March 6, 2013

Richard Diebenkorn: The Subtler Colors of Ocean Park

Ocean Park #128, 1984; oil on canvas, 93 x 81 in. 

Not long ago I wrote a blog post, which you can read here, about books on my shelf which gave me color ideas for my work. Among them was the catalog Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, a richly illustrated book focusing on this extended series of paintings, made over a period of twenty years, from which I photographed these images. The structure of the paintings is architecturally or landscape based; Diebenkorn has spoken of being inspired by seeing landscapes from the air: "it was the combination of desert and agriculture that really turned me on...". The gorgeous blues of #128 must have come from the ocean near his Ocean Park studio in Santa Monica. 

Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914; oil on canvas, 57 3/4 x 44 1/4 in.,  Museum of Modern Art.

As I looked through the catalog, what came to mind over and over were the paintings of Matisse, those from his more abstract period dating around 1914, such as the one above. Diebenkorn's greens and blues also recalled Matisse for me, though I saw no reference to Matisse in the catalog. 

Ocean Park #41, 1971; oil on canvas, 100 x 81 in. 

Although his vivid colors are quite beautiful, and their harmonies interesting, I kept returning to the paintings using grayed tones, with colors that were subdued and gently relating to chromatic grays. There are wonderful, subtle shifts of hue and value as the brush plays over the surface. (click on the images to enlarge them to see more of the detail in the paint.)

Ocean Park #49, 1972; oil on canvas, 93 x 81 in. 

These are very large paintings, and though it's been a few years since I stood in front of one, I remember the pleasure of being enveloped in their space and color. In #49 the cool grays are like a large bank of fog, shifting and changing, held down by the more solid color at top.

Ocean Park #55, 1972; oil on canvas, 78 1/4 x 78 1/4 in. 

I like the soft, warm tones of this painting, melting into grays, traversed by a sharp blue.

Ocean Park #89.5, 1975; oil on canvas, 66 x 81 3/4 in. 

A sea of blue-grays underlaid with ochers end in curved forms, different from the straight line geometries of most of the Ocean Park series; their arabesques point to a different architectural tradition, or perhaps a memory of the figure. 

Ocean Park #59, 1973; oil on canvas, 93 x 81 in. 

More semi-circles appear in the expanse of black, lightening its mood, as does the "window" of green, white, and blue.

Ocean Park #133, 1985; oil on canvas, 81 x 81 in. 

I love these black paintings; they are a black that is alive and full of light. Again I think of Matisse, who had an exhibition in 1946 titled "Black is a Color"; he said "black is a force" (from Jack Flam's Matisse on Art).

Cigar Box Lid #1, 1976; oil and charcoal on wood, 5 1/2 x 5 3/4 in.

Diebenkorn also did a series of beautiful tiny paintings on cigar box lids. He has taken his sense of form and color and made it fit on an intimately sized surface.

Cigar Box Lid #6, 1979; oil on wood, 8 1/2 x 6 1/8 in. 

The small size seems to have encouraged him to play with different forms...

Cigar Box Lid #12, 1979; oil on wood, 8 7/8 x 8 in. 

...and with a minimal type of expression, still very engaging, fresh, and compelling; the simple lines have a rhythmic force on the simple grounds. 

Untitled #16, 1970; gouache and charcoal on paper, 23 1/4 x 18 3/4 in. 

The catalog has a large selection of works on paper and prints; I thought I'd show you this early drawing which I love for its directness, its overlapping welter of cool gray lines, like a forest thicket or a busy construction site. These works are full of interesting color ideas, food for thought for me in my studio.


  1. thanks for such a beautifully curated presentation.

  2. I love reading your blog posts about artists, and I love Richard Diebenkorn. I recently saw a show of his Ocean Park paintings when they were at the Corcoran in DC. Fabulous. I'm currently reading a book you would enjoy, if you haven't read it already: "Just Looking: Essays on Art" by John Updike. Reading your blog post today reminded me of it.

  3. Thanks, steven and Amy, for your nice comments.
    Amy, I've read an essay or two of Updike's, but not his entire collection; I should, he's a good writer on art.

  4. I love it when you vibrate the heavenly harmonies of the visual. to take a few minutes away from the day and know what peace is like. Thanks

  5. delicious to see these 'out of the blue' as it were, I wasn't thinking about Diebenkorn at all - and now I am.

  6. I'm glad you liked this post, Steven and rappel; I appreciate your comments.
    Diebenkorn's work does seem to resonate with a lot of people.

  7. These look fantastic, Altoon. Your comment about black reminded me of Rothko's which are also, strangely, "full of light".

  8. I share your great affection for Diebenkorn's work and his most splendid repertory of grays. I often play a game of cropping paintings by Matisse to discover the 'Diebenkorn' within it. And, the final image in your post, Untitled 16, 1970, is an absolute knock out! I hadn't seen a Diebenkorn with where so much linework remained visible. Thank you!

  9. Thanks for the comments, billoo and Tamar.
    billoo, I love that Rothko also had a black quote. I feel inspired to make a black painting now.
    Tamar, your cropping Matisse game sounds perfect for Diebenkorn. My wonder is that I didn't find any mention of Matisse in the catalog, though I have to admit I didn't read closely. It's for sure there are no Matisse reproductions.

  10. Nice post! - great to be reintroduced to Diebenkorn through consideration of his color's emotional value. I've heard conventional wisdom says his main influences were indeed Matisse and also Hopper. There's a painting in the Met's current Matisse exhibition that immediately made me think of Diebenkorn - it's his 1914 View of Notre Dame as seen from his studio window. You can view the painting here: I'm sure you'll see the similarities immediately.

    1. Thanks, Christopher; I'm pleased you liked the post. I know that Matisse you mention very well; his work from the year 1914, which was when the Notre Dame painting was made, all seem like major influences on Diebenkorn to my eye.

  11. I found this post after Googling for Diebenkorn + sink. I saw the Diebenkorn Berkeley exhibition at the de Young yesterday and the Corner of Studio Sink was my absolute favorite.
    This article from 1997 discussed she similarity in composition and color between the sink and Ocean Park #133 paintings.

    I really like the sink painting because nearly half the real estate is taken up by what is under the sink--the stuff that most people don't even think about. The perspective, of focusing on elements down below most people's eye-level, reminds me of Christina's World. The painting has such strong horizontal lines; that diagonal pipe that ends in a bucket just makes my head scream, "why is that there!?!"

    I searched around for images of OP133 and landed here. Thanks for this thoughtful post. Now I am going to have to add your feed to my feedly reading list.

    PS, the RD show will be touring. I hope you get to see it. I, too, was struck by the similarity with Matisse's work, especially the work he did in Morocco.

    PPS, if you are interested in dust bowls, have you read meteorology professor Cliff Mass's blog? He wrote about a NW wind storm recently.

    1. Thanks for the interesting comment, b. I hope the show will come to the east coast, where I am.