Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Richard Diebenkorn may not seem terribly clever or hip, but doggone it: He was right. Those who view art history as primarily a series of intellectual arguments—or who think important artists have to harness the zeitgeist—will struggle to understand why “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series,” on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is so powerful. Diebenkorn’s signature series of more than 140 paintings and related works on paper, created between 1967 and 1988, seemed behind-the-curve from the get-go: a quiet, late-modern exploration of pure painterly concerns in the face of the rising postmodern storm. While Los Angeles’ Light and Space movement was coalescing around him, leading artist neighbors like James Turrell and Robert Irwin to embrace installation art and abandon their studios, Diebenkorn took a giant step backward. At the age of 45, he dropped his 10-year foray into figure studies, still life, and landscape; shifted back into abstraction; and ruminated on masterpieces by Matisse, Cézanne, and Mondrian. Yet despite being something of a re-entrenchment, the Ocean Park paintings were widely celebrated in the artist’s lifetime, and only look better with age. With the mature third act of his career, Diebenkorn consistently summoned greatness—and arguably drove a big, pastel-hued wedge between theory and connoisseurship.

“Rightness,” of course, was Diebenkorn’s watchword. For him, the act of painting was a quasi-improvisatory search for balance and for nuanced relationships between lines, layers of paint, and geometric shapes. “I can never accomplish what I want,” Diebenkorn once said, “only what I would have wanted had I thought of it beforehand.” Forget metaphysics, art-world jargon, or recourse to the artist’s biography: Diebenkorn’s paintings are spontaneous, tough, secular objects made for delectation.

The show comes to the Corcoran from the Orange County Museum of Art, whose Sarah Bancroft has presented the Ocean Parks with great sensitivity and common sense. Unlike so many contemporary museum curators who use retrospectives as vehicles for reinventing artists we only thought we knew, Bancroft makes no sweeping revisionist pronouncements. Much of the insight she offers has to do with how the larger paintings on canvas and smaller prints and works on paper fit together, or how certain motifs were introduced and transformed in the series over time. Most impressively, she draws important connections between Diebenkorn’s earlier representational paintings and his late abstraction—while still insisting, as did the artist himself, that the two bodies of work are inherently different.

It’s much easier to describe how these paintings were constructed and how they confront the viewer than to say what they’re about. Titles won’t help: Each large-scale work in this show is simply called “Ocean Park,” followed by a number between six and 140. “Ocean Park” identifies the Santa Monica, Calif., neighborhood where Diebenkorn settled in the mid-1960s, established his new studio, and began painting these roughly 8-foot-by-6-foot, mostly portrait-format canvases.

The Ocean Parks are gorgeously tentative. In the surface of each large-scale painting, all of the drawn and painted-out revisions, excisions, and second guesses are preserved: For Diebenkorn, that editing is precisely the point. Each painting contains a chapter in the history of a running argument between the artist’s hand, his eye, and his memory.

Early on, Diebenkorn waffled a bit on what his new paintings might look like, destroying the first five he produced. “Ocean Park #6” (1968) is the earliest to survive. It features elements that the artist was still weeding out of his work: Heavy, black, de Kooning-esque bands of paint run top to bottom. Broad, broken lines curve and swell like distended bellies, adjoined to rubbed-out grays, pinks, and passages of cool green. While more stripped down and reticent than Diebenkorn’s churning, loose-brushed abstract paintings of the early ’50s, “Ocean Park #6” still bears traces of expressionistic brio.

Around the corner is “Ocean Park #11” (1968), an early attempt notable mainly for being horizontal. While Diebenkorn certainly made some landscape-format paintings in this series, particularly in the 1980s, the best Ocean Parks are defined by their verticality, which emphasizes their relationship to the human body and inoculates the viewer against seeing them as landscapes disguised as abstractions.

At 6 feet and 2 inches, Diebenkorn was a fairly large man; a vertically oriented eight-foot-by-six-foot canvas stretched to the limits of the natural reach of his arms. The upright canvas becomes both a surrogate for the artist’s physical presence and an object that corresponds to and addresses the viewer’s entire upright body all at once.

