Sunday, September 18, 2005

Ocean Park through My Own Eyes

When I lived near Washington, D.C., I visited many of the great museums along the East Coast (the National Gallery, the Met, Philadelphia Museum, etc.). Each time I was sure to look in the 20th century section for works by Richard Diebenkorn, especially his monumental Ocean Park series (for example, #19, #49, #54, #70). The Ocean Park title derives from the California neighborhood where Diebenkorn worked for many years.

Despite living in Northern California for many years, I rarely visit Los Angeles. A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in the endless city, and while looking at a map of Santa Monica, I noticed that Ocean Park Blvd was just a few blocks from where I was staying. To satisfy my Diebenkorn curiosity, I took a short car tour around the Ocean Park neighborhood. As I drove up and down the hilly, narrow streets in the early evening I thought I saw some of what might have inspired Diebenkorn: power lines at every angle breaking up my field of view; bright sunlit building walls with sharp edged-geometries; street lights and their angular braces carving out triangles of sky, leaves or building.

When I returned home, I consulted The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, and found this passage in the section by Jane Livingston:
These paintings [the Ocean Park series] were often described as comprising "dissolving planes" or "sheets of atmospheric color"; moreover, to the artist's puzzlement, they seemed to be read by many as literally depicting the actual landscape of Ocean Park, apparently in reference to the ocean itself and the sky, although Ocean Park was a half-residential, half-industrial, slightly scruffy urban area rather more than an idyllic seascape. The interpretation of these works as either landscapes or cityscapes is well off the mark. The Ocean Park paintings were intended as---and remain---highly metaphoric spatial and chromatic explorations.

So it turns out that I was not seeing the direct visual inspiration of the Ocean Park series, and might not have even been in the right neighborhood. The Ocean Park I saw was an upscale residential area (perhaps I needed to go south a few blocks), not a scruffy industrial/residential mix. Nonetheless, there is something of the special California light in Diebenkorn's paintings---and it's hard to imagine an artist not being influenced in some way by the surrounding landscape and buildings (see this post for another view). Could he have made paintings with the same quality of light if his studio had been on the Lower East Side or a cabin in the New England woods?

In the end, this ended up being a lesson in seeing the beauty of the world around us, even if it is a wedge of blue sky through the power lines or the glow of evening sunlight on an apartment wall. More on this subject in a few days.

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