Many of us have had the distinct privilege of having brushed up against greatness. The lucky few absorb these chance encounters and mix with their own alchemy to become great.
My recent visit to the Deibenkorn exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Contemporary Art conjured up wonderful, rich memories of my brush with greatness, and of the time I spent with Richard Deibenkorn in 1974. Although I was a young scholarship student at Art Center College of Design, when Deibenkorn was my painting instructor, I sensed something fantastic about this artist. Richard Deibenkorn had caught the imagination and endorsement of the world art scene with his ‘Ocean Park Series’. A painter’s painter, the series, inspired from his view of the dilapidated Ocean Park was pure poetry on canvas. A tall, six foot five, shy, introverted quiet man, with a slight stoop, and a brushy mustache, looking like a bundle of fine paint brushes, worked patiently with his students by suggesting approaches to applying paint and color. Or, he would coax from the students their feelings and what they were trying to say.
At the time, Deibenkorn’s paintings, if you could buy one, sold for less than $20,000. Not a small amount of money then. Today, a piece from the Ocean Park Series sells for between $5 million to $10 million.
If you love art, love great art, then you must seek out any opportunity to see The Ocean Park series up close. – Scott
Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series is the first major museum exhibition to explore the artist’s most celebrated series created from 1967 to 1988. Recognized as a leading West Coast Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s, Diebenkorn turned his attention to figurative painting in 1955 and achieved equal success in this alternate style. In 1967 he returned to abstraction, and during the next twenty years would forge one of the most compelling and masterful bodies of work of the 20th century: the Ocean Park series. Featuring approximately 80 works—including paintings, prints, drawings, and collages—this exhibition captures Diebenkorn’s practice of working simultaneously in diverse media and provides audiences with the first opportunity to explore the complexity of Diebenkorn’s artistic and aesthetic concerns in this seminal body of work.
The highlights of the Ocean Park series are large canvases (7 to 8 ½ feet tall) of abstract painting, most of them geometric and architectural in construction and appearance. While deceptively simple upon first glance or in reproduction, these works feature layers of paint over paint, signs of adding and subtracting, and traces of what the artist was previously working on emerging through newer layers.
Diebenkorn’s lines are usually straight and deliberate, yet his subject matter is obtuse. In the Ocean Park series, the artist generally does not take a figurative or representational approach as he did earlier in his career; he embraces abstraction and pursues it to its greatest potential.
“They are like abstract altars,” OCMA curator Sarah Bancroft said of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park works. “It’s so sublime and sensorial to experience them in person. They’re not the types of paintings you can experience at a glance. They are what I like to call ‘a riotous calm.’ “
Bancroft has been working on this Diebenkorn exhibition since 2008, the year she joined OCMA. It’s been an arduous process obtaining loans from private collections and big and small museums across the country, as well as ensuring their safe travel to Newport Beach and getting permissions for their reproduction in the 256-page catalog. The talented, 30-something curator has spent many months organizing this show, overseeing its installment first at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas and then at OCMA, and editing the catalog.
“It’s my baby,” said Bancroft, who likened the whole process to giving birth. “It’s a magnificent show. I feel lucky I was able to work on it.”
In her research, Bancroft discovered that in 1965, the only West Coast venue to show Diebenkorn’s first retrospective exhibit was the Pavilion Gallery – predecessor to the Newport Harbor Art Museum, which became the Orange County Museum of Art in 1996. So it became more than just coincidence for her to shepherd this show from idea to reality.
The Diebenkorn paintings, prints, drawings and works on paper come from some of the nation’s most prestigious museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Phillips Collection and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
One painting, “Ocean Park #36” (1970), has been in the Orange County Museum of Art’s permanent collection for a number of years.
Several works are also on loan from the Berkeley-based Diebenkorn Foundation and from the family of the painter’s daughter, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant.
DAUGHTER OF AN ART LEGEND
Grant, who lives in Oakland, remembers moving a lot when she was a child, from Berkeley to Sausalito to Albuquerque, N.M., to Urbana, Ill. She also remembers her painter father, who also painted houses to make ends meet.
“I was very confused what that meant, when he said he was a painter,” said Grant, 66. “The work was very confusing to my friends. In the early days, there were a lot of nudes. This is the ’50s and ’60s. It’s more commonplace now. Our house looked different. People’s houses don’t look the same like they did then.”
Grant remembers that her father preferred being alone in the studio when he created art. However, he didn’t mind being in his family’s company when drawing. “He drew every night after dinner.”
Grant has established her own career as an actor, teacher and singer. She has appeared in numerous stage productions and in the TV movies “Baby Snatcher,” “Back to the Streets of San Francisco” and “The Blue Yonder.”
“We didn’t talk a lot about acting, but we did talk about what it was like to be judged by other people,” she said. “We could always remember the bad reviews that people gave to us. We could almost quote them.”
Grant had already gotten married and moved out of the house when her father created the Ocean Park series in Southern California. About the current exhibition, she says, “It’s really wonderful to see the scope of it, and the development of it. The relationship of the paintings is very interesting to me.”
‘A PAINTER’S PAINTER’
Diebenkorn didn’t like labels, but he’s clearly associated with David Park, Elmer Bischoff and the Bay Area Figurative movement. He’s also considered one of the West Coast’s premier abstract expressionists.
During his career, he admired the works of Paul Cézanne, Willem de Kooning and Henri Matisse. Piet Mondrian appears to be an influence as well in many of the Ocean Park paintings.
Young, contemporary artists who are considered descendants of Diebenkorn include Amy Sillman of New York and Patrick Wilson of Los Angeles.
“He’s a painter’s painter,” Bancroft said. “His legacy is – he didn’t fit into any discreet box. He always followed his own impulse.”
“The Ocean Park Series” is a hugely significant show for OCMA. The Newport Beach museum has been the driving force behind the project, which has taken many years to develop and was postponed a couple of times.
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.
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.