This work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn Catalogue Raisonné under number 1463.
At the edge of the Pacific, in a studio hemmed in between warehouses and a constant stream of street traffic, yet permeated with sublime light, Richard Diebenkorn conceived one of the great achievements of post-war abstraction. His Ocean Park series, named after the semi-industrial neighborhood in Santa Monica where he worked, is a profound and intensive investigation of the language of abstract form and became his focus over the course of two decades, starting in 1967. The contrast between the pastoral sounding name of Ocean Park, and the more gritty character of the actual neighborhood, parallels the ways in which opposing tensions structure the series on a formal level.
The Ocean Park paintings are marked as much by ceaseless experimentation as they are by a methodical and immediately recognizable vocabulary of form. In them, planes of color, ranging from intense to ethereal tones, variously hover upon the surface or are locked in by a linear grid that intersects the surface in fluctuating rhythms. Diebenkorn's essential subject was light, although light that is rigorously structured. The resulting spatial configurations in the paintings are especially complex, despite their seeming simplicity at first glance, their colors and forms unfolding and shifting over time. While many of the earlier works from the series deal with strident diagonal passages and bold contrasts of color, the format of Ocean Park #48 instead reveals an interest in almost classical architectural proportions, with a palette dominated by subtle, close-value hues that are set off by intermittent jolts of more intense color hovering at the borders. Ocean Park #48 is an outstanding example of one of the largest formats in the series, its scale essential to its expressive force, which subsumes the viewer in a manner that emphasizes not only one's visual but also corporeal engagement. Diebenkorn seemed to prefer this dimension of about eight feet, because, with his own tall frame, it allowed for the full sweep of his outstretched arm, and was the maximum size that he could easily move around as well as in and out of his studio.
The vertical disposition of Ocean Park #48, the most frequent format in the series, suggests the shape of a window, and indeed serendipitously echoes the proportions of the transom windows of Diebenkorn's new studio, which he had taken over from fellow painter Sam Francis. The larger size of this new space encouraged Diebenkorn to work on a broader scale, and although he did not literally transcribe the windows into his Ocean Park abstractions, the way these paintings conjure a sense of space and landscape plays with the common metaphor of painting as a window onto the world. On occasions when Diebenkorn had depicted windows in figural works, such as Woman in a Window, 1957, the open window served to mediate the relationship between interior and exterior worlds, while framing the human figure. It was the light itself, however, streaming through his lofty windows, which arguably had the strongest impact on the Ocean Park paintings. One of the most striking characteristics of Ocean Park #48 is its distinct luminescence that conveys the hazy opulence of Southern Californian light, which seems to radiate from within. As Diebenkorn explained in a 1977 film on his work, he was drawn to that particular area around Santa Monica because he liked the proximity to the ocean, as well as the "magnificent light...the best light I know of."
Diebenkorn had made a sharp and decisive shift from representational painting back to pure abstraction when he commenced the Ocean Park series. As he explained it, "[these] abstract paintings permit an all over light which wasn't possible for me in the representational works, which seem somehow dingy by comparison" (G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series: Recent Work, New York, 1971, p. 11). Although his representational work had received great acclaim, and he was considered one of the leading figures of the Bay Area scene, Diebenkorn chose to move to the Los Angeles area to free himself from any limitations of those associations. The open spaces and new surroundings of Southern California proved inspiring. Although he did not seek to represent the landscape directly in the Ocean Park series, the notion of landscape is a subconscious but ever-present element. The palette alternately suggests the changing tones of the Southern California sky, the upbeat colors of the built cityscape, swathes of sand, and profuse vegetation. Likewise, in the Ocean Park paintings, horizontal bands at times seem to suggest a horizon, or orthogonal lines a sense of receding perspective, without ever making any precise allusion.
A sense of place was intimately connected to Diebenkorn's abstract paintings, as each of his major series of abstractions was associated with a specific geographical terrain. His first mature works, known as the Sausalito paintings of the late 1940s, reflect both his experience of the reds and ochers of the immediate landscape, as well as his interactions with Mark Rothko while both served on the faculty at the California School of Fine Arts. While at the University of New Mexico in 1950-51, he created the Albuquerque paintings, whose palette shifted toward the tones of the desert landscapes. These were soon followed by his Urbana paintings of 1951, painted in a more restrained palette and dark tones reflecting the long winter nights while teaching at the University of Illinois. In the Berkeley series of 1953-55, Diebenkorn took a turn back to the warmer palette of the Bay Area, lusciously colored and energetic. The experience of traveling between Albuquerque and San Francisco in a low-flying propeller plane in 1951 proved to be something of an epiphany, revealing to Diebenkorn a new experience of shifting views of the subdivided terrain and compressed aerial perspectives that would have a major impact on the spatial organization of his abstractions.
