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Ivan & Genevieve Reitman: A Life in Pictures

Untitled (Ocean Park)

Untitled (Ocean Park)
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'RD 78' (lower left)
acrylic, gouache and wax crayon on two joined sheets of paper
29 ¾ x 22 ¼ in. (79.7 x 56.8 cm.)
Executed in 1978.
M. Knoedler and Co., New York
Private collection, 1979
Pace Wildenstein, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1993
R. Newlin, Richard Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, Houston, 1987, pp. 124-125 (illustrated).
Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2011, p. 150 (illustrated).
Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015, p. 64, fig. 27 (illustrated).
J. Livingstone and A. Liguori, eds., Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné, Volume Four, Catalogue Entries 3762-5197, New Haven and London, 2016, pp. 251 and 432, no. 4323 (illustrated).
New York, M. Knoedler and Co., Richard Diebenkorn, May 1979, p. 15 (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection, The Drawings of Richard Diebenkorn, November 1988-December 1989, p. 170 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Untitled (Ocean Park) is an intimately-scaled example of Richard Diebenkorn’s critically-acclaimed series of abstracted landscapes. Displaying his knack for subtle unions of color and form, this particular example verges on the architectural while still remaining completely nonrepresentational. It is part of the artist’s most triumphant series which saw him return to abstraction after over a decade of figuration. John Russell, writing for The New York Times, extolled the importance of these paintings when he noted, “The ‘Ocean Park’ chapter will never be closed. The paintings look different, year by year…. It is only inferior work that does not change in any way” (J. Russell, quoted by D. Murray Holmon, “Chronology,” in J. Livingstone and A. Liguori (eds.), Richard Diebenkorn The Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 2016, p. 187). As time passes, the quiet genius of Diebenkorn’s compositions becomes ever more apparent.

Displaying a characteristic rectilinear format, Untitled (Ocean Park) is a prime example of Diebenkorn’s seminal series as it applies to his work on paper. Using acrylic, gouache, and crayon, the artist creates a layered geometric construction that both echoes and pushes against the confines of its surface. The top and right sides are given over to a number of colored strips. The red, white, and blue of the uppermost reaches are complimented by horizontal bands of yellow and bluish-gray as well as vertical pillars of aqua, ochre, and shades of off-white. Carefully applied, but still retaining traces of the artist’s brush, these elements serve to define the edges of the paper they are applied to and emphasize the materials themselves. In contrast, a wide expanse of mottled blue extends from the lower left on the diagonal. This incursion offsets the composition and creates a subtle movement that lifts the entire work.

One of the most interesting polarities in art is between representation at one end of the stick, and abstraction at the other end, and I’ve found myself all over that stick. Richard Diebenkorn

Throughout his influential career, Diebenkorn shifted between styles and schools with a knack for structural compositions that emphasized surface and the use of color and light. Beginning as an Abstract Expressionist after World War II, he spent the period from 1955-67 as a West Coast figurative painter whose ability to fuse landscape with human subjects inspired countless artists looking for the next step beyond the legacy of the New York School. From 1967 on, he returned to abstraction in his Ocean Park series of paintings and drawings which continued until his death in 1993. “If you don’t assume a rigid historical mission, you have infinitely more freedom,” he once remarked. “One of the most interesting polarities in art is between representation at one end of the stick, and abstraction at the other end, and I’ve found myself all over that stick.” (R. Diebenkorn quoted in S. Bancroft, “Richard Diebenkorn: A Riotous Calm,” in Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Royal Academy of the Arts, London, 2015, p. 17). Taking an unabashedly Californian approach to his works on both canvas and paper, the artist highlighted softer color combinations and deckled edges that worked to counteract the more forceful East Coast tendencies.

The Ocean Park series was instigated by a move to a district of the same name in Santa Monica. When Diebenkorn and his wife settled there in 1967, he immediately began pulling from the combination of seaside views, verdant parks, and striking architecture in an attempt to resituate his practice. Prior to this, he had been solely working on figure painting, and the shift in his practice was seen as somewhat of a shock. Talking to the Los Angeles Times, the artist noted, “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 in op. cit., p. 174). Chasing the same artistic elements in a new format, Diebenkorn traded painterly brushwork for abstract geometry.

Though he consistently drew from the history of art for inspiration, it can be argued that no artist was a bigger influence on Diebenkorn than Henri Matisse. The latter’s near-abstract works like View of Notre Dame (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York) emphasize planes of painterly color and bold shapes that combine into a representative form. His thin washes of pigment combine into luminous layers which can be seen in the Ocean Park series as Diebenkorn extrapolated on the French artist’s oeuvre and pushed it into pure form. This connection became especially clear after the California artist made a visit to the Soviet Union in 1964, right before the first Ocean Park was completed. There he saw a number of Matisse’s works in Moscow which, combined with his move to Santa Monica a few years later, pushed his practice down a new path. “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). Acting as an artistic catalyst, Matisse’s work reinvigorated Diebenkorn’s interest in planar abstraction as this perfect combination of influence and place worked together to form his most lasting sequence of paintings.

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