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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

As with Still, the intimation of landscape is inescapable in these pictures. They vary in palette and style according to where they were made: Albuquerque, N.M.; Urbana, Ill.; Berkeley, Calif. When Diebenkorn began to paint the figure in 1955, belatedly following the lead of his San Francisco mentor and his colleague, David Park and Elmer Bischoff, the landscape remained of utmost importance. In "Girl on a Terrace," "Girl With Three Coffee Cups" and "Woman in Profile," the landscape framed by a window or, in turn, framing the solitary figure recalls the work of such modern precedents as Bonnard, Vuillard and, especially, Matisse.

Diebenkorn's interest in Matisse dates at least to 1952, when he visited a significant exhibition of the aged painter's work in Los Angeles. Another, even larger and more substantial show he saw at UCLA in 1966 must have solidified the impact of a 1964 trip he had made to the Soviet Union. There, he saw the extraordinary holdings of Matisse at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Among the great Russian pictures by Matisse is one whose significance to Diebenkorn's later work seems pronounced. Painted for his patron, Ivan Morosov, in the winter of 1912-13 as part of a so-called Morrocan triptych, its subject was certainly familiar to Diebenkorn: "On the Terrace" shows a solitary figure of a young girl kneeling on a rug and framed by an ambiguous environment. In typical Matisse fashion, this surrounding expanse of veiled, blue-green color, complete with diffused, sharply angled light and muted, rectilinear structural lines, cannot be precisely identified. It might be an enclosed room, or perhaps a walled garden, or maybe an abstract evocation of land and sky.

Now, imagine that the girl in this aqueous setting arose, gathered up her goldfish bowl and slippers, and departed the picture. The ambiguous blue-green space she left behind would form the clear foundation of an "Ocean Park" painting.

Artistically, Diebenkorn was certainly ready to see the Russian Matisses in 1964. By then he had been painting solitary female figures in ambiguous settings for several years. When he painted "Yellow Porch" in 1961, he organized the picture in a manner that already contained, in rudimentary form, virtually all the principal elements that would eventually come to dominate the "Ocean Park" paintings, on which his final reputation as an artist would be based.

Cropped along the bottom edge of "Yellow Porch" is a blue chair edged in pink, anchoring the foreground plane. Like the rug beneath Matisse's kneeling Moroccan girl, which is also cropped by the lower edge of the canvas, the chair invites the spectator into the space of the painting: Pull up a mental seat and contemplate the scene before you.

The middle ground is taken up by the boxy, empty, orange-yellow space of the outdoor porch, while the landscape above is broken up into a jumble of geometric shapes of suburban houses. The scene is surmounted by a horizontal band of blue sky. The color of the sky repeats the color of the foreground chair at the bottom, helping to visually flatten out into a series of stacked, two-dimensional registers the expansive space of the landscape that unfolds before you.

Almost without exception, the 20 "Ocean Park" paintings that form the climax of the MOCA show are similarly composed. A narrow, horizontal strip across the bottom typically creates a ground on which the composition stands. The central zone of the canvas is usually dominated by large, squarish, open shapes, thin membranes painted in fluid washes of color. Finally, the upper register is subdivided into prevalent horizontals, frequently clipped by sharp diagonals. Throughout, the fretful progress of the picture's making can everywhere be traced, with decisions made and changed and covered over and made again.

The "Ocean Park" paintings are of course abstract, but intimations of the landscape and the human figure abound. Without resorting to illusionism, the tripartite division still evokes the conventional partition of a landscape painting into foreground, middle ground and background. ("Ocean Park No. 131," which is a promised gift to MOCA, even sports a wavering, linear drawing at the bottom edge that sharply echoes the cropped chair in "Yellow Porch.") Nor is it too much to read these three divisions metaphorically, as the composition's foot, its body and its head. From the earliest abstractions through the figurative paintings, this is an art that has turned on the relationship between the perceiving figure and its context. In the "Ocean Park" paintings, Diebenkorn creates the context, but the solitary figure perceiving his nominal landscape is you .

The solitary figure is also him, of course, alone in his studio, seated in his chair, gazing at his canvas and dreaming of the arduous path to a seamlessly balanced and harmonious world. Against the late-1960s backdrop of an art world newly transformed by Pop and Minimalism, which were determined to re-engage art with the hurly-burly of the everyday, Diebenkorn stubbornly refused to forsake a historic path of Modernism. The compositional repetition that marks most all the "Ocean Park" paintings contributes to their melancholy feeling. Like Sisyphus, the greedy king of Corinth doomed forever in Hades to roll uphill a heavy stone that always rolled down again, each picture is a laborious trial whose accomplishment will finally be for nought.

Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Nov. 1. Closed Mondays.

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