Ocean Park #54, by Richard Diebenkorn

Most artists can remember those crucial moments that were turning points in their creative journey. These are events that are a more authentic tracking of a life than the customary biographical timeline; that marked up map of a well traveled terrain that is more personal, meaningful and accurate than a linear chronology can ever be.

Two of my first turning points happened at the San Francisco Museum of Art which, in those days, was shoehorned into a few upper floors in the Civic Center Building on Van Ness. I was young and just a beginner when one of my painting teachers challenged me to sit, undistracted and undisturbed, in front of the museum’s Mark Rothko for one hour. And sure enough, at the end of that hour my love of Rothko was cooked, all the way through, enough to last a lifetime.

A second turning happened just a few years later, in 1972. I was more experienced but still a student when an exhibit of Richard Diebenkorn‘s Ocean Park series paintings was installed at the museum. I knew a little about Diebenkorn from his Bay Area Figurative work, but these were something completely different. The minute I walked in that gallery—a visceral expereince that is still there in my muscle memory—I was transfixed. To me these large, vertical works were full of motion and yet quietly contemplative, both mysterious and direct, geometric yet painterly, soulful as well as cerebral.

I have never lost my love for those paintings nor the deep marrow pleasure they flush into being. Those feelings were in full flower in me again this week as I journeyed to the Corcoran Gallery in DC to see the last stop of the show, The Ocean Park Series. Assembled by Sarah Bancroft, curator at the Orange County Museum of Art, with previous stops in both Texas and Orange County, the Corcoran show is your last chance to see these works together. (The catalog for the exhibit, also by Bancroft, is a worthy purchase.)

In case you are not familiar with Diebenkorn or Ocean Park, here is a brief overview by Philip Kennicott from the Washington Post:

The Ocean Park series was a long and productive act of anachronism. Diebenkorn, born in 1922, had already produced abstract paintings in the 1950s, and figurative work in the 1950s and ’60s, before he moved to the Los Angeles area in 1966. In 1967, he surprised himself and his admirers by turning to abstraction again even as the rest of the art world was pursuing pop and conceptualism. While other artists were leaving the studio for more engaged and confrontational work, Diebenkorn turned inward, back to painting, back to work that built on what must have seemed like the tail end of a decades-long project to purify and elucidate the fundamentals of visual art.

I spent two days at the show. Some of the pieces are old friends. Some I have never seen before in the flesh. And it was such a pleasure to become acquainted, first hand, with a number of exquisite smaller works that are from private collections and will, alas, disappear from public view once again after the show is dismantled.

But those beautifully lit, graciously quiet galleries at the Corcoran also made it easy to slip into some personal inventorying. Sitting with those works, I realized how deeply those paintings were embedded in my consciousness 40 years ago. At some point they became like the faces of relatives, so familiar that they transcend normal methods of looking and seeing. There is a point when familiarity that profound moves you into another valence of relationship, to a rarefied place where boundaries melt and it is difficult to distinguish a difference between you and it. That’s when it all becomes an us.

Another facet of this work and this artist that is important to not overlook is what Ocean Park has come to say about Diebenkorn himself. He had a dogged commitment to his own vision of things. He wasn’t belligerent or a contrarian, but he stubbornly followed his own path. In a filmed interview that accompanies the show, Diebenkorn answers a question about who the audience for his work is by stating, “I paint for an ‘ideal viewer.'” After a brief pause he wryly added, “And that ideal viewer just may be me.”

That consistent allegiance to pleasing himself first and foremost was Diebenkorn’s proclivity as well as his protection—protection from the seductions of art world trends, fads, fame. For some of his contemporaries, his flinty independence was seen as a liability to his career. He was a stubborn man, says his daughter Gretchen Grant, but a man of unflinching principle.

A few more words to that point from the Post review:

From these early works in the series, it feels as if Diebenkorn simply floated out to open waters, to a place where the familiar shoreline of art was still present, remote but tangible, a thin, flat line on the horizon. Sometimes one senses the distant echo of architecture, the suggestion of a corner rendered in strict perspective, or of the beams and joints of a building seen in profile…

It’s always tempting to drag abstraction back to something more literal. But Diebenkorn’s work, even the late work with the possibility of some sad autobiographical reference, resists that. Instead, it works best in relationship to itself, an evolving set of gestures and meaningless referents. If one puts these paintings on a traditional time line of the fads and obsessions of 20th century art, they certainly feel anachronistic. But it was also a forward-looking project in that, more than anything else, it shows us an artist clearing space for himself, looking for a little serenity within the shifting currents of art history. Even the paintings, with the complexity all pushed to the margins of the image and large acres of gentle color occupying most of the space, suggest an ongoing attempt to find fields of silence in a world that hems us in with noise and distraction.

Since his death in 1993, recognition for Diebenkorn and his work has been steadily increasing. And for those of us who consider him the ultimate painter’s painter, it’s about time.