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Richard Diebenkorn's 'Ocean Park Series' offers viewers a soothing array of color landscapes at the Corcoran Gallery.
For THE FREE LANCE STAR
Richard Diebenkorn's supreme achievement, "The Ocean Park Series," is a treasury of 20th-century American art.
The West Coast artist's career started in our area when he was stationed in the Marines at Quantico in 1943. Diebenkorn worked in the photographic section, making maps. He also did portraits of fellow servicemen for them to send home as Christmas gifts.
He visited the art galleries in Washington, D.C, particularly the Corcoran Gallery, the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, where he studied the works of Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, George Braque, Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso. He also began his first abstract watercolor during this time.
Someone would later say that Diebenkorn's colors are like those of Matisse, with cubist structures, and perhaps Monet's light on water effect.
Using his GI bill, Diebenkorn went to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he mapped worlds of desert beige, orange, reds and pinks in his early abstract canvases.
A plane flight from New Mexico to San Francisco in 1950 had lasting impact. He observed the aerial view, noting the possibilities for a painter of "forms operating in shallow depth."
In San Francisco, he studied under the leading figures in American Abstract Expressionism--Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.
Then he moved to Ocean Park, a beach-side community in San Monica. In 1967, he began this series in which factors like his mapping skills, the influence of the abstract expressionists and his fascination with color, light and space converged in these masterpieces of modern abstraction.
Of the almost 500 paintings, prints and drawings in this series, about 80 are in this exhibit.
The aerial views are not landscapes drawn from the vantage point of a helicop-ter. These "invented landscapes," as he called them, were done in his studio, created on canvas hung on walls, with the intention that they be viewed vertically, not from overhead.
In large space accompanied by the natural light that the Corcoran atrium-style galleries provide, the large ethereal paintings bypass the need for explanation by the sheer visual pleasure they enkindle.
Lyrical colors of cool blues and greens, electric pink, purple and yellow, in rhythms of shapes and slightly irregular lines suggest a physical immediacy of water, earth and cultivated fields in a way not as they are seen but as they are understood.
The places in Diebenkorn's paintings really exist, but if there is any question that his art might be representations of the physical locale, there is the following story. During the 20-year period in which he worked on this series, the Department of Interior asked him to document an Arizona water system. He spent five days in a helicopter surveying the area for the project. He later commented that even his documents were abstract interpretations.
The exhibit includes, besides the drawings and prints which detail the artist's process, his delightful cigar-box-top paintings. Diebenkorn was a cigar aficionado. He saved paint in his cigar boxes, and then later, painted the covers as gifts.
Another personal touch at the Corcoran is an ongoing video of the artist, which makes him seem present in the gallery he knew well from his earliest time in D.C.
Sheila Wickouski, a former Fredericksburg resident, is a freelance reviewer for The Free Lance-Star.