Essence of the Beach

Richard Diebenkorn’s abstract canvases evoke California dreaming with no palm trees in sight

July 11, 2012

“Ocean Park #83” has been in the Corcoran’s collection since 1975, the year it was painted. Curator Philip Brookman calls it “a kind of symphony of color that evokes a Southern California suburban landscape.”

The works in “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series,” on view through Sept. 23 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, are not exactly representational. The series is named for a Santa Monica neighborhood, though, and its imagery hints at what might be seen there: surf, turf and sky.

“The paintings certainly evoke landscapes,” says Philip Brookman, the Corcoran’s coordinating curator for the exhibition. “But Diebenkorn was very clear that the paintings are abstraction.”

While New York’s abstract expressionists rejected representation, the Oregon-born, California-based Diebenkorn started out as a figurative painter. The artist, who lived from 1922 to 1993, moved toward a style that emphasized gridded compositions as well as bands and blocks of rich, layered color. But he never lost his sense of place.

Diebenkorn’s art is clearly West Coast, Brookman says. “Even in his most abstract images, you still get a sense of the light in Southern California.”

The artist’s canvases can be found in most museums with significant holdings of modern American art. But his drawings and prints are seen less often. This show includes them, demonstrating the breadth of the “Ocean Park” works, which occupied the artist from 1967 to 1988.

“I don’t know of another show that combined paintings, drawings and prints exclusively from the ‘Ocean Park’ series,” Brookman says. “That’s what’s unique about this show.”

The works on paper are “more accessible” and offer “a simpler view of his work,” adds the curator, who organized a show of Diebenkorn drawings while still an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1973.

Diebenkorn’s style reflects the influence of Picasso and Matisse and his own experiences viewing this country’s agricultural patchwork from the air.

“He’s taking in all the things he sees, in a very personal way,” Brookman says of “Ocean Park.” The result, he concludes, is nothing less than “one of the high points of American painting.”

Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW;  through Sept. 23, $10; 202-639-1700. (Farragut West)
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