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Art Review

Richard Diebenkorn, a West Coast painter, at his best

‘Ocean Park’ series evokes an eternal Calif.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park’’ paintings, such as #79, conjure the sea and sky through expansive sections of blue, tawny yellow, off-white, and green, as well as California’s built environment.

A great and stately unfolding occurs in the “Ocean Park” paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, among which can be counted some of the most beautiful works of art created in America, or anywhere else, since the Second World War.

To stand before these austere but drenchingly beautiful canvases is as close as art gets to the feeling of taking refuge on a cold day under a warm shower. The larger paintings, in particular, impose a physical, almost drug-dragged restraint against removing oneself from their ambit.

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Between 1967 and 1985, Diebenkorn (1922-1993), who had already earned acclaim first as an abstract painter, then as a figurative one, settled with his wife Phyllis in southern California. In a beachfront community called Ocean Park in Santa Monica, he occupied first a small, windowless room and then, after six or eight months, a larger, light-filled studio that had just been vacated by his friend, the painter Sam Francis.

Brooklyn Museum

Richard Diebenkorn’s #27.

There, at the age of 45, and without quite knowing what he was doing or why, Diebenkorn threw himself back into abstraction. Over the next two decades he created 145 “Ocean Park” paintings, some as large as 8½ by 6½ feet, others much smaller.

Eighty of them are the subject of an exhibition, the first devoted exclusively to the “Ocean Park” series, at the Orange County Museum of Art in California. (The show was organized and exquisitely installed by Sarah Bancroft. It comes to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on June 30.)

The classic Ocean Park paintings are big, vertically oriented abstract canvases with rectilinear and sometimes diagonal partitions that multiply in frequency and intricacy near some of their edges.

Tautly constructed, they can resemble giant sheets of paper used for origami, then unfolded and flattened out. But their color relations – Diebenkorn’s inimitable palette of aerated blues set off by yellows, greens, purples, oranges, creamy browns, and no end of intermediate, stonewashed hues – evince mirages of three-dimensional space, and a finely calibrated tension between indoor and outdoor moods.

The “unfolding” occurs not just on the surface and in space, however, but in time: Diebenkorn’s built-up surfaces, with their erasures and ghost lines, their scuff marks and pooled stains, draw you into a process, a history of their making. They transform the act of viewing into an elastic, involving experience, not just a sudden, all-at-once hit.

You are conscious at every moment that what you see is the culmination of subjective processes at once sensuous and strenuous (observing, feeling, filtering, making, remaking, remaking again) all of which leak back into your experience before them.

Diebenkorn was the preeminent West Coast painter of the postwar period. At his best, he was the equal of any of his better known East Coast peers.

But of course these cherished categories – East Coast, West Coast, Northern, Southern – when they’re not functioning as useful clues to the vagaries of critical reception, are really just picturesque clichés. In Diebenkorn’s case, it’s well to remember that the painter who made the biggest mark on him in his early years – Edward Hopper – was as East Coast as they come. And that Diebenkorn shared many of the same concerns and abiding influences as his better known East Coast peers, from Willem de Kooning to Ellsworth Kelly.

And yet, undeniably, Diebenkorn’s paintings are saturated in a sense of place, a quality of light, and an atmosphere that will always evoke southern California. (Describing the sensation of arriving in Los Angeles, art critic Peter Schjeldahl got it right 30 years ago when he wrote of “the soft dead air and fierce milky brightness, the instant and afterward incessant feeling of being a sugar cube dissolving in warm fluid.”)

The Ocean Park paintings, building on Diebenkorn’s earlier figurative paintings, evoke California’s low-slung built environment – its tendency to shape and divide even the most enveloping outdoor spaces into discreet geometrical units. But their expansive sections of blue, tawny yellow, off-white, and green also conjure the unfettered sea and sky, the limb-loosening landscape.

Diebenkorn was profoundly affected by air travel, and the flattening effect, visually, that elevation has on the land and sea below. Man-made divisions become more pronounced. Patterns emerge in a kind of natural process of abstraction that chimed seductively with developments in modern art.

In this (and in much else), Diebenkorn was a spiritual cousin to his faraway contemporary Fred Williams, Australia’s great 20th-century painter. Temperamentally, like Williams, he savored difficulty. What’s more, although they were modernists to the core, both Diebenkorn and Williams found their sweet spots right at the line between figuration and abstraction. Both also rejected expressionistic freedoms in favor of classical restraint. As such, they were heirs to Cezanne, Matisse, and Mondrian – distilling and containing emotion in order to intensify it.

Although Diebenkorn was reluctant to make too much of it, his “Ocean Park” series was, of course, deeply indebted to Matisse’s “heroic” phase – the period between 1912 and 1917, when the Frenchman produced heavily worked and austerely geometric – if still tremendously sensuous – paintings like “Zorah on the Terrace,” “View of Notre Dame “ “The Piano Lesson” and the unfinished “French Window at Collioure.”

The latter, in particular, with its vertical partitions of different widths, its washed-out blue and turquoise, its subtle diagonal inviting the eye to read spatial recession, and its inside/outside dynamic, looks like a prototype for the whole “Ocean Park” series.

Art is wonderful like that. One artist opens a jammed attic window – almost absent-mindedly; other things are crying out for his attention – and half a century later another artist on another continent makes beauty come parading through it.

Diebenkorn’s way with color is the source of his greatest originality. He had a sixth sense for how to contrast the coolness and warmth of colors and for the interplay between hardness and softness, degrees of aeration.

In places, he would do as Mark Rothko did: lay one big expanse of a single hue over two layers of slightly differing hues, one warm, the other cool. The result? An exquisite emotional pitch akin to the final, descant-accompanied verse of a melancholy hymn.

Elsewhere, Diebenkorn makes tough, vibrant colors miraculously cohere with milky, bashful hues. In Ocean Park #43, for instance, a dissonance bordering on vulgarity between turquoise and grass green on the right is subdued by stripes of soft denim blue and creamy tomato soup red. On the far side of an expanse of murky off-white, the same painting harmonizes rusty brown, royal blue, and lilac.

There is a severity in Diebenkorn’s best paintings – a tingling sensation of strength held potently in reserve – that tempers the rush of Californian hedonism his paintings inevitably evoke. Not unlike that great painter of indoor life, Edouard Vuillard, the expansive, outdoor-oriented Diebenkorn can seem to be involved in an endless game of spiritual division, of moral apportioning: In how many ways, and with how much poetry, can a rectangle be divided into smaller units of varying size and color?

The answers come at you like lessons in how to live.

Undertakers of modern art contend that Diebenkorn was the end of a line – the last important studio painter still concerned with building on the inheritance of Cezanne, of the School of Paris, of Mondrian, of de Kooning. They may or may not be right.

But how wonderful it is that, as recent art degenerates into a concatenation of one-off sensory or intellectual “hits,” Diebenkorn’s paintings are still there to remind us of the value of depth, duration, and a beauty that is always just short of replete.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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