Richard Diebenkorn at OCMA

Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series

by Sarah Kate Jorgensen

Orange County Museum of Art


Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series is one of the most intriguing and exceptional series of works in American Art. It is put on breathtaking display at the Orange County Museum of Art.

The career of Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), which spanned half a century, was characterized by consistently extraordinary and compelling work. Early in his career he worked both in abstract expressionist and figurative styles. In 1967, he moved from the Bay Area to Santa Monica where he returned to abstraction and produced the Ocean Park series.

The Ocean Park series is comprised of 145 works, including large paintings and lesser-known works, such as works on cigar lid boxes and collages, drawings and prints.

Diebenkorn is known for his sensitivity to the light and color of a particular place. Therefore, his pictures look very different according to places he lived. Ocean Park is no exception. Through out the exhibit, paintings capture the varied light of Santa Monica- from marine layer to California sunshine.   Not completely abstract, they are formal pieces that reflect the landscape he lived in. They are crisscrossed with lines that bear resemblance to power lines and telephone poles. Strips of cream and gray conjure concrete boardwalks or legs of the Santa Monica pier, and bands of greens are like manicured lawns and parks.

In the first gallery with paintings (Gallery 2), we come across one of his earliest paintings in the series: Untitled (view from studio), 1969 (gauche, charcoal and ink on paper). This small painting holds seeds of the Ocean Park series. Windows of a studio open up to rooftops and trees. We have interior and exterior spaces. The light is stronger outside than inside, so we go outside from where we are standing. Using strong whites and heavy charcoals, Diebenkorn invites us to enter the place presented to us in his Ocean Park paintings.

In his earliest Ocean Park work, we see a development in Diebenkorn’s style, from meandering to geometric, from expressive movements of shape to architectonic, structured formats. He switches from thick lavenders, to jewel tones and planes that evoke stained glass to a multiplicity of colors- both softly muted and bold.  Gallery 4 holds his brightest colors, including the strong, delineated shapes of Ocean Park 27 (1970) that remind one of the work of the quilters of Gee’s bend.

Ocean Park 115 (1978) takes Diebenkorn’s play with pentimenti (marks that show the history of the painting’s different phases) to its height. Through a haze of Naples yellow and cream we see traces of light pink, green, white and blue under painting. It is as if we are looking through a thick marine layer at patches of pavement and ocean.

Diebenkorn’s experience during WWII as a photographic cartographer seems to come to play in a lot of his work. We see the land cut up and divided succinctly into tight compositions. In Ocean Park 138 (1985), we are confronted by what appears to be large areas of black, crisscrossed with jolts of grey and a red strip acting as a border. But really we are looking at ultramarine and deep indigo blues, with one or two swatches of black sparsely placed.

Diebenkorn’s colors are never flat.

His work rewards those who look more closely.

Other canvases, calling with color, draw one into their firmament. Gold strips set off the heady blues of the ocean and sky.  In shows of confidence, he leaves stretches of canvas unpainted.

In looking at Diebenkorn’s art, one learns to see variations in colors. For example, what appears to be a simple green becomes grass with hints of dirt. His paintings help one look more thoughtfully, more completely.

“Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series,” is on view at the Orange County Museum of Art from February 26 to May 27, 2012. Video, audio guides and a catalogue accompany the exhibition.


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