Late in 1966 Richard Diebenkorn moved into a new studio in the Santa Monica canyon and began working on a series of paintings that would become some of the most celebrated works of his career. These Ocean Park paintings, named after the suburb he now called home, not only marked the final break with the artist’s more representational style but also represented a considerable departure from the prevailing artistic developments in Southern California at the time. The impulse for this revolutionary change came when Diebenkorn moved into Sam Francis’s old studio in Ocean Park. The new, large light-filled studio was a dramatic change from the cramped, windowless room that had been Diebenkorn’s previous space and his new environment had an almost immediate effect, although one which he didn’t fully realize at the time. “Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen,” he commented, “But I didn’t. I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again. As soon as I moved into Sam’s space, I did four large canvases—still representation but much flatter. Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether” (R. Diebenkorn quoted by S. Bancroft, ‘A View of Ocean Park,’ Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2011, p. 15).
Painted in 1984, Ocean Park #126 stands out as one of the pinnacles of this now iconic series. Against a palette of warm golden and yellow tones recalling the bright California sunshine, Diebenkorn lays out a series of diaphanous bands that bisect the canvas along horizontal and diagonal axes. Rendered in a chromatic range from rich reds to jewel like blues these lines act as anchor points that allow the viewer to access the work, and center themselves within it. In his earlier Albuquerque, Urbana and Berkeley series, Diebenkorn used the landscape as inspiration for his reductive style of painting. Although it has been argued that these lines resemble some of the geographical features that Diebenkorn observed in the suburban landscape, by the time he painted his Ocean Park paintings he felt he had resolutely abandoned figuration in favor of something much more spiritual and contemplative, as one influential critic noted, “[With the Ocean Parks]…one leaves behind labels like “Abstract Expressionism” and “Bay Area Figuration” and enters a breathtaking new world that is unique to Diebenkorn as Mondrian’s or Still’s or Rothko’s are to their creators….Greatness in art is measured not necessarily by how much ground is covered, but by how deeply, how fully and movingly it is explored….As Monet, or Still or Rothko—indeed as most other great contemporary artists—Diebenkorn demonstrates that it is possible to construct a universe by exploring a single idea to its frontiers” (T. Albright, quoted by G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1987, p. 189).
The artist’s Ocean Park paintings are the culmination of a journey that began for the artist as early as the 1940s. Through his encounters with the work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian he witnessed the march towards abstraction—from Cézanne collapsing and juxtaposing foreground and background, to Matisse’s organization of space within geometric scaffolds. However, Diebenkorn tempered the influence of European modernism with his fellow countrymen’s Abstract Expressionist zeal. He was especially inspired by Abstract Expressionism’s rhetoric about the process of creation. De Kooning’s paintings recorded their gestation, bearing evidence of superimposed modifications and 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 masterful painterly touch and unrivalled use of color distinguishes him from peers and predecessors alike.
In 1951, the artist 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 an important event, his new surroundings in the beach community of Ocean Park giving birth to the eponymous series of paintings.
In addition, Diebenkorn visited the Soviet Union in 1964 to present his work to groups of Russian artists on a Cultural Exchange Grant from the U.S. State Department. The Soviet Artists’ Union invited him to give a series of talks and presentations about his work to various branches of the organization. Although meeting fellow artists was the primary focus of his trip, the chance to see in person some of the masterpieces by the French artist Henri Matisse most excited him. Diebenkorn had read about iconic works such as The Painter’s Family, Conversation and Harmony in Red in Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s influential monograph Matisse—His Art and His Public. However, experiencing these paintings first-hand—at the Shchukin Collection in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and the state museums in Moscow—was an important moment in his career.
In Matisse’s View of Notre Dame we can see the parallels between Matisse’s and Diebenkorn’s paint handling technique in the multiple layers of semi-transparent pigment that Matisse builds into the “dusty quality” that Diebenkorn so admired. The diagonals that counterpoint the strong lines also recall the diagonals in Ocean Park #126. His visit to Moscow came just as he was searching for a new direction, and encountering Matisse in the Soviet Union seems to have been another source of inspiration for this new and exciting phase of his career, “At about this time, the … figure thing was running its course. It was getting tougher and tougher … Things really started to flatten out in the representational [paintings]. Five years earlier I was dealing with much more traditional depth [or] space… In my studio at Stanford, things were already flattening out … I’m relating this to Matisse, because of course Matisse’s painting was much flatter in its conception than my own … After I returned from Russia we came [to Los Angeles] … And the painting I did here was really flattened out, and so it was as if I was preparing to go back to abstract painting, though I don’t even know it” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1997, p. 59).
The Ocean Park paintings exemplify the best of this new vocabulary Diebenkorn developed in his search for a new form of expression between figuration and abstraction. Taking his lead from a previous generation’s masters, the artist used his inspirational surroundings to develop a new expressive language, re-defining the way we look at paintings. 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, 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.