Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series

The Fort Worth Modern’s current exhibition, Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, was organized in cooperation with the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California.  The show displays the largest collection of Diebenkorn pieces to ever be exhibited collectively, over seventy-five prints, drawings and paintings altogether, and is an absolute must see for any fan of the Abstract Expressionist Movement.

The sheer scale of the show allows the viewer the great opportunity to observe the progression of Diebenkorn’s work over his long and successful career.  With the exhibition stretching over two decades of abstract pieces, a clear progression and exploration is chronicled within the artist’s work.  From his earliest Ocean Park pieces to his large abstractions, one is given stepping stones of insight to the ambitious process and subsequent outcomes which have solidified Diebenkorn as a leading figure in the Abstract Expressionist Movement.

Richard Clifford Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon in 1922.  He was two years old when his family moved to San Francisco, California, where he spent the entirety of his youth, later enrolling at Stanford University in 1940.  There he studied art history and studio art under the tutelage of his two academic mentors Daniel Mendelowitz and Victor Arnautoff, both credited with introducing Diebenkorn to American art and European modernism.

Diebenkorn served in the Marine Corps from 1943 to 1945, and was stationed all across the United States.  After his military service he returned to San Francisco in 1946 and enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts, taking advantage of the G.I. bill.  By 1947 he was on staff at the University.  After the second World War, the center of the western art world moved from Paris to New York and Abstract Expressionism rose in prominence.  By this time Diebenkorn had developed his own recognizable style of abstract expressionist painting.

In 1955 Diebenkorn made a conscious shift from the abstract and began working in representational painting, a transition which granted him much success.  Along with a group of other artists who intertwined the figural with the abstract, a group coined the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Diebenkorn had become an important and respected representational painter; producing landscapes, still lifes and figure studies.  These works are notable and well executed pieces loved by many Diebenkorn fans.  They are a dramatic change from his well established early abstract period.  The works from this phase of his artistic progression are only mentioned as historical markers and are not displayed in the show as they are not a part of the Ocean Park Series, his magnum opus.

A word of caution, if you were hoping to see works from Diebenkorn’s representational period, this is not that show.   The Ocean Park Series is exclusively the artist’s abstract expressionist works, his most celebrated and masterful pieces.

Diebenkorn returned to abstraction in 1967 after his family had relocated to the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, California.  The resulting canvases were large, usually vertically oriented, with broad swaths of color.  Overall the canvases are soothing.  With a predominately soft and pastel color palette, the pieces are welcoming and calm, their draw invites investigation – their pull requires you to be still and examine – to study.  The smaller works, usually drawings, are not as convivial as the works on canvas.  They are monochromatic, dominated by blacks, grays and muted blues, and they are mechanical; still asking the viewer to inquire and observe, but at their own risk.

As the series of paintings are observed, the artist’s influences are evident and slowly begin to surface.  Piet Mondrian is evoked in the geometric and grid-like breakup of color and shape; Mark Rothko comes forth in the competing masses of color in study with one another; Franz Kline appears in the web of black lines running and colliding across the canvas and in many of his smaller acrylic works, some seeming to pull the viewer deep into a third dimension within the canvas while others lay decidedly flat; Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell show up in his smaller works and many prints (color aquatints, etchings, lithographs and monotypes) as his determined rigid and linear focus begins to shift into curvilinear free forms.

The Modern is more than an apt setting for such an important display of Diebenkorn’s work as pieces from its permanent collection give an ideal supporting setting and history.  While viewing The Ocean Park paintings one has the opportunity to wander into other areas of the museum and see pieces by artists who were active and producing at the same time Diebenkorn was working on his memorable series.  Directly below the exhibition a Motherwell, a Rothko and a Gottlieb are on display; allowing the works of art to have conversation with one another, to support and debate, to agree and quarrel.

The wide assortment of works from The Ocean Park era are extraordinary examples of Diebenkorn’s ability to utilize line and color to get ‘it right’- as the artist himself said, “The idea is to get everything right- it’s not about color or form or space or line – it’s everything all at once.”

The exhibition will be running at The Modern Museum in Fort Worth until January 15th, and is a show that shouldn’t be missed.

- M.P.Callender