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Richard Diebenkorn and Ocean Park: A special light

As a Diebenkorn show opens at the Orange County Museum of Art, William Wegman, John Baldessari and other artists discuss Ocean Park as an influence and subject.

February 26, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • "Ocean Park #43" (1971) is oil and charcoal on canvas, left. "Ocean Park #27" (1970) is oil on canvas, right.
"Ocean Park #43" (1971) is oil and charcoal on canvas, left.… (Richard Diebenkorn / Orange…)

Sometimes a change of place is much more than a change of scenery. The way Richard Diebenkorn told it, moving from the Bay Area to Southern California in the fall of 1966 was a catalyst that changed the direction of his painting.

Before then, the artist was known for abandoning the mission of Abstract Expressionism and reintroducing the human figure into his work. Six or eight months after the move, and after taking over painter Sam Francis' studio a block from the beach in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, something broke wide open.

"As soon as I moved into Sam's space, I did about four large canvases — still representational, but again, much flatter," Diebenkorn once said. "Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether."

He began making abstract paintings again, this time with flat expanses of color defined by grid-like structures.

Diebenkorn called the series "Ocean Park," just as he called other series "Sausalito" and "Albuquerque," and it ultimately spanned two decades, consisting of about 145 paintings and 500 works on paper. Critic Robert Hughes called it "surely one of the most distinguished meditations on landscape in painting since Monet's waterlilies."

Yet the connection between place and painting is never that simple, especially when the canvases have only the faintest real-world references: grids that look like transoms or windows (or, more tenuously, like the windows in Matisse paintings), horizontal bands that could be seen as horizon lines, and colors that at times recall the sea.

By one argument, the geography, topography, marine layer and milky light associated with Ocean Park dramatically influenced Diebenkorn's paintings. By another, he was already yearning for a new geometry and palette in his work, which the actual neighborhood of Ocean Park did not inspire as much as fulfill or mirror, giving him a reason to stay there until 1988. He died in Berkeley in 1993 at age 70.

Today the Orange County Museum of Art opens its "Ocean Park" exhibition, billed as the largest show of the series yet. For this occasion, The Times talked to five artists who have lived and worked in the area, to get their takes on the neighborhood, on Diebenkorn and on the power of a place to shape a body of artwork and vice versa.

Tony Berlant, 70, lived in Ocean Park from 1965 to 1980. William Wegman, 68, rented a studio there from 1971 to '73 before he moved to New York. John Baldessari, 80, took over Wegman's studio in '73 and used it for decades, although he now works out of a space in Venice. Kim Schoenstadt, 38, lived in Ocean Park from 1997 to 2001, working there even longer as part of Baldessari's studio. Andy Moses, 50, lived there from 2003 to 2008, decades after his father, Ed Moses, first had a studio in the area.

Berlant is a colorist who walks the line between painting and sculpture, typically with metal assemblages, while William Wegman and John Baldessari got their start as conceptual artists using video and photography. Schoenstadt is known for using a highly layered process to create large-scale, architectural-seeming murals, while Moses is an abstract painter who tends toward organic forms and processes.

With the possible exception of Moses, none of these artists would be considered a visual heir to Diebenkorn. And Berlant is the only one who knew "Dick," a famously private person whom he describes as an "extraordinary example" of an artist who was "disassociated from the glossiness of the art scene and totally dedicated to his art, taking great pleasure in that dedication."

How would you describe the Ocean Park neighborhood in the 1970s, the decade when Diebenkorn painted the bulk of this series?

Tony Berlant: It was fun because it was basically a quasi skid row with bars like the Pink Elephant and lots of rescue missions. A number of artists worked out of very cheap storefronts on Main Street, so it was a genuine working artists community. Today the young artists I know, even if they live way downtown, have to work many days a week to pay their rent. But these rents were so cheap it meant real freedom.

William Wegman: When I lived there, I used to have coffee with John [Baldessari] every morning and bike with my dog Man Ray. Every night I would take my dog to the beach at dusk and let him run, not on a leash, so I remember it all being pretty open and fun. My dog was miserable when I took him away from the beach to 27th Street and 6th Avenue in New York.

John Baldessari: The whole area was ghetto. In the living room of the house I rented on 3rd Street, there was a motor block sitting there that someone had been repairing, so I had to get that hauled out of there. Many artists were working on Main Street, from Jim Turrell to Diebenkorn, because it was so cheap and rundown. And the Dogtown skaters all hung out at the surf shop and parking lot next door.

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