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Richard Diebenkorn, Iconoclast

May 4, 2012

Let’s cut to the chase. Richard Diebenkorn is an artist of supreme soulful significance. Any opportunity to submerge oneself in his luxuriating hues and intelligent compositions should be immediately embraced. The chance to see an exhibition of 75 paintings, drawings and prints is nothing less than a must see moment.

Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park #79, 1975 Oil on canvas 93 x 81 in. (236.2 x 205.7 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and with funds contributed by private donors, 1977
©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn Image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach is featuring just such a Diebenkorn exhibition. The show draws it’s focus on the extensive Ocean Park series, begun in 1967 and extending to the artist’s death in 1993. Thoughtfully curated by OCMA’s Sarah C. Bancroft, the exhibition succeeds in numerous ways. The scale is pitch perfect offering an authoritative overview without becoming exhaustive. The balance of media on display also offers a marvelous opportunity to see both the trajectory of Diebenkorn’s compositional investigation and his encyclopedic skills as an artist. And by offering three entry doors, the exhibition affords several paths for discovery, none of which is wrong, and all of which lead to different conclusions, epiphanies and insights.

My appreciation of Diebenkorn’s entire oeuvre is indisputable. Long before Gerhard Richter, he practiced a harmonious both/and paradigm between abstraction and interprative realism. He proved that geometric compositional distillation and expressive mark-making were symbiotic. This interdependence remains difficult for many to embrace. Briefly, and in non-sequential order, here are several musings on Diebenkorn and the excellent Ocean Park Exhibition.

Richard Diebenkorn Cigar Box Lid #4, 1976 Oil on wood 8 3/8 x 7 1/8 in. and Ocean Park #105, 1978 Oil and charcoal on canvas 100 1/8 x 93 1/8 in.

Scale. Diebenkorn is equally facile in small, medium and grand scale painting and drawing. The exhibit contains numerous examples of painted Cigar Box tops that carry the same heroic weight as their 100 by 93 inch counterparts. Gestures physically made with fingertips and wrist have the bravado as brushstrokes executed with elbow and shoulder. And conversely, large brushstrokes carry the same delicacy and nuance as their miniature cousins.

Intentionality. Diebenkorn exerts enormous control over every aesthetic decision. There are drips and stains and bleedthroughs but each seems intentional and executed to a greater purpose. This dialogue with accident and the painting’s trajectory of push and pull is inspiring to study in one painting let alone 75!

Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park #43, 1971 Oil and charcoal on canvas 93 x 81 in. (236.2 x 205.7 cm) Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen, San Francisco
©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn Image courtesy the Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Optical Pleasure. Dienbenkon’s color palette is unapologetically beautiful. Lush and vibrant, underpainting permeates every endeavor. This optical mixing of colors through layering and glazing techniques presents an art that is collaborative with every viewer’s optical capacity.

Light and Shadow. Figure and Ground. Line and Volume. These, and countless other polarities, are constantly dancing, switching and folding unto each other. Diebenkorn thusly acts as a choreographer and the picture plane is the proscenium stage on which this narrative boogie woogie reveals itself.

And then there’s Matisse. It helps alot to know even a modicum of Matisse to see what drove Diebenkorn. The Orange County exhibition bears the unmistakable heartbeat of Matisse throughout each gallery. While this might not be a new scholarly insight, it’s nonetheless valuable to see the mantle that Diebenkorn was willing tackle. It further cements the historical trajectory that proves Diebenkorn essential, indispensible and heroic.

Richard Diebenkorn Untitled (Ocean Park), 1971 Charcoal on paper 26 1/4 x 18 5/8 inches Henri Matisse View of Notre Dame, 1914, Oil on Canvas 58 x 37 inches

Take for instance this lovely diptych of an Ocean Park Charcoal and Matisse’s View of Notre Dame from 1914. The perspectival lines creating an optical entrance to the picture plane act in similar ways. Contrast, if you will, the use of the single arch in a sea of straight lines. Erasures and adjustments abound further accentuating the process of the artist’s every gesture. The act of compositional decision-making is the subject matter and we are drawn (pun intended) into the unfolding drama.

Henri Matisse The Piano Lesson 1916. Oil on canvas, 8′ 1/2″ x 6′ 11 3/4″ & Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park #16, 1968 Oil on canvas 92 1/2 x 76 in.

Both Matisse and Diebenkorn harnessed the push/pull eccentricities of color. The greens and pinks extend forward while the unending variations of grays recede. In the hands of these masters depth becomes not simply a definition of physical space but a corporeal experience of picture plane; an on-ramp, if you will, where you visually go from 0-60 in 2.2 seconds.

Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure, 1905 and Richard Diebenkorn Blue Surround, 1982

Windows open into a room while simultaneously defining the space outside. Thus, infinity is defined by enclosure.

Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series continues through May 27th at the Orange County Museum of Art. From there it travels to its final destination of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. where it opens June 30th, 2012. For all that is holy, see this show!

Update June 6th, 2012: While I’m not generally a fan of the Huffington Post, there is a nice conversational piece about Diebenkorn and the run of the exhibition at OCMA. Link Here!

Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, May 4th, 2012

  1. BossMoss permalink

    Always a great fan of his work, I must admit, the, maybe, 3º of separation from Matisse never occurred to me until now.
    Thanks for the history lesson.

  2. Thanks – it’s great to finally read about RD. The visual comparisons to Matisse are fascinating. The love-haters must be squirming in discomfort! HA!

  3. yasoypintor permalink

    Reblogged this on yasoypintor and commented:
    A good exhibition of one of the most admired XXth abstract artists. I would love to see it!!

  4. asociacionfoto6 permalink

    No conocía la obra de este artista, que me ha parecido de una gran sensibilidad y con una capacidad de evolución digna de elogio. Gracias por dármelo a conocer

  5. yasoypintor permalink

    Great post. He is one of my favorite artists. I rebloged your post in my blog. Thaks for sharing

  6. Great article . Hope you don’t mind, I re-blogged it on my blog. (

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