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

September 13, 1992|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

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.

"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.

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