Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents the largest exhibition ever devoted to Richard Diebenkorn'
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Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents the largest exhibition ever devoted to Richard Diebenkorn'
Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled #26, 1984. Gouache, acrylic, and crayon on paper, 24 x 38 in. (61 x 96.5 cm). Private collection ©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. Image courtesy The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn.

FORT WORTH, TX.- The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is presenting the exhibition Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series. This exhibition is the most comprehensive show to date of Diebenkorn’s most celebrated body of work, the Ocean Park series. Presenting more than 75 Ocean Park paintings, prints, and drawings-the largest selection ever on view together-this unprecedented project offers visitors the opportunity to explore in-depth the complexity of Diebenkorn’s artistic and aesthetic achievements within this series. Works in the exhibition come from prominent museums, institutions, and private collections across the country, many of which have rarely been seen by the public. The exhibition tour continues at the Orange County Museum of Art and concludes at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

While Diebenkorn’s work has been the subject of many exhibitions in the United States and abroad, previous projects have provided a limited introduction to the artist’s Ocean Park series or have focused on other aspects of his career. By presenting paintings, prints, and drawings-capturing his practice of working in diverse media-this exhibition presents a long-overdue opportunity to explore the breadth and depth of the series as never before possible, showing conclusively the variety, subtlety, and complexity of the artist’s practice. In addition to the well-known paintings, this exhibition includes the lesser-known small oils painted on cigar-box lids, which the artist gave to his family and friends; some of the most significant and ambitious prints the artist produced; and a diversity of drawings and collages (including a small selection of his Clubs and Spades works); all of which lend new insight into the artist’s working process when shown in conjunction with the paintings. The exhibition spans two decades, beginning with some of the earliest Ocean Park abstractions Diebenkorn produced shortly after his arrival in Santa Monica, California (such as Ocean Park #16, 1968), and revealing the artist’s stylistic evolution and explorations over those 20 years.

“Drawn from a body of work produced more than two decades ago, Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series reveals anew the complexity and subtlety of Diebenkorn’s practice and the relevancy of his work to the continuing dialogue with abstraction among contemporary artists. It is a rare and unique opportunity to bring to a broader audience such a well-known yet underexhibited body of work, and it is my sincere hope that those who visit this exhibition will experience in some measure the riotous calm, joy, and contemplation that these works can offer. ”—Exhibition curator, Sarah C. Bancroft.

Recognized as a leading West Coast Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s, Diebenkorn turned his attention to figurative painting in 1955 and achieved equal success in this style. Soon after his early retrospective at the Pavilion Gallery in Newport Beach in 1965 (now the Orange County Museum of Art), the artist moved from the Bay Area to Southern California and set up a studio in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. It was at this time that he returned to abstract painting, and during the next two decades created one of the most compelling and masterful bodies of work in American art: the Ocean Park series.

When Diebenkorn accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1966, Southern California was rife with artistic experimentation and nascent art movements, including conceptualism, light and space, and figurative practices associated with Pop art. Within this cacophony of styles and approaches, Diebenkorn’s new abstract explorations stood apart from the vanguard. Yet, Los Angeles allowed him the space to experiment unabashed on the Ocean Park works, aware of but unaffected by these contemporaneous developments. For an artist opposed to categorization or inclusion in any “group,” the relatively freewheeling environment of Southern California espoused his independence.

The Ocean Park Series
Diebenkorn turned 45 in 1967, the year he began the Ocean Park paintings. He dedicated the following 20 years to the series, which would be the largest body of work that he produced. The series represents not only a break with the artist’s preceding representational work in Berkeley, where he was identified with Bay Area figurative work, but also a divergence from the artistic developments in Southern California at the time. Although the Ocean Park works would become Diebenkorn’s most celebrated, some of the most basic facts about these works are not well known: Diebenkorn made no fewer than 145 Ocean Park paintings, including the small cigar-box lids paintings from the mid-to-late 1970s. His works on paper (drawings, collages, and paintings on paper) number nearly 500, and his prints-often overlooked and rarely shown in conjunction with the paintings-represent another significant body of work.
The early Ocean Park paintings evoke the translucency and radiance of stained-glass windows, with thick white bands articulating planes of jewel-toned colors. By the mid-1970s, these bands had given way to the architectonic geometry of thinner black and colored lines that girded the paintings. Right angles, strips of color, and diagonal and straight-edge markings along the top and one side of the canvas are counterpoised with expanses of canvas at the center that together reveal a palimpsest of mediums and hues that converge into a single composition of many planes, as in Ocean Park #79 (1975).

A cluster of darkly hued compositions-dominated by black, dark blue, or grisaille-appear in the very last years of the series, around the death of the artist’s mother in 1984. The last large-scale painting, Ocean Park #140, was completed in 1985; although Diebenkorn continued to make smaller works on paper in his Ocean Park studio until 1988, when he and his wife Phyllis moved to Healdsburg in the wine country of Northern California.

Each work was for Diebenkorn an exploration for “rightness,” an attempt to solve complex and often self-imposed compositional and unique problems, welcome mistakes, push through objections and self-doubt to come to a balanced resolution. The compositions were built-up through periods of activity in which erasures, revisions, accretions, and ultimately hard-won resolutions coalesced into nuanced compositions. The artist worked and reworked canvases, scraping and repainting, building up layers and abstract geometric relationships, atmospheric fields and planes, finally arriving at a resolution. Anger, frustration, hesitation, despair, and relief all came to bear on the paintings: a combination of intention, intuition, and improvisation.

Diebenkorn was certainly affected by his environment, but the Ocean Park works are not abstract landscapes of his surroundings. The Modern’s chief curator, Michael Auping, recalls, “In the 1970s, I was lucky enough to be able to visit Diebenkorn’s studio while he was in the midst of making some of these paintings. He almost seemed like a scientist when he talked about the nuances of color and light, and how light in Southern California was like the light in the south of France. ’Buoyant’ was a word he used.” The Ocean Park works are a unique combination of environment and abstract invention. “I arrive at the light only after painting it, not by aiming for it.[”1]

Drawings, collages, and prints were a significant part of Diebenkorn’s practice; they are works of art in their own right that also served as catalysts in his painting practice, acting as springboards between works and across media. Notably, the drawings were almost never studies for the paintings. Rather, they were explorations of concerns that the artist wanted to pursue (he would often switch back and forth as he worked in the studio, focusing on a drawing when at a stumbling block with a painting.) The array of works produced during the Ocean Park era are exceptional expressions of Diebenkorn’s sensibility and nuanced sensitivity to color and line in diverse media.

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