Art Preview: “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series”

The Corcoran is the only East Coast venue to exhibit the abstract expressionist’s seminal series.

By: Kathleen Bridges

“These paintings were made for this building, and the building was made for these paintings.”

According to exhibition curator Sarah Bancroft, this was the response of Phyllis Diebenkorn, wife of the late abstract expressionist Richard Diebenkorn, upon touring the upstairs galleries at the Corcoran Gallery of Art this week. Over 80 pieces from her husband’s seminal Ocean Park Series—drawings, prints, monotypes, mixed-media pieces, and large-scale, saturated canvases—are on display starting tomorrow in the exhibition’s only East Coast showing.

Walking into the first of the galleries, it’s easy to understand Mrs. Diebenkorn’s reaction. The combination of the filtered light pouring in from the buildings’ skylights and the glowing pastels of Diebenkorn’s immense canvases has a hushing, contemplative effect on the viewer. At nearly eight feet tall, the paintings almost beckon you to step right into their Pacific blues, desert yellows, and sunset pinks, a palette picked from the Southern California landscape in which Diebenkorn lived and worked.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79, 1975. Oil on canvas, 93 x 81 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and with funds contributed by private donors, 1977. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. Image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Created over a 20-year period, the work in Deibenkorn’s Ocean Park Series consists of angular frames of translucent color, meticulously worked and reworked, blotted and boldened in an evolving investigation of space and landscape. In each piece, the chaos of the abstraction is pushed to the perimeter, a tangle of geometry clinging to the edge of a canvas otherwise swathed in cloudy, ethereal color. Bancroft’s curation, too, would seem to echo this arrangement: the main galleries are airy and restful, with gigantic color-soaked canvases on milky white walls; the last room—darkened and moody—is lined with smaller, more complicated pieces created during the latter part of the series.

The exhibition manages to deftly mingle smaller drawings and prints with Diebenkorn’s larger paintings, much in the way that the artist moved between small- and grand-scale pieces in his beachside studio. Taken in together, it’s a patchwork evocative of the California landscape and its trademark laid-back sophistication, a breezy, breathy show that feels, as Mrs. Diebenkorn noted, exactly right in this space, at this time.

University Art Gallery, The Twigg-Smith Collection; Gift of Laila and Thurston Twigg-Smith, B.E. 1942. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

“Richard Diebenkorn: “The Ocean Park Series” opens tomorrow, and will remain on display until September 23. Numerous special events—a photo safari, yoga sessions, a performance by a Beach Boys tribute band, to name a few—will accompany the exhibition; visit getinvolved.corocran.org for more information.