Richard Diebenkorn, "Untitled (Ocean Park)"

Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled (Ocean Park)” (1986), charcoal and ink on paper, 17 5/8 x 37 1/8 inches (© and courtesy the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Beginning in 1968, in an act of governmental largesse unlikely to be repeated any time soon, the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior invited forty artists, all expenses paid, to create works documenting its water reclamation efforts in the West. Among those asked to participate was Richard Diebenkorn, who traveled in 1970 to the Columbia River valley and Salt River in Arizona for five days of expansive looking, taking in landscape views from a promontory and making several overhead passes in a helicopter. Long fascinated by aerial perspective, he found himself “boggled” by what he saw. “Whenever there was agriculture going on,” he later recalled, “you could see process — ghosts of former tilled fields, patches of land being eroded.”

The interplay of cultivation and erasure that the artist discerned from his bird’s-eye perch offers one way to grasp Diebenkorn’s later abstractions, which often evoke the sensation of being suspended from a great height, gazing down into a parceled landscape or landscape analogue. Inviting yet austere, these spacious canvases suggest the earth’s palimpsest when seen from above: flat and smoothed out, but layered with spectral traces of what’s been worn down, scraped away, superseded but not yet obliterated.

The abstract works of Diebenkorn’s long residence in Southern California during his latter decades are the subject of Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, currently at its final stop (and only East Coast venue) at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. Named for the Los Angeles neighborhood where Diebenkorn rented studio space for some twenty years, the Ocean Parks are among his best-known paintings. But the exhibition is genuinely a revelation (that overused word) not only in its gathering of so many of the series’ dispersed canvases but in the way it sets off a dialogue among them and with related works in other media.

Richard Diebenkorn, "Cigar Box Lid #4"

Richard Diebenkorn, “Cigar Box Lid #4” (1976), oil on wood, 8 3/8 x 7 1/8 inches (click to enlarge; © and courtesy the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

The show all but hums with an electric current of correspondences and divergences relating to scale, perspective, color, and medium. The small-size works painted on cigar-box lids and offered as gifts to friends echo the monumental paintings but bear them into a realm of affection and intimacy; they are nevertheless authoritative enough, as exhibition curator Sarah C. Bancroft observes in her fine catalogue essay, to “capture one’s attention from across the room and command an expanse of wall space disproportionate to their actual size.”

The predominating palette of marine hues and yellows and pinks sets the stage for the unexpected emotional and formal wallop of countervailing works like the 1986 charcoal Untitled (Ocean Park), a long panel of grays and blacks suspended in an ominous storm-front of a drawing, at once airy and murky. Several of the show’s collages prompt us to revisit the paintings —whose panes of color can seem to float and vibrate before our eyes —and regard them as sturdily built objects; the graphic works, in their absence of color, are like X-rays of the large canvases’ linear underpinnings.

Richard Diebenkorn, "Ocean Park #6"

Richard Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park #6” (1968), oil on canvas, 92 x 72 inches (click to enlarge; © the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Diebenkorn’s move to Southern California in 1966 corresponds fairly neatly with a paradigm shift in his career. Not long after settling in to work at his Santa Monica studio on the corner of Main and Ashland, he abandoned the figurative style that had begun in late 1955 and — abruptly, even to himself — embraced abstraction anew. In “Ocean Park #6” (1968) the first authorized painting of the series (Diebenkorn was unhappy with his first five efforts and destroyed all but one of them) limb-like shapes and curves suggesting bodily contours reveal the vestiges of representational forms on their way to being fully sublimated. More pronouncedly, the 1969 gouache “Untitled (View from Studio, Ocean Park)” can readily be cast as an allegory of Diebenkorn’s aesthetic pivot: the receding vista of trees and rooftops in the world outside the studio are sandwiched between top and bottom layers of abstraction, as if soon to be subsumed by them, the picture plane to be clamped shut like a grate.

Diebenkorn himself noted in an in an oral history with Susan Larson that the earlier Ocean Park paintings are airier and more atmospheric than what would come later. By the early 1970s he had resolved the formal vocabulary of the series into an idiom that seems more a projection of temperament — and a blueprint to satisfy a continuing need to work — than a set of painterly principles. The grid structures of the compositions provide undergirdings that are architectonic but flexible, weighty without being overbearing. They are the most patent manifestation of the classicism of these paintings, which offer evidence of a quest for balance and proportion that Poussin would have understood. They nonetheless sustain an overall aura of ambiguity that is among Diebenkorn’s most seductive qualities.

Richard Diebenkorn, "Ocean Park #79"

Richard Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park #79” (1975), oil on canvas, 93 x 81 inches (click to enlarge; © the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In viewing the Ocean Parks one is always aware of the decisions and reversals that brought these works to their final forms. The drama of the series lies in the way that local flare-ups on the painted surface are contained but never mastered by the structural apportionment of the larger composition.

Characteristically, the pentimenti and the agitations around the edges of the triangular forms in “Ocean Park #27” (1970) have the quality of discrete events. In the cigar-box lid paintings there is an almost musical pleasure in  the way they lead the eye  through their gliding curves and forking paths. And in the late intaglio print “Blue Surround” (1982), the green rectangle at the center is both barrier and expanse — you simultaneously peer over it and through it , or perhaps you’re hovering somewhere above it. Yet there’s nothing disorienting about this sort of dislocation. You’re drawn into the print because it invites a bewitching sensual confusion.

Such varieties of perceptual experience are what delivers the Ocean Parks from complacency or — great as they must look on their collectors’ walls — prettiness. Seeing so many of these works reunited reminds us of the virtues of consistency, how the set boundaries of a self-imposed style can be generative rather than restrictive, and intricately varied in its details. Diebenkorn’s latter abstract period is a largely static phase, which is why it is so often regarded through the filter of “place”: of a locale — Santa Monica or, more broadly, the American West — that asserts its recurring verities of light, climate, color, and space.

And though it would be obtuse not to acknowledge the influence of the Southern California setting (signaled, of course, in the title of the series), these works are more than refractions of their place of origin. Much of Diebenkorn’s achievement was to make Ocean Park appear everywhere and nowhere: the artist is both in the world and somewhere above and beyond it. As his friend Wayne Thiebaud remarked in admiration, “You don’t quite know where everything comes from … He takes something and essentializes it in an oblique way.”

Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Series is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (500 Seventeenth Street NW, Washington, DC) through September 23.

James Gibbons

James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.