Measuring more than eight feet in height, Ocean Park #137 is unusually large: as big, in fact, as Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) could make a painting in 1985 and still get it out of out of his studio doors. One of the final works in his celebrated ‘Ocean Park’ series, this monumental canvas marked a triumphant return for the artist following a forced hiatus as he recovered from back surgery.
In 1985, Ocean Park #137 arrived at New York’s Knoedler gallery nearly straight from the studio, in readiness for the one of Diebenkorn’s regular solo exhibitions. The Knoedler show that year had something of a retrospective feel to it, with The New York Times art critic John Russell celebrating what he described as ‘the single longest continuous exploration of a given motif in the work of any substantial living American painter.’
Three years later, in 1988, the painting was acquired by the actress Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Dr. S. Robert Levine, who were five years into a loving marriage that lasted until Moore’s death in January of last year, at the age of 80. Moore, of course, had become an iconic figure in American entertainment, with television hits The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and through films such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Ordinary People. The actress was also a leading advocate for finding a cure for type 1 diabetes.
Richard Diebenkorn began his ‘Ocean Park’ series in 1967, soon after moving from San Francisco to southern California to accept a teaching position at UCLA. His friend and fellow painter Sam Francis invited him to take over his studio in Ocean Park, a working-class neighbourhood in the southwest corner of Santa Monica. The area was filled with bars and rescue missions and its low rents attracted artists: besides Diebenkorn, James Turrell, William Wegman, Robert Irwin, and John Baldessari all had studios there at one time or another.
At the time he moved in, Diebenkorn was best known for his sudden radical shift in style in the mid-1950s. Having first achieved fame after the war as an abstract painter, Diebenkorn abruptly turned to a figurative mode, and rose to prominence again as the leading member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement that included David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Wayne Thiebaud. In both incarnations, his supple line and pitch-perfect sense of colour set him apart.
‘Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen,’ he would later comment on his shift from figuration back to abstraction in 1966. ‘I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again… Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.’
Diebenkorn would often sit for hours staring at a painting, only standing to paint, almost out of exasperation, when he felt he had to do something. Sometimes he’d take a break from a painting to work out an idea in a drawing, and as the layers of the painting grew, he swapped ideas in and out from the works on the walls around him. This was action painting, but not one that aimed to record the body in motion. For Diebenkorn, the painting was a record, in layer after layer, of the mind at work.
By the time Diebenkorn made Ocean Park #137 in 1985 he had grown weary of Los Angeles, and was soon to abandon the city for the quiet of northern California. But in these last canvases he seemed to revel in the freedom he’d discovered in the series, and all the layers of light and line and shape and colour that had sustained him throughout it.
The dominant blue in Ocean Park #137 is a glowing, almost Yves Klein blue, with several darker shades set side by side, including a large Prussian blue field alive with the evidence of previous overpaintings and erasures. The painting gives a lasting impression of brightness, like looking into stark shadows on a sunny day. There are lines between the strips of colour, and more hints of lines below the blocks of paint, so that the various outlined shapes seem to shift in a kind of inner dialogue, lit by marine reflection and a few bright flashes.
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In his review of the 1985 show John Russell wrote in The New York Times that the paintings in the ‘Ocean Park’ series ‘look different, year by year. Not only do we ourselves change, but the paintings change in relation to other, later paintings by other people… There is a specific landscape in them if we know where to search for it.’
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Ocean Park #137 will benefit the Mary Tyler Moore and S. Robert Levine, MD Charitable Foundation to continue the couple’s enduring philanthropic mission.