Sometimes a change of place is much more than a change of scenery. The way Richard Diebenkorn told it, moving from the Bay Area to Southern California in the fall of 1966 was a catalyst that changed the direction of his painting.
Before then, the artist was known for abandoning the mission of Abstract Expressionism and reintroducing the human figure into his work. Six or eight months after the move, and after taking over painter Sam Francis' studio a block from the beach in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, something broke wide open.
"As soon as I moved into Sam's space, I did about four large canvases — still representational, but again, much flatter," Diebenkorn once said. "Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether."
He began making abstract paintings again, this time with flat expanses of color defined by grid-like structures.
Diebenkorn called the series "Ocean Park," just as he called other series "Sausalito" and "Albuquerque," and it ultimately spanned two decades, consisting of about 145 paintings and 500 works on paper. Critic Robert Hughes called it "surely one of the most distinguished meditations on landscape in painting since Monet's waterlilies."
Yet the connection between place and painting is never that simple, especially when the canvases have only the faintest real-world references: grids that look like transoms or windows (or, more tenuously, like the windows in Matisse paintings), horizontal bands that could be seen as horizon lines, and colors that at times recall the sea.
By one argument, the geography, topography, marine layer and milky light associated with Ocean Park dramatically influenced Diebenkorn's paintings. By another, he was already yearning for a new geometry and palette in his work, which the actual neighborhood of Ocean Park did not inspire as much as fulfill or mirror, giving him a reason to stay there until 1988. He died in Berkeley in 1993 at age 70.
Today the Orange County Museum of Art opens its "Ocean Park" exhibition, billed as the largest show of the series yet. For this occasion, The Times talked to five artists who have lived and worked in the area, to get their takes on the neighborhood, on Diebenkorn and on the power of a place to shape a body of artwork and vice versa.
Tony Berlant, 70, lived in Ocean Park from 1965 to 1980. William Wegman, 68, rented a studio there from 1971 to '73 before he moved to New York. John Baldessari, 80, took over Wegman's studio in '73 and used it for decades, although he now works out of a space in Venice. Kim Schoenstadt, 38, lived in Ocean Park from 1997 to 2001, working there even longer as part of Baldessari's studio. Andy Moses, 50, lived there from 2003 to 2008, decades after his father, Ed Moses, first had a studio in the area.
Berlant is a colorist who walks the line between painting and sculpture, typically with metal assemblages, while William Wegman and John Baldessari got their start as conceptual artists using video and photography. Schoenstadt is known for using a highly layered process to create large-scale, architectural-seeming murals, while Moses is an abstract painter who tends toward organic forms and processes.
With the possible exception of Moses, none of these artists would be considered a visual heir to Diebenkorn. And Berlant is the only one who knew "Dick," a famously private person whom he describes as an "extraordinary example" of an artist who was "disassociated from the glossiness of the art scene and totally dedicated to his art, taking great pleasure in that dedication."
How would you describe the Ocean Park neighborhood in the 1970s, the decade when Diebenkorn painted the bulk of this series?
Tony Berlant: It was fun because it was basically a quasi skid row with bars like the Pink Elephant and lots of rescue missions. A number of artists worked out of very cheap storefronts on Main Street, so it was a genuine working artists community. Today the young artists I know, even if they live way downtown, have to work many days a week to pay their rent. But these rents were so cheap it meant real freedom.
William Wegman: When I lived there, I used to have coffee with John [Baldessari] every morning and bike with my dog Man Ray. Every night I would take my dog to the beach at dusk and let him run, not on a leash, so I remember it all being pretty open and fun. My dog was miserable when I took him away from the beach to 27th Street and 6th Avenue in New York.
John Baldessari: The whole area was ghetto. In the living room of the house I rented on 3rd Street, there was a motor block sitting there that someone had been repairing, so I had to get that hauled out of there. Many artists were working on Main Street, from Jim Turrell to Diebenkorn, because it was so cheap and rundown. And the Dogtown skaters all hung out at the surf shop and parking lot next door.
Andy Moses: What's unique about that neighborhood is you have this downhill slope of houses — California bungalows mixed in with Victorian houses. Weirdly enough, there's a little San Francisco vibe to it. In the '70s it was still funky, not developed like it is now. We lived in Santa Monica Canyon, and my brother and I would skateboard over there all the time, but my father didn't necessarily want us in that area of south Santa Monica, or Dogtown, as it was known. Anything south of the Santa Monica Pier to Venice, he considered dangerous, even though he had a studio right in the middle of it.
Did the neighborhood shape or figure into your work in any way?
Baldessari: In a lot of my early work, I would go out into the parking lot outside my studio and do things, or go out on the beach and do things, or shoot palm trees. Interestingly enough, a lot of Bill Wegman's videos and photos were shot in that studio and so were mine. The identifying mark is there was a crack in the concrete floor that shows up in both of our works.
