; he and his wife Phyllis settled into Santa Monica Canyon. By 1966, he found his first Ashland studio, later moving into Sam Francis’ studio on Main Street, where the first Ocean Park painting was born in 1967.
The paintings are strikingly large — Diebenkorn was 6 foot 2, and he could paint as far as he could reach; and the new Sam Francis studio offered considerably more space and much more light.
About that light, Diebenkorn’s friend and colleague Peter Levitt writes in the exhibition catalog: “I remember… 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 … the air retained enough of the desert dryness, where it was also born, to almost flatten out the blue color of the sky… . The angle and intensity of what I came to think of as ‘Ocean Park light’ were so much a part of our daily lives that we could tell the time of day by the hour it bounced off the stucco walls of the modest ocher, russet, or pale blue homes, or the white wooden cottages that made that neighborhood a world.”
Diebenkorn captures that world and that light in “The Ocean Park Series,” on view at the Orange County Museum of Art through May 27. Call (949) 659-1122 or visit www.ocma.net.
Sarah Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for National Public Radio and a producer for public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.