‘A New Kind of Spatial Understanding’: Jane Livingston on Richard Diebenkorn at a Pivotal Moment of Transition

An excerpt from the new catalogue raisonné of the artist's work

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #27, 1970, oil and charcoal on canvas, 100 x 80 inches, catalogue raisonné no. 4016. ©RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #27, 1970, oil and charcoal on canvas, 100 x 80 inches, catalogue raisonné no. 4016.


More than 20 years after his death, in 1993, at the age of 70, artist Richard Diebenkorn is in the spotlight. This week the Baltimore Museum of Art opens “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” an exhibition of more than 90 works by the two figures that looks at the French master’s influence on the Californian painter. In March the show will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in an expanded form. Today Yale University Press releases the artist’s catalogue raisonné, a full accounting of his work, years in the making, replete with reproductions of little-known pieces. It has been edited by scholars Jane Livingston, who co-curated the artist’s 1997 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, and Andrea Liguori, the managing director of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. Below, an excerpt of an essay from the catalogue by Livingston, in which she precisely examines two works by Diebenkorn, the painting Ocean Park #27 (1970) and the drawing Untitled #15 (1970), both made at a moment when the artist was working in Santa Monica, California, and guiding his astonishing language into new and venturesome abstract realms. —The Editors 

In 1966 Richard and Phyllis Diebenkorn moved from Berkeley to Santa Monica, a move that coincided with the end of their child-accompanied years. Diebenkorn had accepted a position on the art faculty of UCLA, whose department director, Frederick Wight, promised that his administrative duties would be minimal, and his relation to studio artist pupils, open-ended. (This promise proved to be unfulfilled; Diebenkorn would be embroiled in far more faculty and administrative issues than he’d bargained for.) For the first few months the couple rented a relatively modest bungalow near the ocean while they looked for a more permanent residence. (See the artist’s rendition of this house in cat. 3902.) They soon found a congenial Mediterranean-style house on Amalfi Drive in Santa Monica, in a canyon fairly close to the sea, and convenient to the UCLA campus. They would live there for twenty-one years.

The artist set up his studio in a semi-industrial neighborhood in nearby Venice. In those days an unpretentious, diversely populated seaside community, Venice was beginning to attract artists seeking affordable studio space, among them Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Kenneth Price, and Billy Al Bengston. Its first glory days as an artificially planned “canal resort” were long past, and it had yet to become the fashionable community that the incursion of artists from the 1960s through the 1990s has made it now. Diebenkorn took over part of a second-story walk-up above an appliance store at the corner of Main Street and Ashland Avenue. The artist Sam Francis had long occupied the whole space, but when Diebenkorn moved in, Francis was no longer living or painting there full-time. (Occasionally Diebenkorn would be aware of Francis’s presence late at night, but the two artists, though cordial, didn’t really connect in their shared place.) Diebenkorn initially occupied a small section of the space that had no exterior light, so his first works there were small in scale, probably all drawings. After a few months, he took over a much larger section of the high-ceilinged building, with windows facing north and west, on one side offering a view of a parking lot.

One of the characteristics of these windows—metal-framed glass panels that opened outward, supported at their lower edge by a projecting bar—was their slanted angularity. The 1970 painting titled Studio Window—Ocean Park (cat. 4014) records one version of this view. More than one writer has claimed that the various shapes suggested by these windows—triangles, parallelograms, diamonds, rhomboids—reverberate in the prolonged series of drawings and paintings that Diebenkorn executed in this Ocean Park studio. There is truth in this myth of origin, but it has become overdetermined in the lore of the artist’s formal progression. Many, mostly unknowable, factors legislated the unfolding of the Ocean Park geometries.

The first year or more of Diebenkorn’s time in the Ashland and Main studio, where he would remain until 1974, was transitional in several ways. In the beginning he worked in a limited space. Although he knew that this was a temporary situation, he needed, as always, to quickly establish an intense working schedule. It took some time for him to properly set up two large wall-mounted canvas easels, and a separate space for drawings. Probably in part because of this relatively circumscribed spatial environment, many of the pictures he made in the first Ocean Park studio were representational, recording elements of his new environment, notably a few landscapes and views from windows, such as the rooftop scene depicted twice, in 1969 and 1974 (cats. 3995 and 4149). Often in the past Diebenkorn had relied upon familiar objects or views to inspire his compositions; now he began to use that technique in a new stripped-down, hybridized synthesis of the representational and the abstract. Studio Window—Ocean Park epitomizes the best transitional works of a period that was itself literally transitional. It is difficult to know the precise progression from representational to abstract work between 1968 and early 1970. What we do know is that within less than two years in the Ocean Park studio, the artist gradually made a full commitment to abstraction. It is as though, anticipating the expansion of both his physical space and his compositional format, he employed glimpses of his newly familiar surroundings to move into a radically changed thought process.

Diebenkorn’s advancement into a new visual language evolved gradually, fed by varying impulses. The window-structure reference wasn’t the only one he appropriated from his immediate surroundings; he also maintained a line of landscape-referent imagery. Throughout 1967 and 1968 the artist wrestled equally with ideas suggested by vistas and those associated with still life, or interior, views. The process of settling into, or fully defining, the necessary vocabulary for the Ocean Park painting series occurred well into the numbering of them. (From the outset, Diebenkorn kept track of these canvases with a simple numbering system. Not every numbered work ended up in the completed series, and at least once, a canvas was inserted with a ½ status.) Several early works in this great painting cycle represent replete forays into a geometric and chromatic territory that would become richer and richer over ensuing decades.

