Thursday, August 03, 2006

Ocean Park

It is fifteen years now since the Whitechapel Gallery held its Richard Diebenkorn retrospective. My memories of the exhibition - walking in from the grey city streets to experience the space and light of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings - now seem like the distant recollections of a sunlit summer. Abstract works like Ocean Park No. 115 (1979), shown here, can only represent a landscape the way it feels, through selected elements of the way it looks. Never having been to California I imagine these paintings to be distillations of the essence of the place. I'm happy to believe Robert Hughes when he says ‘there is a kind of light on Diebenkorn’s stretch of coastline – mild, high and ineffably clear, descending like a benediction on the ticky-tacky slopes just before the fleeting sunset drops over Malibu – that is all but unique in north America, and Diebenkorn’s paintings always appear to be done in terms of it.’

Source: Mark Harden

But is there really much trace of landscape in the Ocean Park paintings? Hughes sees ‘pale-blue Pacific air, cuts and slices of gable, white posts by the sea, sudden drop-offs of hill or thruway'. 'These images of the California coast have found their way into his works, but in a condensed and fully digested idiom whose sources, far back in the early twentieth century, are Henri Matisse and Piet Monrian.’ However, Arthur Danto may be nearer the mark when he writes: ‘in my view, Diebenkorn's paintings are less about the bright skies and long horizons of Ocean Park than about the act of painting, as if the works had become more and more their own subjects and the external references stand at best as indications of what the painting is not about- Ceci n'est pas un paysage!’

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