This monumental painting is one of the final canvases from Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, and stands as a majestic example of the entirely new language of painting inspired as much by art historical traditions as by the light and landscape of California. The Ocean Park paintings have become one of the cornerstones of American postwar art, with many examples forming part of the core of 20th century holdings at major museums around the world. As a definitive late example from this series, Ocean Park #137 also comes with the distinguished provenance of having been owned by the legendary actress, TV producer and philanthropist Mary Tyler Moore and her husband, Dr. S. Robert Levine, in whose private collection it has remained for the past 30 years. One of the artist’s largest canvases from the period, it’s architectural arrangement is rooted in Henri Matisse’s near-abstract work and strict geometry of Piet Mondrian, yet the artist’s unique vision results in a delicate interaction between formal rigor and luminous, sensual color. These works uniquely combine abstraction and representation, geometry and gesture, tradition and independence and are infused each with its own distinct pattern of light and a wholly new atmosphere.
The surface of Ocean Park #137 displays abundant evidence of Diebenkorn’s mastery of his art; the geometric planes and tall columns of color exhibiting the varying and exacting brushwork for which his work is celebrated. Ranging from broad gestural sweeps of his brush to the detailed scoring of the painted surface, this expert paint handling together with the composition of colored layers produces a rich and animated painted surface. The monolithic passage of deep blue that occupies much of the right- hand side of the canvas is evidence of this; as the eye moves up the canvas the pigment first appears as a solid block, constructed out of slow and methodical, broad sweeps of Diebenkorn’s heavily laden brush. This then begins to dissipate as the artist introduces drier, rapidly applied pigment in clouds of pale, cornflower blue. Unlike the rest of the composition, which is defined by the strong vertical lines that define the columns of color, the subtle architectural nature of this large passage is defined purely by the pressure and direction of the artist’s brush.
Whereas one half of the canvas is defined by the artist’s masterful way of delineating weight and space using a single pigment, Diebenkorn counter balances this with a heavily constructed architectural structure that occupies the left half of the canvas, consisting of a series of dark, parallel lines that run the height of the canvas. Within these lines, he uses alternating hues of lighter and darker blue, combined with layers of mauves, ochre and teal, to give the appearance of a richer, tapestry like surface. These differing tones of blue are created by Diebenkorn laying down, and then partially removing, layers of paint. Occasionally original under layers of painting are left undisturbed, allowing for brilliant flashes of primary color to sparkle from beneath the layers of underpainting. Although on the surface this painting appears to be a simple arrangement of colorful geometric planes, the complexity of what lies beneath can be seen on the extreme turning edge, where direct evidence of the intricate nature of the composition is clearly on view in the splatters, drips and multitude of painterly marks.
Diebenkorn’s unique compositional arrangement was, in part, inspired by the seascape, green parks, and urban architecture of Santa Monica in California. After a peripatetic existence moving from Albuquerque, to Urbana and then Berkeley earlier in his life, in 1967 Diebenkorn and his wife moved to the Ocean Park district of Santa Monica. His new surrounds prompted a dramatic change in his art. Prior to his move, the artist had been working on a series of figurative paintings yet almost as soon as he began working in his new studio, he embarked on a radical new period of abstraction. Gone were the thick, gestural brushstrokes that define these figurative works, replaced instead by strict geometry and planes of color. Of this dramatic change of direction, Diebenkorn told the Los Angeles Times, “Even though my decision seemed sudden, that in a single day I said, ‘goodbye to all that,’ I knew better. By the end of the first week it was clear that I was engaged in the same way as always, the same searching for a subject, the intense boredom, deceits and flurries of hope and excitement… It’s been a great release for me to be able to follow the painting in terms of what I want for the painting, as opposed to qualifying that I found I had to do in the figure paintings” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted by D. Murray Holmon, “Chronology,” in J. Livingstone and A. Liguori (eds.), Richard Diebenkorn The Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 2016, p. 174).
The colorful and geometric composition also displays Diebenkorn’s indebtedness to the work of Henri Matisse. In the French painter’s View of Notre Dame one can see the strong 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; and the strong lines, use of blue, and passage of verdant green of The Piano Lesson are mirrored in Ocean Park #137. In 1964, just before he started his Ocean Park paintings, Diebenkorn had visited the Soviet Union to present his work to groups of Russian artists on a Cultural Exchange Grant from the U.S. State Department. 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. 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 artist began painting his Ocean Park paintings in 1967 with Ocean Park #1, and continued for over a decade until 1980, when he painted Ocean Park #125 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). After a 4-year hiatus, he returned with the triumphal Ocean Park #126 (a painting which currently holds the auction record for the artist), and during the next few months he completed another 14 paintings. In these later paintings Diebenkorn began to shift the compositional elements from the upper edge of the canvas down towards the center, and introduced a calmer, more controlled palette.
Ocean Park #137 is one of the final paintings in the series (and along with Ocean Park #140 it is also the largest), as early in 1986 the couple decided to leave Santa Monica and find somewhere new to live. “In the last year,” Diebenkorn told a TV interviewer, “I felt that each time I went out to the car to west Los Angeles for errands or whatever, every trip I made, it was that much worse. I felt—I was more hemmed in, more closed in on...” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted by D. Murray Holmon, “Chronology,” in J. Livingstone and A. Liguori (eds.), Richard Diebenkorn The Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 2016, p. 174). Soon after its completion it was exhibited at New York’s Knoedler Gallery in November of 1985. Rather prophetically, John Russell’s review for the New York Times seemed to sense that the era of the Ocean Park paintings was coming to its triumphal conclusion, “The ‘Ocean Park’ chapter will never be closed,” he wrote. “The paintings look different, year by year…. It is only inferior work that does not change in any way. The show at Knoedler makes this clear. In relationship to the hectoring, hyper-animated tone of so much mid-1980s painting, the ‘Ocean Park’ series seem more than ever like the emanation of an unhurrying nature that is ready to wait forever to get the picture right” (J. Russell, quoted by D. Murray Holmon, “Chronology,” in J. Livingstone and A. Liguori (eds.), Ibid., p. 187). In December that year, Diebenkorn completed his last Ocean Park painting, the imposing Ocean Park #140.
Working almost all of his of life in California, Richard Diebenkorn became of one of the West Coast’s most influential artist’s; from his early days as a teacher and university professor through to his later critical and commercial successes he would become a pivotal counterpart to the East Coast dominated art world. Of his time in Los Angeles, curator Susan Larson wrote. “Richard Diebenkorn’s influence on the community in Southern California painters is incalculable. His encouragement and friendly interest in the work of younger painters has sustained many of them, however, and his interest in their work bridges many styles. His personal example, his modesty, and his candor have made it plain that the life of a painter is one of solitude, that the rewards are intrinsic to the work itself, and the learning process is never ending” (S. Larsen, quoted by D. Murray Holmon, “Chronology,” in J. Livingstone and A. Liguori (eds.), Richard Diebenkorn The Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 2016, p. 187).
Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings stand as the best illustration of the new vocabulary that he had developed in his constant search for a new form of expression, a language somewhere between figuration and abstraction. Taking his lead from a previous generation’s masters, the artist used his inspirational new surroundings to develop this new form of expression, 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 between abstraction and figuration, in paintings such as Ocean Park #137 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.