Wegman: I took a lot of photographs in the parking lot outside my studio and also in my studio, so the light from the skylights did figure into my work. But there are very few pieces where you would say that's Ocean Park — I tried to get those references out. There are a few pictures that show the parking lot where the liquor store was, but that's still pretty nondescript. There's also a crack on the floor that shows up in my videos and John's work too — we're both very territorial about it. We each say: That's my crack.
Berlant: I think the human, social landscape had more to do with influencing me, and it was extraordinarily diverse, just thinking about the people who lived within a six-block radius of me. Diebenkorn, Chaz Garabedian and Sam Francis were right behind my house, and Turrell with his light [installations] at the next corner. Artists who weren't as famous were also very much part of the energy.
Moses: When I lived there, I had a view of the ocean that was perfectly framed by Point Dume and Palos Verdes, so it becomes this flat plane of color. That led to my horizon paintings — a series where it feels like light is emanating from a central band and there are two planes of color, one above and one below, that are almost mirror reflections of each other, but not quite. I had always been interested in light but not to the same degree until I lived there. At that point I could understand a whole generation of artists that came before me: Craig Kauffman, Bob Irwin, Mary Corse, James Turrell and Doug Wheeler all made a lot more sense to me.
Kim Schoenstadt: I think the area figures into my own work in the same way it figures into Diebenkorn's work — the landscape is definitely an influence, but it isn't the subject matter. In my work I include particular pieces of architecture from Southern California, which get mashed up and reconfigured and transformed into these impossible landscapes.
What do you think of Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park" series, and do you have a favorite painting from the bunch?
Schoenstadt: The "Ocean Park" from 1967 that was just at the Getty [in the exhibition "Crosscurrents"] is magnificent. It has a large boring space, a fairly large amount of canvas that is just plain — a sort of taupe color, but when you see it in person there's a remarkable amount of activity going on behind it — the translucency and texture is amazing. You can see how he reworked it, with layers of colors behind. He's just a master colorist.
Wegman: When I was living in Ocean Park, painting was considered dead and not stuff you would want to be associated it. Also in my arrogant youth, I needed something to define myself against. Now I don't feel that way; I love his work. I like the palette. I like the golden-mean type of compositions — the sort of elegance. They are kind of seductive and joyful.
Moses: One of my favorites, "Ocean Park # 68," comes from the Milwaukee Art Museum. It has an incredible lushness to it. There's a black band at the top that makes the green pop in a way it probably wouldn't otherwise. And there's one plane in the upper left that feels like Matisse but also earlier Diebenkorn — it looks like a horizon going back into space. Everything else is very flat in that painting, so that one plane is like a window.
Baldessari: When he moved to Santa Monica, his work really began to open up and become big fields of color, which I've always liked a lot. I heard that when he was teaching at UCLA, he had his students use the same canvas for the entire term. They had to do a painting a week, and scrape it off each time. You look at these Ocean Park paintings and they're all about scraping down the canvas. I like that. I've done that before with students, to teach them that art is not precious.
Berlant: I don't have a favorite; I just love every scrap of everything he did. From the time he graduated to the time he died, I don't think he made a single painting that wasn't beautiful.
Looking at Diebenkorn's paintings, do you recognize anything particular to Ocean Park?
Wegman: When you're walking along the beach, there are these strange lines cutting into the sand — whether piers or drainpipes for erosion — it's an interface between nature and architecture. I think you can see those kinds of lines in his work.
Berlant: Everybody talks about the character of the light, which is very specific and beautiful there. But making one-to-one correlations is difficult. There are a couple of paintings Dick made in Urbana, Ill., and one that he loaned me that I had in my bedroom for years, which you could see as being totally Ocean Park. Also I remember he told me that when he was working on a selection committee for National Endowment for the Arts, the real thing he got out of it was flying back and forth across the U.S. Looking at landscapes from the air, the fields and the grids and the circles, that was the thing that pushed him back into abstraction.
Moses: The "Ocean Park" paintings are resolutely abstract, but there is always a sense of horizon, nature and very much architecture. A lot of the paintings feel to me like they take a topographical and street-level view at the same time, with water, sky, and architecture all jumbled up. His work was an interesting battleground between abstraction and figuration.
Alternately, is there any place you've seen in Santa Monica, say a particular view or vantage point, which feels to you like a Diebenkorn painting?
Moses: If you're driving west on Ocean Park Boulevard, past Lincoln you get over this hill and everything opens up: You see the ocean in the distance, looking over a bridge and through a tunnel simultaneously. That tunnel not only frames the view but also gives but a hint of something urban to what would otherwise be too picture-perfect.
Schoenstadt: The view that reminds me most of a Diebenkorn painting is when you're standing on the 4th Street bridge, which goes over Ocean Park Boulevard. You have this large amount of flat color in the form of the boulevard that dead-ends into three horizontal strips: beach, sea, sky, with some palm trees in the way. You see a lot of locals standing on the bridge watching the sunset. It's a good place to go when weather happens.
Baldessari: I can't think of any particular vantage point, but I think that happens. How can anyone look at a cypress tree without seeing a Van Gogh?
"Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series"
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
When: Through May 27. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Contact: http://www.ocma.net or (949) 759-1122