The Corcoran Gallery of Art has been having a difficult year, but one would never know it from this summer’s exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn’s lucent Ocean Park paintings, on view through September 23. The grand, sky-lit galleries of the Corcoran’s Beaux-Arts building show to excellent advantage dozens of Diebenkorns—both large abstract canvases and smaller works on paperand the attendant fluctuations in natural light, as the sun filters through clouds, neatly suit what Hilton Kramer described as the “pastoral” tenor of his work. Alas, the Corcoran may soon be leaving its landmark home across from the White House South Lawn, where it has been for over a century. Recent financial shortfalls (and a general lack of space) have forced Washington’s oldest private art museum to contemplate finding a new address, possibly outside of the District.

The current exhibition is something of a homecoming for Diebenkorn (1922–1993), a fact that makes the Corcoran’s possible departure even more melancholy. It was at the Corcoran in 1976 that Diebenkorn himself worked alongside the curator Jane Livingston to hang his first full-scale retrospective, including the early Ocean Park paintings, which he began in 1967. On that occasion, Diebenkorn allowed himself to register the “tremendous effort” that had gone into the series, which occupied him for another decade.

It has also been an eventful year for the Diebenkorn Foundation, which wound up in the press in May, reasserting its doubts about a number of drawings sold by Diebenkorn’s longtime gallery Knoedler & Company. Despite hesitations about authenticity expressed at the time of the artist’s death by the family, and by MOMA curator John Elderfield, the pictures found buyers undeterred by their “wacky” provenance. In the galleries of the Corcoran, however, art-world intrigue and financial worries melt mercifully away.

Sidelined in his day by certain East Coast critics as a regional (i.e., California) painter, Diebenkorn ultimately resisted the performative bravura of Pollock and the Tenth Street painters in New York. A West Coast native, Deibenkorn moved with his wife, Phyllis, to Manhattan in 1953 but returned to the Bay Area three months later, landing happily and productively in Berkeley.

Diebenkorn’s early paintings were abstract and took their titles from the places he lived and worked—Sausalito, Albuquerque, Urbana. In his Berkeley studio, he created a series of his most striking early-period abstractions, only to abandon abstraction shortly thereafter. In 1958, he moved his studio to a triangle-shaped building just over the line in adjacent Oakland and took to painting cityscapes and figures in interior space. His shift to figuration lasted for nearly a decade, until another relocation—to Los Angeles, in 1966—coincided with a return to abstraction. The Ocean Park paintings, begun the following year, take their name from the seaside neighborhood where Diebenkorn had his studio for the next twenty years.

When Diebenkorn moved from abstraction to figuration, he was, to his chagrin, branded as a Bay Area Figurative painter. It wasn’t that he disdained the work of Figuratives like his friend David Park. (He even tried to learn the trombone, so he could play jazz with Park and Elmer Bischoff.) It was that he shrank from labels generally, from being reduced to a school. He also recoiled “mightily” (as he put it) from the suggestion that he was at root an abstract painter who was, nevertheless, adopting the figure in order to better explore non-objective form.

Diebenkorn’s return to abstraction runs the risk of being similarly misunderstood—in this case, abstraction as a direct reworking of objective subjects and particularly landscape. As Elderfield rightly argues, the subjects of Diebenkorn’s late abstract paintings are not external but internal, chromatic and compositional worlds unto themselves. Each iteration in the series is not a repetition of the same subject but, rather, a striking out after a new subject, with its own “rightness” and interplay of color and incident. The works are not accountable to outside referents, only to their own rhythms and tonalities.

Diebenkorn talked of his constant need to struggle against obstacles as a painter, the more obstacles the better. Even after he arrived at his signature seriescharacterized by wide bands of translucent color, typically bordered along the top and one side by strong horizontals and verticals—he continued to grapple with individual works. Each heroic canvass (typically 81 inches wide and as much as 100 inches tall) presented its own set of problems. Some pictures took as long as a year to complete, with most requiring between a week and a month of radical reworking, both by addition and, importantly, subtraction.

The muscular, earth-toned canvases of the first Ocean Park paintings (#6 and #11, both from 1968) give way to the strong, white-banded diagonals of 1969 and 1970 (#24 and #27). The initial works in the series have a brawling energy, a quality he liked to characterize as “rambunctious”—angular, bold, unabashed, yet wonderfully light-filled and prepossessing for all that. By the early 1970s, Diebenkorn trades this brashness for a more modulated tonal expression, in which the strong compositional diagonals of the previous paintings subside into gestural drawing (often painted over) executed within the expansive planes of color. Diebenkorn intentionally adds a great deal of incident to these works, or, rather, fails to remove it. Where previously there had been assertive, angular forms, now there were brushy passages of subtly shifting tone. 

The gestural drawing that undergirds these mid-series paintings combines with the brushy movements on their surfaces to create an almost musical tension within the insistent horizontals and verticals. This is Diebenkorn at his most dynamic. He does not struggle to strike a perfect note in a moment of inspired performance; rather, his is the more classicizing struggle of painstaking—and often abrupt—revision (each successive working session a kind of controlled performance in itself).

“The problem,” Diebenkorn once said, “was that I really didn’t want gesture,” because of the quibbling self-consciousness that it introduced into his paintings, a quality that he worked to disavow. “The means of the disavowing,” Elderfield writes, “was, in effect, to imagine a second, impersonal Diebenkorn who would correct and revise the too self-consciously performed efforts of the first.” Not surprisingly, then, the final act that could make everything in a picture fall into place was frequently an act of removal, painting over lines and colors that had outworn their usefulness as anchor or impetus. What remains, in paintings such as the gauzy, ethereal #109, is at once grand in scale and ambition and intimate in tone and execution.

His remarkable drawings (which is what Diebenkorn called all of his works on paper) reveal more trial and error than is allowed to stand in the large canvases. Their explorations reveal how important drawing was to Deibenkorn’s way of working. Not to be missed are the smaller works incorporating pasted paper, in collage-like explorations of Ocean Park space, and the cigar-box paintings, which playfully rework his epic subjects in miniature.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 1, on page 52
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