An exhibition devoted to the work of Richard Diebenkorn could not arrive at the Corcoran Gallery of Art at a more opportune time. “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series” is a large, dense, rewarding show devoted to one of this country’s finest abstract painters. It’s big enough to fill the main galleries of the museum and loaded with large-scale canvases covered with watery, almost pastel-colored paints that crave exactly the light the Corcoran offers.
So it reminds us why we need the Corcoran and why a proposal to sell the building, currently under consideration, is nothing short of cultural vandalism.
Orange County Modern Art curator Sarah Bancroft, who organized the show, lets it sprawl when the work needs space and then tightens the focus as the exhibition shifts between paintings and works on paper. In several rooms there are only six works on display, but given their size — about 71 / 2 feet by 6 feet — and given the philosophical hush that pervades their gentle, geometrical forms, one is happy for the spare arrangement and ample breathing room. But it is the light that makes the strongest case, not just for the work, but for the museum itself. The rooms are flooded with neutral light filtering in from above which, combined with the lack of windows, makes Diebenkorn’s work the sole focus of attention. Bancroft calls one of the rooms “the chapel,” and it’s a good description: Diebenkorn’s work puts you in a quiet, contemplative state, attentive to its details, its pentimenti and washes of color that seem, somehow, like the traces of water on sand, or wind on rock.
The Ocean Park series was a long and productive act of anachronism. Diebenkorn, born in 1922, had already produced abstract paintings in the 1950s, and figurative work in the 1950s and ’60s, before he moved to the Los Angeles area in 1966. In 1967, he surprised himself and his admirers by turning to abstraction again even as the rest of the art world was pursuing pop and conceptualism. While other artists were leaving the studio for more engaged and confrontational work, Diebenkorn turned inward, back to painting, back to work that built on what must have seemed like the tail end of a decades-long project to purify and elucidate the fundamentals of visual art.
Named for the neighborhood where Diebenkorn established his studio, the Ocean Park series continued for two decades, eventually reaching “Ocean Park No. 140” in 1985, a painting of two large triangle forms, one sky blue, the other green, with the suggestion of some kind of architectural interaction at the top of the canvas where their two points meet. Diebenkorn did other work, in the Bay Area, in Albuquerque and most notably for this exhibition, in a series called Lower Colorado, in which he responded to large-scale efforts to control the water and landscape of Arizona, paintings which often seem to represent the landscape as if seen from above: flat parcels of blue, green and brown that dissolve the supposed line between abstraction and representation.
A modest work on paper, “Untitled (View From Studio, Ocean Park)” from 1969, suggests that Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park works were as much a response to basic, readily available natural and manmade forms as the Arizona paintings were a response to landscape. Divided into three basic registers, the top shows the extended plane of an open transom window, the middle captures the gabled roofs of houses and the arcing fronds of palm trees, while the bottom suggests the messy translucence of a very dirty pane of glass. It is a slice of the world as the artist might well have seen it from his studio, but it is also a repository of basic angles, shapes and rudimentary tricks of perspective.
The Ocean Park works that would follow are by no means all derived from this early drawing, which came after the earliest work in the exhibition, “Ocean Park No. 6,” from 1968. But just as the Arizona paintings share a connection with traditional landscape, the 1969 drawing and several other works from this period still feel tethered to still life, landscape and even portraiture. “Ocean Park No. 6” looks as if a standing human form is seen from behind a scrim or veils, and one might think it was a farewell of sorts to the human form, except that Diebenkorn had already toggled between abstraction and figurative work, and he was not the sort of artist who would commit himself to leaving anything useful behind as a matter of principle.
From these early works in the series, it feels as if Diebenkorn simply floated out to open waters, to a place where the familiar shoreline of art was still present, remote but tangible, a thin, flat line on the horizon. Sometimes one senses the distant echo of architecture, the suggestion of a corner rendered in strict perspective, or of the beams and joints of a building seen in profile.
On occasion, especially in his works on paper, Diebenkorn would draw out the basic lines of the architectural framework that undergirds his paintings, in skeletal, lively, minimalist black-and-white maps. A very basic curving form shows up from time to time, like the sound of an English horn, an essential but sparingly used instrument in the traditional orchestra. A magnificent set of prints from 1975 shows the artist dealing with issues that feel familiar from the Phillips Collection’s Jasper Johns print exhibition (on view through Sept. 9): Roman numerals are printed in a sequence from a plate that is only partially cleaned of its previous image, creating echoes of earlier numbers.
The last hall of the show features work that grows more tentative, exploratory and sometimes bleak. In the early 1980s, the occasional curve morphed into figures that suggest spades and clubs, a strange set of works that don’t quite reach a satisfying resolution. Blacks and grays rise in prominence, and leave one wondering what they’re about: Depression? Old age? The death of his mother in 1984? Or simply a more nocturnal light that dampens and suppresses color?
It’s always tempting to drag abstraction back to something more literal. But Diebenkorn’s work, even the late work with the possibility of some sad autobiographical reference, resists that. Instead, it works best in relationship to itself, an evolving set of gestures and meaningless referents. If one puts these paintings on a traditional time line of the fads and obsessions of 20th century art, they certainly feel anachronistic. But it was also a forward-looking project in that, more than anything else, it shows us an artist clearing space for himself, looking for a little serenity within the shifting currents of art history. Even the paintings, with the complexity all pushed to the margins of the image and large acres of gentle color occupying most of the space, suggest an ongoing attempt to find fields of silence in a world that hems us in with noise and distraction.
That is also what the Corcoran building does, and does well. One hopes this exhibition is a turning point, reminding the stewards of this museum of their greatest asset, and chastening them from the temptation to squander it.
is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art
through Sept. 23. 500 17th St. NW. 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.edu.