The present work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn catalogue raisonné under number 1547.
The soft, brisk colors and crystalline light of America's Pacific Coast coalesce in Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park No. 117, epitomizing the best qualities of his most celebrated series of paintings. Painted in 1979, this composition represents the consolidation and refinement of the unique pictorial language that secured Diebenkorn's status as a key figure in Twentieth Century art. Produced over a period of twenty years, the extensive Ocean Park series shares a distinctive combination of abstraction and representation, geometry and gesture, tradition and independence and yet each work is wholly new, freshly improvised and infused with a particular light and atmosphere all its own.
The beauty and the longevity of this series lies in Diebenkorn's painstaking painterly process of concealment and revelation. His procedure is one of slow determination, where the final product is arrived at through intuitive and personal decisions. This is evident in the vigorous working and reworking of the surface in Ocean Park No. 117, which is typical of Diebenkorn's method of allowing the battleground of the canvas to retain the signs of the artist's struggle to reach resolution. What at first appears a clear and simple planar composition becomes, on closer inspection, something increasingly equivocal and complex, where thin, nuanced layers of pigment are handled with an astonishing variety of techniques. The sharp intercuts of his grid-lines are sunken and scumbled over whilst ghosts of underpaint leak through the edges and seams, creating an incredibly rich visual experience that evokes the passage of time through its visible erasures and revisions. Diebenkorn once wrote that he sought to create "a feeling of strength in reserve--tension beneath the calm" in his art and this combination of linear structure and painterly surface has exactly this effect (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, p. 24).
The genesis of the Ocean Park series is well documented. On several occasions earlier in his career, Diebenkorn changed his style when he changed cities; he began to translate the American landscape into abstraction while he lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Urbana, Illinois, during the early 1950s, and in Berkeley, California from 1953 to 1965. But the pictorial developments that occurred after his move to Los Angeles in 1966 would prove to be the most momentous of his life. Within several months of beginning work in his first Santa Monica studio, located in a neighborhood near the beach known as Ocean Park, the artist embarked on his monumental series of eponymous paintings and drawings, inventing a system of abstraction that sublimated his experience of the diverse landscapes of the ocean, beach and desert areas around Los Angeles into a rigid compositional strategy. These works constituted a radical departure for the artist in a number of ways. Not only did the Ocean Park works follow a lengthy period of painting figurative subjects, but their austere geometry also contrasted with the more calligraphic, freeform abstraction of his earlier works, as Jack Flam has observed:
The rectilinear forms constantly refer to the edges of the rectangle of the canvas itself and the geometry of their format is intensified by Diebenkorn's use of the straight edge to draw the lines, a practice that he has referred to as having been forbidden in his earlier paintings (J. Flam, Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park, New York, 1992, p. 22).
In Ocean Park No. 117, Diebenkorn has articulated the surface of the canvas with horizontal bands, bisecting them with a vertical line that seems to lock the composition squarely to the picture plane. The greatest level of activity is compressed to the upper half of the canvas, where a curved line and several diagonal thrusts intimate a greater sense of spatial depth. These lines establish a dialogue between perspectival space and the flatness of the plane onto which they have been delineated, creating an internal tension that evokes the great struggle between figure and ground first broached during the early years of modernism.
Indeed, Diebenkorn did not feel he was an avant-gardist at heart, but was deeply conscious of the traditions of his medium and saw his work as a departure and continuation of previous artists' legacies, particularly that of Henri Matisse. In 1964, Diebenkorn had been invited to visit the Soviet Union on a Cultural Exchange Grant from the U.S. State Department to study the work of Matisse and was deeply impressed by the paintings that he saw on his journey, especially Harmonie rouge, Porte de la casbah, and Sur la terrasse (both in the collection of The Pushkin Museum, Moscow).
Diebenkorn's reaction was profound, and in 1965, he painted Recollection of a Visit to Leningrad in response. This picture, with its floral arabesques, and its flat rectilinear configuration is a loving hommage to Matisse. Moreover, it clearly foreshadows his development into pure abstraction. This is most explicit in the architectonic structure of the picture's surface. The grid of verticals and horizontals at the left and the interlocking triangles at the right would reappear, in variation, throughout the Ocean Park pictures, including the present work. Diebenkorn's investigation of a Matissean mode was further stimulated by his visit to an exhibition of the artist's paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1966. The unfinished, open and spontaneous look of Une vue de Notre-Dame and the severe vertical geometry of Porte fentre Collioure (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou) proved to be especially influential for Diebenkorn and the impact of these works on the Ocean Park series is unmistakable.
Diebenkorn was influenced by Matisse's Parisian cityscapes but, more importantly, he revels in the spectacular light and rich colors of Nice by way of Southern California. The warm, luminous palette of Ocean Park No. 117 appears to be clearly evocative of a seaside idyll in its distillation of bright ocean blues, tawny sand, and grass green. By favoring hues with such naturalistic associations, Diebenkorn he allows for a kind of poetical allusiveness traditionally associated with the lyrical pleasures of landscape painting. In doing so, Diebenkorn proves himself to be a romantic abstractionist capable of preserving on canvas a sense of place and object without the aid of recognizable images. Although the pictures of the Ocean Park series are not representational in any traditional sense, they are nonetheless tinted with the particular aura of America's West Coast, whose particular beauty was venerated by Robert Hughes when he wrote:
[These] works may be the most refined images of the abstract bones of landscape (in the best sense of refinement, which excludes prettiness and weakness) done by an American artist of his generation. Pale blue Pacific air, cuts and slices of gable, white posts by the sea, sudden drop-offs of hill or thruway--these images of the California coast have found their way into his works, but in a condensed and fully digested idiom whose sources, far back in the early Twentieth Century, are Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian ... There is a kind of light on Diebenkorn's stretch of coastline - mild, high and ineffably clear, descending like a benediction on the ticky-tack slopes just before the fleeting sunset drops over Malibu - which is all but unique in North America, and Diebenkorn's paintings always appear to be done in terms of it. It is part of their signature, whether they suggest actual landscape or not (R. Hughes, "Richard Diebenkorn," Nothing if Not Critical, New York, 1990, p. 278).