A retrospective show of the renowned Ocean Park Series by the California Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Diebenkorn is running until September 23, 2012 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The grand and old-fashioned Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. is currently hosting the traveling retrospective of the celebrated American painter Richard Diebenkorn, (1922-93). He came to prominence in the 1960s and enjoyed major recognition during his lifetime, but this marks the first major museum exhibition of his best known series, which dominated his practice for the last 20 years of his life. Lit by the diffused skylights throughout the gallery, the abstract paintings that make up the Ocean Park body of work reduce the Southern California landscapes of the neighborhood where he lived and worked to scrubby blocks of pale, drained color that show an instant aging that catch worn out, fatigued surfaces and long bleaching in the sun. His move to the scenic area coincided with a break in his established representational painting style, and a shift into simple abstract geometry with edges that are clear, but settled, firm but not hard. Each work seems to have demanded a prolonged, laborious effort, not light but yet untethered, a puzzle at rest that was put together long before and then left in place, an old urban geography, a very much human space with heavy inflections of natural light and color.
There are variations in volume, in how loudly the colors vibrate, and the louder tones move your eye more, pushing it through the lines of the composition. There are roads and paths and edges, blocks in the sense of actual streets defining neighborhoods and fields in the abstract sense. There are large shifts in scale without details to solidify them, and the perspective is both vertical and horizontal intermingled in tension. This is a very modernist observation that seems to be demanded by the work, not to look at it from a contemporary perspective, but to see it as the subject matter on the painter’s mind at the time. He seems to desire and possibly deserve timelessness, or perhaps that is just a reflection of the age of the paintings now. The haze of 30-40 years is neither too old to be historically contextualized, nor too young to be contemporary. If he tried to knock them out of time with his bleached tones and aged surfaces then they have not yet landed in the restrictions of an era or context. They are highly linked to their contemporaries, they look so much like California and American postwar abstraction you can picture Willem deKooning, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko and the other big names of the day standing in front of and accepting these pictures. You can see the historic predecessors, Matisse in particular, lying in the foundations of the work, so much so that the effort to be modernist, to take part in a clear lineage, is almost a self-awareness, not a critique, but a demand. That unhesitant assembling of tradition reveals the era, the comforting possibility of having a sense of one’s place in history may be responsible for the general satisfaction that radiates from the work. They do not agitate, they are comfortable in their own skins without being either audacious or uncertain. Such a feeling of groundedness is hard to imagine feeling today. His consistent work ethic and focus make the series feel like the pages of a diary, flipping from page to page as the days pass with both variation and repetition. Certainly only someone bound by stability could maintain a series, as he says, steadily “cooking” for so long.
Each work displays so much evidence of its own making: the clear tape lines, the contradictory pencil marks sketching and delineating shapes that remained or were reworked, the bleeding turpentine along the edge of the thinly painted color fields. He never obscures the work of painting, essentially creating no illusions except for the mellow light that emanates from bright patches of some of the paintings, at times held in place by the denser, darker tones. The paintings’ power lies in the soft effect of an atmosphere of the presence of light that he must have felt, soaked up while taking long walks through the area, before returning to his work room. It is not distant from a feeling of nostalgia, but it more one of specificity, of quiet enthusiasm, of capture.
The works on paper and even the tiny cigar box paintings he made as gifts for friends prove that his effort and attention, though successful on the grand but human scale of his big paintings, lose little power when forced onto decreasingly small formats. The notebook and postcard-sized lids that line one of the final rooms of works in the show hold the same energetic density, the same confidence of order. The smaller they get, as if they are moving away from you, disappearing into the distance, the more they draw you along with them, leaving you in pursuit of their space in the past.