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ART : Park Places : Richard Diebenkorn’s sad, luminous ‘Ocean Park’ paintings are a revelation at MOCA retrospective

<i> Christopher Knight is a Times art critic</i>

Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings are immensely sad. Look into their vaporous veils of watery, layered color, and across the tracery of submerged and tremulous lines on which their loose geometry of shapes is constructed. You’ll see a solitary vision of an artist sequestered in his studio, alone, trying to assemble a paradisal realm that calls forth the memory of a lost Golden Age.

The pictures speak of a skittish disengagement with the mundane world, a profound reclusiveness whose final aim is not the tragically beautiful effort to reconnect with life beyond the studio. Instead each painting builds a wall of canvas and paint, on which a wholly idealized relationship might be played out.

If nothing else, the European retrospective of Diebenkorn’s paintings opening today at the Museum of Contemporary Art ought to dispel the more common presumption of the “Ocean Park” pictures. Typically, they are said to display an airy, luminous, more conventionally beautiful world, which has arisen from a carefully orchestrated collision between nature and culture--between the sunny California landscape and the rigorous lessons of modern pictorial abstraction. To be sure, these paintings would be unimaginable without either ingredient in that familiar conflict. Yet the cheerily languid tone of the description is off. Way off. The “Ocean Park” paintings that provide this sizable show’s finale are proof enough of that.

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“Richard Diebenkorn” was organized last year by the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, and it has already been seen in Madrid and Frankfurt. (After Los Angeles it will travel to San Francisco, its only remaining stop.) The 58 paintings are admirably laid out, and the full-color catalogue is a concise if rather uninspired overview of Diebenkorn’s career (beware the reproductions, however, for they are far too red). The principal quibble with the selection of paintings is a curious hole at a crucial moment. The sequence skips from the “Woman With Hat and Gloves” of 1963 to the big, emphatically Matissean “Nude on Blue Ground” of 1966. Diebenkorn is a strict editor of his own work, and there may well be little on canvas that survives from these important, transitional years.

Diebenkorn’s art is largely unknown in Europe. Save for his participation in the 1978 Venice Biennale, where he represented the United States, as well as a few other isolated instances, he has shown most regularly in California and New York. Diebenkorn is not prolific--perhaps 300 paintings date from the past four decades--and since the 1970s they have been much sought after by American collectors. According to Whitechapel director Catherine Lampert, none are in the collections of European museums.

Diebenkorn’s art is largely unknown in Europe. Save for his participation in the 1978 Venice Biennale, where he represented the United States, as well as a few other isolated instances, he has shown most regularly in California and New York. Diebenkorn is not prolific--perhaps 300 paintings date from the past four decades--and since the 1970s they have been much sought after by American collectors. According to Whitechapel director Catherine Lampert, none are in the collections of European museums.

What Europeans will make of Diebenkorn’s art is difficult to say. Its oft-remarked debts to the French master, Henri Matisse, are one obvious hook--especially for the later work, about which more will be said in a moment. But Californians have long felt an unsurprising affinity for it, as have New Yorkers. One reason is that, starting in the late-1940s, Diebenkorn skillfully developed a “regional” version of Abstract Expressionist manner.

You didn’t have to be a non-New Yorker to qualify as this kind of regionalist (though it helped). Essentially, you had to be an outsider to the fractious, nonetheless tightly knit group of artists in Manhattan who argued and drank together and who played their work off against one another. Some of them, including Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, had taught in San Francisco in the 1940s, and their presence can be felt in Diebenkorn’s earliest work. The fields of brushy color that split and cleave in an untitled abstraction from 1949 are particularly reminiscent of Still.

Yet, Diebenkorn’s abstract paintings of the early 1950s, which are named after the university towns in which he lived and taught, remain somewhat crabbed and constricted, as if they developed with one eye focused on the canvas and the other regularly glancing at reproductions of New York School paintings gleaned from magazines. Executed with growing assurance and sophistication, they are built on a Cubist armature in which space and form are indistinguishable from one another, simultaneously opening up and closing off representational allusions.

As with Still, the intimation of landscape is inescapable in these pictures. They vary in palette and style according to where they were made: Albuquerque, N.M.; Urbana, Ill.; Berkeley, Calif. When Diebenkorn began to paint the figure in 1955, belatedly following the lead of his San Francisco mentor and his colleague, David Park and Elmer Bischoff, the landscape remained of utmost importance. In “Girl on a Terrace,” “Girl With Three Coffee Cups” and “Woman in Profile,” the landscape framed by a window or, in turn, framing the solitary figure recalls the work of such modern precedents as Bonnard, Vuillard and, especially, Matisse.