The Ocean Park series of paintings was well under way by 1968; such fully realized works as Ocean Park #9 (cat. 3981) and Ocean Park #16 (cat. 3987) of that year testify to how rapidly Diebenkorn mastered the format and underlying structure of this phenomenon. A seminal early work, in terms of declaring a new kind of spatial understanding, is Ocean Park #27, finished in 1970. This work exemplifies the artist’s fascination with the space-altering shapes following from the “slanted window” idea. But we sense many more layers of thought in the realms of chromaticism, translucence, and space/surface ambiguity. By this time Diebenkorn had announced the ongoing issues (usually expressed as tensions) that continued to engage him for the next decade, in both his paintings and works on paper: planarity (flatness) versus illusionistic space; chromatic dissonance versus harmony (always subtly played out); bold, wall-commanding size versus more intimate scale. (Diebenkorn said that his Ocean Park canvases were sized, at their largest, just within the boundaries of what his limbs could reach. This meant, in general, a vertical maximum of 100 inches and a horizontal one of about 82 inches.) A drawing from the same year, Untitled #15, offers some intriguing comparisons between the artist’s approaches to large canvases and to intimately scaled works on paper.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled #15, 1970, charcoal and gouache on paper, 24⅞ x 18⅞ inches, catalogue raisonné no. 4044. ©RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled #15, 1970, charcoal and gouache on paper, 24⅞ x 18⅞ inches, catalogue raisonné no. 4044.


Ocean Park #27 is a classic case of a fully resolved large-scale oil painting whose subject might at first be interpreted as flatness itself. Although he wasn’t one of the artists Clement Greenberg cited to illustrate his theory that flatness was essential to the new “integrally literal” nature of modernism, Diebenkorn was naturally aware of the contemporary zeitgeist. Flatness and literalness entered into the ascendant critical vocabulary of the 1960s and ’70s, made quintessential by Greenberg and the artist Frank Stella. For them, illusionistic space in painting was simply inadmissible. Diebenkorn—deliberately or not—responded to the argument by declaring his own allegiance to Stella’s (and Ellsworth Kelly’s) insight: he embraced a certain decorativeness (another Greenberg dictum) in the project of composing large, flat canvases. But there are subtle differences in Diebenkorn’s flatness and decorativeness. The Ocean Park paintings would never fully enter into the realm of American post–Abstract Expressionist painting as adumbrated by Greenberg and others, for they are about something entirely different from the large, “literal” canvases of Stella or Kelly or Helen Frankenthaler or Morris Louis. Just how this difference is calculated remains one of the mysteries of their enduring ambiguity and power.

In his abstract works, Diebenkorn rarely tipped his hand as to any conscious preoccupation with spatial illusionism—he preferred to imply rather than spell out his permutations of push-and-pull. Some of the impetus for the ubiquitous reworking in his abstract paintings and drawings may have to do with this wish for perspectival ambiguity. It is for this reason that Untitled #15—essentially a black-and-white (or properly, black-and-gray) composition—claims a nearly unique place in the artist’s oeuvre. Here we may glimpse an explicitly worked out “three-dimensional” composition that almost carries an aura of coded messages to the viewer. It might hint at some of the enigmas of the artist’s work of the early to mid-1970s. Both the spatial character of this drawing and the nature of its media are more complicated than they first appear. This is not just a drawing in charcoal and gouache; it incorporates a small element of collage, often a sign that a drawing has a special place in Diebenkorn’s intellectual and aesthetic hierarchy.

Although Diebenkorn was careful with his art supplies, he was not obsessed with the purity or compatibility of his physical media. Although he had favorite brands and colors and used all the tried and true artist’s materials—ink, gouache or watercolor, pencil and charcoal, or standard acrylic (“synthetic polymer”) paints on paper, and oil-based pigments mixed with turpentine on canvas, on which he sometimes also incorporated charcoal—he wasn’t so much punctilious as pragmatic in his choices. He was always willing to experiment, to combine, to discard and then reuse. Most of all, he never hesitated to layer his media. The problem of identifying exact physical substances when cataloguing his thousands of drawings reflects the artist’s pragmatic application of whatever media worked for him in whatever he was looking for in a given drawing or painting on paper.

Our decision to compare this particular canvas and drawing is suggested by their different use of both illusionistic space and—more importantly—the shapes that were part of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park vocabulary. If anything, geometric blocks, in myriad configurations, are even more important than space in many of the Ocean Park works, whether on canvas or paper. It is instructive to ruminate on the artist’s endless use of the parallelogram, cropped or complete, or the triangle; it is equally useful to recognize certain linguistic symbols. Although the X in Untitled #15 has a centrality that it is rarely given in any canvas, the more we study these two compositions, the more we perceive their structural relationships. Both utilize a truncated parallelogram; in both, the horizontal axis is anchored a little below center. It is superficially easier to compare like with like, but perhaps more revealing to contrast canvases that are insistently flat and paintings on paper that are tantalizingly, illusionistically three-dimensional. The drawing offers clues to the derivation of the ubiquitous, one-sidedly angled form—it comes from classical methods of suggesting the third dimension with line. And yet, as we clearly see in Ocean Park #27, the artist uses these methods in the service of a new kind of abstract painting, one that eschews illusionistic depth.

Richard Diebenkorn’s command of spatial complexity in an abstract matrix—gleaned in large part from his years of painting interiors, peopled or not, tabletop still lifes, landscapes literally observed and partially imagined, and figures in almost unimaginable number—is elaborately played out in his later abstract compositions. To understand the fascination of the Ocean Park works, both paintings and works on paper, we must fathom some of the preparation that informs them, and contemplate their spatial fundaments.

From RICHARD DIEBENKORN: THE CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ, edited by Jane Livingston and Andrea Liguori, published by Yale University Press in October 2016. Reproduced by permission.

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