Richard Diebenkorn was never fixed in his focus or aesthetic position on painting, even during prolific phases of work. When he settled in Santa Monica, where he remained for 22 years, his vacillation between abstraction and representation developed its own sense of cohesion. The ‘Ocean Park Series’ (1967–88) gained its title from the eponymous coastal community in which the artist set up his studio. Arriving at the Corcoran Gallery from the Orange County Museum of Art and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the mounting of this body of work illustrates this period of crystallized artistic vision while situating it in the trajectory of Diebenkorn’s career. With its colourful veils of pentimenti and networks of interlacing lines, this roughly 20-year span of work isn’t only a dialogue between methods of representation; it also reads as a parallel vision of the growing landscape of cybernetics and information circuits being cultivated throughout postwar America. Now, the artist’s unrepentantly shifting viewpoints and aesthetic positions appear to have served him well.
Diebenkorn’s large vertical compositions are installed by an unassertive chronology that occasionally breaks from continuity or shifts to smaller works and studies on paper. The low-key mounting of the work aligns with the artist’s own flexible method. Ocean Park #11 and Ocean Park #6 (both 1968) are two early examples of Diebenkorn’s entry to the series. The former work stands out for its horizontality and washy tides of colour that allude to beach sand and red clay, while the latter possesses sinewy, vertical lines that suggest downward motion or a human figure. An exception to the large, vertical paintings that characterize the series is Cigar Box Lid #4 (1976), a scaled-down ‘Ocean Park’ work of typical geometry and colour that is rendered on the lid of a cigar box. Diebenkorn produced many pieces like this, often as gifts for friends. As miniatures, the cigar boxes allude to the lavish expanses of the ‘Ocean Park’ paintings by their thin strokes of geometrical precision. In effect, the cigar box works are as much the sums of the larger paintings’ parts as they are standalone pieces.
An early work in the series, Ocean Park #24 (1969) exemplifies the artist’s studies overlaying landscapes of colour within abstract geometries. Greens, reds and whites interface in the upper-left and create joints and lines that run across and down the upper and left quadrants. Dominating the rest of the painting is a large periwinkle colour field that emerges from a lilac parallelogram. Many ‘Ocean Park’ works make ready associations to aerial landscape views, which first revealed urban sprawl as a functional network of streams, currents and concentrated nodes. This sprightly tableau exemplifies the connection, as the interlacing colours conjure property and roads while the large wash of blue undulates like an ocean. A faint black line that eases into the vast azure gulf ultimately turns white and smudgy, which for readers of postwar US literature might suggest the suicide path of Randoph Driblette, who walked into the Pacific Ocean in Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novella The Crying of Lot 49.
In spite of their ready resemblances to aerial views and distant horizons, the ‘Ocean Park’ works are not abstract landscapes. Indeed, the museum wall text asserts the paintings ‘are not representations of [Diebenkorn’s] surroundings’. The artist departed from his 1960s canvases of patchy, washed hillsides and angular perspectives to produce the ‘Ocean Park’ paintings, in which basic forms created by serpentine overlays of colour suggest the artist’s surroundings and quickly route an image to a viewer’s experiential faculties. Behind the growing momentum during the early 1970s towards studying the world as an observable system (second-order cybernetics) and Claude Shannon’s 1950s papers relating human communication to informational bits, the works on display suggest an environment constructed through coded colours, networked space and, consequently, the movement between connected sites and points. In Ocean Park #87 (1975), for instance, a sandy spread of paint cloaks the geography of pigments beneath it. The arid, flat expanse invokes the dry California landscape while long, intersecting black margins retrieve the energy of the open road. Other paintings work less towards colouring a specific landscape as towards arousing a sentiment of one’s surroundings. Ocean Park #105 (1978) – with its Tetris-like piles of greens and blues, reds and neutrals – is at once hot, cool and dry. Lines lure the eye to connect colour blocks and highlight the betweenness of movement itself. The painting functions as a closed system, with networks of colours that interlace through both Diebenkorn’s masterful pentimenti and balanced shades of temperature.
When Oedipa Maas, Pynchon’s protagonist in The Crying of Lot 49, encounters a panoramic view of Southern Californian urban sprawl, she’s reminded of when she saw her first printed circuit. The landscape is described as ‘less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts’. In the ‘Ocean Park Series’, visual circuitry is evident through its mosaic painted expanses. Diebenkorn’s career was likewise a system of continuous movement, negotiating opposing painting styles with equal regard, much like artists today tend to work between several media. The series’ significance has expanded since its years of production, when much discussion was focused on outward abstraction. Today this element is one of many parts in the paintings’ visual network. Far from its meaning becoming fixed and concrete, the history of the ‘Ocean Park Series’ has fluctuated more like notes written in sand, with the expansive aura of the Pacific joining in parallel.