Yet as much as Diebenkorn's Ocean Park works suggest a creative transmutation of his Southern California surroundings, even more significantly, they deal with a long legacy of abstract painting and his own distillation of more than two decades of disciplined practice. The series is notable for its consistent excellence; Diebenkorn would sometimes spend up to five months on a given work, carefully studying each composition and weighing it in relation to other works from the series until it was fully "cooked," as he put it. It was an intuitive process, in which we can see the artist in a sustained dialogue with an array of predecessors of the canon of Abstract Expressionism, including his own earlier work in that vein. There are shades of Willem de Kooning, particularly in the combination of the armature of charcoal drawing, broad planes of color, and pentimenti that reveal the process of reworking. The veils of color, particularly the stacked rectangular forms that anchor the composition, seem to respond to Mark Rothko, yet pointedly emphasize the rigor of structure rather than amorphous space. More importantly, perhaps is the way that Diebenkorn puts memories of his own masterful examples of Abstract Expressionist paintings, such as the Berkeley series, at a distance, deliberately refusing to allow gesture, which he felt was too easy, permeate the Ocean Park series. Yet even while gesture is minimized in favor of almost architectonic structure in Ocean Park #48, there are powerful passages of painterly gesture in the interstices between the shifting planes of color, in the compressed bands of hues that push and pull, in the tiny splashes of pigment that animate the striated surface, and particularly where the drag of the brush as it swept across the canvas is deeply felt.
As is characteristic of the series, Ocean Park #48 conveys the palpable sense of Diebenkorn thinking and rethinking the course of his painting. He had internalized lessons from a number of important predecessors, which he translated into the language of his own work in different ways. The structuring armatures that dominate the Ocean Park series make reference to Piet Mondrian, especially his early paintings of piers and trees that employ horizontal and vertical elements to convey the artist's experience of locating himself in the world. Far from taking the form of standardized geometry, Diebenkorn's grids, like Mondrian's, find internal balance and harmony within the field of the picture plane itself. From Matisse, whom he had encountered at the Phillips Collection in the mid-1940s, as well as in the 1966 retrospective at UCLA, Diebenkorn absorbed essential lessons about the power of color, and the importance of revealing the structure of painting. Just as important as Henri Matisse, however, was the way Diebenkorn's works respond to Paul Cézanne. The signs of considering and re-considering compositional structures that are everywhere in evidence in the layered surface of Ocean Park #48, recalling Cézanne's carefully deliberated approach to each of his compositions, and particularly to the late works, whose sometimes unfinished states have been seen as revelatory examples of modern art.
It is a testament to the importance of this particular example from the series that it was chosen as one of a suite of sixteen large-scale Ocean Park canvases that were included in Diebenkorn's exhibition in the American Pavilion at the 1978 Venice Biennale. At precisely the moment when many critics were declaring painting dead, that exhibition displayed the inventiveness and power of one the most distinguished practitioners of the time. Situated amongst other examples of the series that are now in the Phillips Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Guggenheim, and Albright-Knox, among others, Ocean Park #48 unequivocally demonstrated the originality of Diebenkorn's vision of abstraction. Fittingly shown in Venice, a city renowned for color and light, these Ocean Park paintings radiated a distinct sense of California light that Diebenkorn was able to convey in an incomparable manner.
As a superb example of post-war abstract painting that exudes a distinctive California sensibility, Ocean Park #48 was one of the highlights of John and Zola Rex's distinguished collection. Hung in the modernist home in Santa Barbara that John, a noted architect, designed and completed construction on in 1972, it was a painting that perfectly complemented the home's clean lines and careful integration of California light.
Married in 1952, John and Zola made collecting together a life-long pursuit, both bringing very strong perspectives to the table. John had distinguished himself in the field of architecture, serving on the board of directors for the Art Center School of Design, and as President of the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He was perhaps best known for his design of one of the famous Case Study Houses in Southern California (CSH#2), which examined new ways of residential living for the post-war era. Zola, who grew up in Los Angeles, attended Wellesley College before returning to the West Coast, where she worked as an interior designer with Guy Moore in the 1950s.
The Rexes became major patrons of the arts in Southern California, supporting numerous museums through their generous gifts of major artworks, personal contributions and energetic fund-raising efforts, always dedicated to the belief in the importance of making contemporary art more accessible to the broad public. Zola was a founding member of the Junior Arts Center at Barnsdall Park, and served on the Junior Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the UCLA Art Council, and the board of the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum. Starting in 1973, both John and Zola were extremely active in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, where they were long-time members of the Board of Trustees; John served as President of the Board of Trustees and was made an honorary life trustee in 1987, while Zola was Chair of the Exhibitions and Acquisitions Committee.
The Rexes became friends with Richard and Phyllis Diebenkorn, who were part of a social circle that included close friends and fellow collectors Gifford and Joanne Phillips, whose own painting from the Ocean Park series now belongs to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The Rexes' enthusiasm for Diebenkorn was further demonstrated in their acquisition of another work by the artist, which they hung together with Ocean Park #48, creating a powerful pair of luminous abstract paintings that formed a focal point of their esteemed collection.