In Abstract Harmony

“Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series” at the Orange County Museum of Art showcases the works of Abstract Expressionist artist Richard Diebenkorn.

When he taught at UCLA in 1966, Los Angeles was brimming with experimental artistic movements like Conceptualism and Pop Art figurative practices. However, Diebenkorn’s individual abstract style wasn’t easily influenced, as seen in his “Ocean Park” series. From now until May 27, 2012, this featured exhibit — which even includes works rarely displayed in public — pays a thorough tribute to one of the most distinguished artists of Abstract Expressionism on the West Coast.

When it comes to modern art — especially with Abstract Expressionism — many wonder what is so great about an artist who makes paintings of nothing but colorful shape forms and lines; “How is this art? I can make that in a minute!” is the usual reaction. Although the paintings may appear simple, this exhibit allows one to be more acquainted with Diebenkorn’s meticulous creative process, and it gives the opportunity to learn about how complex and philosophical this process can be. Additionally, the exhibit includes a multitude of Diebenkorn’s drawings and prints, showcasing the artist’s practice in various media.

This special exhibit highlights a substantial aspect of Diebenkorn’s artwork: his extensive exploration of and his sensitivity and sensibility to formal elements like color, line and composition.

The first gallery room I walked into consisted mostly of Diebenkorn’s works on paper. Among the colorful untitled pieces, a set of four black-and-white prints displayed on one wall caught my attention. In part of the portfolio, “Five Aquatints with Drypoint” (1978), each of the four prints were simply titled “#1,” “#2,” “#3” and “#4.” Some prints consisted of straight lines of various widths and angles, while the other prints had a more quilt-like appearance or black drip-like forms of “paint.” Displayed side by side, the black-and-white prints were a cohesive set full of texture and already showed Diebenkorn’s experimentation with line and composition.

Close by was another set of four prints from 1975, each a monotype of the Roman numeral in the print’s title. For instance, with “IV 4-13-1975,” the Roman numeral IV is incorporated into the neatly composed print, sometimes framed or nearly camouflaged by straight black lines and areas of solid black or white. Diebenkorn plays with line and composition once again, with each monotype having an architectural appearance and reminding me of an architect’s blueprints.

I walked on to a different room and found the heart of the exhibit: the “Ocean Park” series. Diebenkorn began this series in 1967, when he was 45 years old. Large photographs of views in the Ocean Park neighborhood were on a wall, indicating the very landscape of Diebenkorn’s figurative “Ocean Park” series.  He dedicated the next 20 years to this series, which became his largest body of work and, more importantly, a defining landmark of his career.

Made by using oil paints applied onto a large canvas, each “Ocean Park” piece consists of geometric forms, which are formed by crisp black lines that cut through the canvas at various angles. Another feature of these paintings is the individual contrasting color palettes. Paintings like “Ocean Park #105” (1978) have a vivid, jewel-toned palette, with most of the canvas painted with a marine bluish-green hue. Whereas, the palettes of “Ocean Park #16” (1968) and “Ocean Park #24” (1969) have a mostly soft palette of pale blues and periwinkle — although with some geometric shapes of bright orange, green and yellow, and cobalt blue lines as accents.

Paintbrush strokes can be easily seen in other pieces, adding raw texture and movement to a two-dimensional painting. Other pieces like “Ocean Park #79” appeared more translucent and glass-like, in which Diebenkorn layered the colors he used. Another painting in the series, “Ocean Park #27” (1970), appeared to look like a rainbow broken apart into separate quadrilateral forms against a pale background.

An enthusiast of cigars, Diebenkorn painted his geometric abstract paintings on cigar box lids, appropriately given titles like “Cigar Box Lid #1.” Displayed in perfectly square frames and placed under good museum lighting, the lids had the appearance of beautiful decorative stone tiles.

Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings are not only a figurative expression of his immediate surroundings, but they also convey the artist’s inner emotions and personal life experiences and events. When his mother died in 1985, Diebenkorn’s grief is evident in the piece “Ocean Park #138” (1985), which is mostly black with only small accents of color.

To add to the personal aspect of his artwork, his in-depth explorations of the formal elements in his pieces were “a search for ‘rightness’: an attempt to solve complex and often self-imposed compositional and special problems, welcome mistakes, push through objections and self-doubt to come to a balanced resolution” (as written on a wall placard).

With every work I encountered during my visit, Richard Diebenkorn gave each piece its own personality; some lively and outspoken while others were hushed and somber. He explored his medium with a never-ending determination, and appeared to remain loyal to his artistic style even in his later works. It was like meeting many facets of Diebenkorn’s world throughout his career. In this exhibit, Diebenkorn emphasized and believed in the strength of his relationship with his work — in always searching for harmony with the art he created.