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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.

Ocean Park No. 67, 1973, Richard Diebenkorn. The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection courtesy of The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Ocean Park No. 26, 1970, Richard Diebenkorn. Nerman Family Collection courtesy of The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Pacific Standard Time, the sprawling art exposition that includes encampments at 60 different venues in the Los Angeles area, has already shifted the narrative for signifiers like California, art, post war, innovation.

The experience as it turns out is even more overwhelming and implication-rich than I imagined. (My pre-visit post is here.) And even though I spent my early life on the West Coast and am very familiar with the work of many of these California artists, the visual impact still has me feeling a bit too dizzied to offer a linear account. As Roberta Smith wrote in the Times, “’Pacific Standard Time’ has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.”

The image that comes to mind is an immense tarp laid out in the desert, an expanse of flatness that seemed inert. Then one day a helium truck showed up. Who knew? The immense and colorful hot air balloon, air borne and levitating over Los Angeles right now, is more spectacular than anyone imagined.

With my sensibility villi all still aflutter from a week of overstimulation I’ll just launch in and share a few highlights. A good beginning is the Getty (the organization that conceived and underwrote this whole thing) and the Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950–1970 show. Just a few words but mostly images.

And no better place to start than the two paintings by Richard Diebenkorn included in the show and pictured above. Very different from each other but both utterly exquisite. My partner Dave sat in front of these and said, “These two are worth the trip.”

And here are some other memorables:

This Mary Corse painting so subtle and reflective it is nearly impossible to capture it in a photograph.

Untitled (White Light Grid Series-V), 1969, Mary Corse. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas. Andrea Nasher Collection. Permission courtesy Ace Gallery and the artist

Ah. Bruce Conner. Finally this artist and his multifarious gifts are on display all over town (as well as at the Rose Museum in Boston). This early piece is a particular gem.

Black Dahlia, 1960, Bruce Conner. Offset photograph, feather, nails, paper collage, tobacco, rubber hose, fabric, sequins, string, and mixed media. Courtesy of the Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ed Moses. In his 80s now with a legacy that is legion. This early collage is compelling as is a piece on resin.

Dalton’s Waffle #1, 1960, Ed Moses. Crushed newspaper, shellac, and wood. Collection of Jim Newman & Jane Ivory. Image courtesy of Ed Moses

Hegemann Wedge, 1971, Ed Moses. Powdered pigment, acrylic, and resin on canvas. Collection of Phyllis & John Kleinberg. Image courtesy of and Ed Moses

Ronald Davis and his gorgeous mastery of olored polyester resins and fiberglass. (Note: There is another stunning Davis painting on view at the Norton Simon museum.)

Vector, 1968, Ronald Davis. Molded polyester resin and fiberglass. Tate: Purchased 1968. Image courtesy of the Tate

John Altoon (who died way too young, in 1969), was doing his own Ocean Park series before Diebenkorn made the Venice neighborhood world famous.

Ocean Park Series, 1962, John Altoon. Oil on canvas. Permission courtesy of the Estate of John Altoon and Braunstein/Quay Gallery, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Gene Ogami

Craig Kauffman mastered industrial plastics and his ethereal works seem to float in space.

Untitled, 1969, Craig Kauffman. Acrylic lacquer on plastic. Courtesy the Estate of Craig Kauffman and the Frank Lloyd Gallery.

Often referenced for his teaching at UCLA, Lee Mullican had an interest in spiritual dimensions and was influenced by Native American traditions, Surrealism, Zen Buddhism and jazz.

Untitled (Venice), 1967, Lee Mullican. Oil on canvas. Estate of Lee Mullican, Courtesy of Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles.

Sam Francis mastered the edges in this piece. (Another exquisitely understated and tonal Francis is hanging in MOCA Los Angeles.)

Untitled (Mako Series), 1967, Sam Francis. Oil on canvas. Collection of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

OK. I’ll stop there for now. More, more, more to come.

The view from the Getty with Robert Irwin’s gardens in the setting sun

“Everything I like about the art experience” is best expressed by this image of Dave basking in the Diebenkorns at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center

The Daily Beast writing about the Armory Show currently running in New York:

A Sam’s Club for Art?

Think of everything you like about the art experience: That it is meditative, complex, subtle, challenging; that it’s a refuge from the superficial, the pedestrian, the mercantile. The Armory art fair that opened this week in New York, like any other art fair, represents the opposite of all that. It is to a museum visit what Sam’s Club is to Goumanyat. The only thing it is good for is shopping.

This short piece was quite heartening to me. The words chosen to describe the art experience (from the Daily Beast no less) are all my kind of words—“meditative, complex, subtle, challenging; that it’s a refuge from the superficial, the pedestrian, the mercantile.”

More of that, please.

Back from California, visiting with both the Northern and Southern tribes. As always, the eye gets fed, and sometimes the finds are a surprise and unexpected.

San Francisco

Richard Diebenkorn: A gallery show at Paul Thiebaud Gallery consists of works that belongs to the late artist’s son Christopher. (In strange symmetry: Paul Thiebaud is artist Wayne Thiebaud’s son.) Fabulous range of paintings and works on paper. I was particularly enchanted by the small works (at the top, below) on cigar box lids.

Helen Frankenthaler: John Berggruen Gallery, one of San Francisco’s largest and most prestigious contemporary art galleries, is showing two floors of paintings by Frankenthaler. Her work played an important part in my development as a young artist (as did Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series in particular) so my interest in her work tends more towards sentimental homage. The best Frankenthaler I’ve seen in a long time is actually hanging at LACMA (see below.)

Los Angeles

The Culver City galleries are full of lively, spunky, compelling work. Here’s a random sampling:

LACMA has great hours (open til 8pm, with “pay what you will” starting at 5), and is open on Monday. Unlike New York City where museums stagger their closed days, most of LA’s museums are closed on Mondays.

It’s a sprawling campus—becoming more so with each massive building addition—and the experience doesn’t lend itself to just wandering organically from pavilion to pavilion. But treasure abound nonetheless. There’s green space nearby when you need some nature for counterbalance, and the play of light throughout the day makes the space enchanting in its own eclectic, aggregated way.

Looking west over the soon to be open Resnick Pavilion; late day light on the whiteness of the Bing; The Resnick at sunset

Calligraphy from the Japanese Pavilion; Cambodian statue; Koran calligraphy

Big discovery for me was the work of Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968). Trained as a musician and fascinated by the concept of synesthesia that was very popular in artistic circles at the end of the 19th century, Wilfred created devices that could merge light, music and visual form. On display is one of only 18 existing Lumia devices (lent by Carol and Eugene Epstein) that plays a stream of moving images. Wilfred’s work was included at the 1952 show at the Museum of Modern Art that also featured Pollock, Still and Rothko. Intriguing and seductive, I sat through the full cycle of few times, felt my vibrational level drop into meditative ease.

Still image from Wilfred’s Luccata, Opus 162 (1967-68)