Diebenkorn’s interest in Matisse dates at least to 1952, when he visited a significant exhibition of the aged painter’s work in Los Angeles. Another, even larger and more substantial show he saw at UCLA in 1966 must have solidified the impact of a 1964 trip he had made to the Soviet Union. There, he saw the extraordinary holdings of Matisse at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Among the great Russian pictures by Matisse is one whose significance to Diebenkorn’s later work seems pronounced. Painted for his patron, Ivan Morosov, in the winter of 1912-13 as part of a so-called Morrocan triptych, its subject was certainly familiar to Diebenkorn: “On the Terrace” shows a solitary figure of a young girl kneeling on a rug and framed by an ambiguous environment. In typical Matisse fashion, this surrounding expanse of veiled, blue-green color, complete with diffused, sharply angled light and muted, rectilinear structural lines, cannot be precisely identified. It might be an enclosed room, or perhaps a walled garden, or maybe an abstract evocation of land and sky.

Now, imagine that the girl in this aqueous setting arose, gathered up her goldfish bowl and slippers, and departed the picture. The ambiguous blue-green space she left behind would form the clear foundation of an “Ocean Park” painting.

Artistically, Diebenkorn was certainly ready to see the Russian Matisses in 1964. By then he had been painting solitary female figures in ambiguous settings for several years. When he painted “Yellow Porch” in 1961, he organized the picture in a manner that already contained, in rudimentary form, virtually all the principal elements that would eventually come to dominate the “Ocean Park” paintings, on which his final reputation as an artist would be based.

Cropped along the bottom edge of “Yellow Porch” is a blue chair edged in pink, anchoring the foreground plane. Like the rug beneath Matisse’s kneeling Moroccan girl, which is also cropped by the lower edge of the canvas, the chair invites the spectator into the space of the painting: Pull up a mental seat and contemplate the scene before you.

The middle ground is taken up by the boxy, empty, orange-yellow space of the outdoor porch, while the landscape above is broken up into a jumble of geometric shapes of suburban houses. The scene is surmounted by a horizontal band of blue sky. The color of the sky repeats the color of the foreground chair at the bottom, helping to visually flatten out into a series of stacked, two-dimensional registers the expansive space of the landscape that unfolds before you.

Almost without exception, the 20 “Ocean Park” paintings that form the climax of the MOCA show are similarly composed. A narrow, horizontal strip across the bottom typically creates a ground on which the composition stands. The central zone of the canvas is usually dominated by large, squarish, open shapes, thin membranes painted in fluid washes of color. Finally, the upper register is subdivided into prevalent horizontals, frequently clipped by sharp diagonals. Throughout, the fretful progress of the picture’s making can everywhere be traced, with decisions made and changed and covered over and made again.

The “Ocean Park” paintings are of course abstract, but intimations of the landscape and the human figure abound. Without resorting to illusionism, the tripartite division still evokes the conventional partition of a landscape painting into foreground, middle ground and background. (“Ocean Park No. 131,” which is a promised gift to MOCA, even sports a wavering, linear drawing at the bottom edge that sharply echoes the cropped chair in “Yellow Porch.”) Nor is it too much to read these three divisions metaphorically, as the composition’s foot, its body and its head. From the earliest abstractions through the figurative paintings, this is an art that has turned on the relationship between the perceiving figure and its context. In the “Ocean Park” paintings, Diebenkorn creates the context, but the solitary figure perceiving his nominal landscape is you .

The solitary figure is also him, of course, alone in his studio, seated in his chair, gazing at his canvas and dreaming of the arduous path to a seamlessly balanced and harmonious world. Against the late-1960s backdrop of an art world newly transformed by Pop and Minimalism, which were determined to re-engage art with the hurly-burly of the everyday, Diebenkorn stubbornly refused to forsake a historic path of Modernism. The compositional repetition that marks most all the “Ocean Park” paintings contributes to their melancholy feeling. Like Sisyphus, the greedy king of Corinth doomed forever in Hades to roll uphill a heavy stone that always rolled down again, each picture is a laborious trial whose accomplishment will finally be for nought.

Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Nov. 1. Closed Mondays.


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