Please note this work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn Catalogue Raisonné as number 1551.
"Diebenkorn is also a colorist who can make the merest sliver of an unexpected color exert an astonishing leverage on the painting as a whole there are paintings which, though sober and explicit in the lower halves, come to inhabit a world of wilder adventure as the painter nears the top of the canvas" (J. Canaday, quoted in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1987, p. 155).
Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series crowns his long, productive career as one of his generation's most influential artists. He had abandoned his earlier figurative work by the late 1950s, adopting a far-reaching new style rooted in Henri Matisse's near-abstract work and Piet Mondrian's strict geometry. The Ocean Park paintings resulted from Diebenkorn's unique vision and considerable skill and examine the delicate interaction between formal rigor and luminous, sensual color. These works uniquely combine abstraction and representation, geometry and gesture, tradition and independence. Yet Diebenkorn freshly improvised and infused each work with its own distinct pattern of light and a wholly new atmosphere.
Layered multi-colored areas embrace the upper and right edges, dominating Ocean Park #121's strong, colorful geometric composition. While seeming conceptually simple, these areas result from a painstaking painterly process -- while seeming conceptually simple -- in which Diebenkorn constantly conceals and reveals layers of paint. We can particularly see this process in the present work with its large area of clear and simple planar composition, which anchor the rest of the canvas. This area highlights the artist's constant working and reworking of the canvas's surface. When we inspect more closely, this area reveals itself as a complex site of painterly composition, where Diebenkorn handles thin, nuanced areas of pigment with an astonishing variety of techniques. He sinks and scumbles over the intercuts of his gridlines while remnants of underpainting emerge from edges and seams, creating a rich visual experience that evokes time's passage through its visible erasures and revisions. Diebenkorn once commented that his pictures were always a constant struggle between two contrasting elements, that he was trying to achieve "a feeling of strength in reserve - tension beneath the calm" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of Art, New York, p. 24).
Diebenkorn encountered early on the work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian, which crucially affected his development. Diebenkorn witnessed the march towards abstraction -- from Cézanne collapsing and juxtaposing foreground and background, to Matisse's chromatic brilliance and organization of space within geometric scaffolds, to Mondrian's relentlessly logical geometric reduction -- paving the course for his own non-objective works. He tempered European modernism's influence with his fellow countrymen's Abstract Expressionist zeal. He was especially inspired by Abstract Expressionism's rhetoric about the process of creation itself. Arshile Gorky provided an early model -- linear biomorphic evocations against luminous chromatic backdrops -- followed by the agitated fragmentation of Willem de Kooning's emotionally and erotically charged abstractions. De Kooning's paintings recorded their gestation, bearing evidence of superimposed modifications. This affected Diebenkorn's direction, as did their rough and buttery paint application. Nonetheless, from the beginning of his career Diebenkorn's work was always unquestionably his own -- his painterly touch and unrivalled use of color distinguishes him from peers and predecessors alike.
In 1951 he flew from Albuquerque to San Francisco and the bird's-eye view of the desert revealed to him an extreme visual economy. He stated, "The aerial view showed me a rich variety of ways of treating a flat plane -- like flattened mud or paint. Forms operating in shallow depth reveal a huge range of possibilities for the painter" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in Modern Painting and Sculpture Collected by Louise and Joseph Pulitzer, Cambridge, 1958, p. 43). This event inaugurated a period in which he radically changed direction each time new surroundings inspired him. He began to test the boundaries of abstraction when he lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Urbana, Illinois during the early 1950s and in Berkeley, California from 1953 to 1965. However, his move to Santa Monica in 1966 proved to be seminal, his new surroundings in the beach community of Ocean Park giving birth to the eponymous series of paintings.
Diebenkorn visited the Soviet Union in 1964 to meet with fellow artists on a Cultural Exchange Grant from the U.S. State Department. In addition to giving various lectures, he also visited numerous museums and galleries and the paintings he saw deeply impressed him, especially Matisse's Harmonie rouge, Porte de la casbah, and Sur la terrasse. In 1965 Diebenkorn painted Recollection of a Visit to Leningrad which recalls the work of Matisse with its floral arabesques and flat rectilinear configuration. Moreover, it clearly foreshadows Diebenkorn's work developing into pure abstraction. We can see this most explicitly in the architectonic structure of the picture's surface. The grid at the left and the interlocking triangles at the right would reappear, varied, throughout the Ocean Park series.
His paintings from 1979 and 1980 best illustrate the new vocabulary Diebenkorn had developed to find a new form of expression between figuration and abstraction. Taking his lead from the previous generation's masters, the artist used his inspirational surroundings to develop a new expressive language, redefining the way we look at painting. He filled the resulting grand canvases with clarity; their expansive fields overflow with minimizing contrasts; broad areas of pigment serenely shimmer. By finding his own unique path between abstraction and figuration, Diebenkorn developed an entirely new visual language while retaining the traditions of both movements. In the process, he firmly established himself as a master of high modernism.