Not until the mid-1970s—the third room of the more-or-less chronologically arranged show—do we see the elements of the series firmly coalesce. “Ocean Park #79” (1975) is a showstopper in which Diebenkorn slices the upper and right thirds of his canvas with long charcoal lines—often ruled, but seldom perfectly grid-snapping, and sometimes bearing the tremor of a slow-moving free hand. Three or four parallel diagonals in red and black cut across the nest of right angles in the painting’s upper right corner—creating a visual traffic jam, counterbalanced by an immense pale ultramarine rectangle taking up most of the bottom half of the canvas.

The work has a clear focal point, but the viewer’s eye is drawn to tensions and visual interruptions everywhere—from the naked-seeming inch-and-a-half or so in the left margin, where Diebenkorn leaves a less-finished state of the painting visible, to the slightly darker smudged and dripped area of blue hovering in the lower right—did Diebenkorn throw linseed oil at the canvas? Did he cover something up? These curious windows into process activate the surface of the piece, making the painting’s history viscerally present.

Diebenkorn doesn’t just pick single colors, but modifies them via optical mixing—scrubbing one slightly lighter, cooler, more opaque pastel viridian or washed-out yellow over a previous choice so that both are visible simultaneously. With a few simple layered shapes, Diebenkorn sets up complex color vibrations that creep slowly into the viewer’s awareness. “Ocean Park #109” (1978), which appears to have a wan, muted palette, begins to blossom as the viewer stands with it, slowly revealing that it’s charged with unexpected, partly concealed color relationships. “The Ocean Park Series” reminds you why art museums have benches. Sit for a spell and indulge in some prolonged seeing.

Aside from the large paintings, there are prints, drawings, collaged works on paper—even miniature Ocean Parks executed in cigar boxes for friends. None of these are studies, as Diebenkorn didn’t believe in preparatory drawings. In the artist’s mind and the curator’s estimation, the smaller works are not miniatures, but complete, self-sufficing works. It’s tough to compare the experience of these jewel-like works with the body-sized immersive paintings, but it’s at least true that Diebenkorn never skimped on attention or focus, regardless of scale.

Despite the stripped-down language of straight lines, awkward curves, and semi-transparent wedges of color, Diebenkorn’s sense of visual drama was intimately connected to his immediate surroundings. His friend William Brice once remarked, “I don’t know of any artist who was more responsive to his physical environment than Dick. If he moves down the block, it changes everything. He absorbed the aura of a place…[And] he didn’t like anyone messing with his studio. He liked the look of his place in its continuity of his life in it.”

In a sense, then, the Ocean Park studio itself largely constructed these paintings. Bancroft acknowledges as much through her inclusion of one small black and white representational painting in an otherwise nonobjective show. A reproduction of “Untitled (View from Studio, Ocean Park)” (1969) appears with the wall text in the show’s first room; the original painting itself hangs in the fourth. The linear elements of this gouache, ink, and charcoal drawing on paper, showing rooftops and trees glimpsed beyond a large window and slanting transom, conform to the Ocean Park compositional strategy perfectly. As Diebenkorn himself once said of his studio view: “…There was this situation of a large, lighted rectangle, a more of a square within it, and then, seen from the side, the transom provided the diagonal….I remember several more astute people who visited that studio said, ‘Well, look, you’re painting your transom windows.’”

Bancroft points out other visual experiences that fed into the Ocean Park recipe: In 1970, Diebenkorn participated in a project with the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of Interior, for which he viewed the Lower Colorado River Basin from a helicopter. The resulting works on paper are not included in the show, but when glimpsed in the catalog indicate a striking relationship between aerial views of land inscribed with canals and waterways and the frontal, architectonic quality of the Ocean Park paintings.

There may not be much point to interrogating the artist’s nonobjectivity. Diebenkorn, after all, was a double modern-art heretic: first for abandoning a perfectly respectable body of Abstract Expressionist work in the 1950s for a loose, San Francisco Bay Area-identified representational style; then, with the Ocean Park paintings, for shunting the figure aside and embracing a different, more stately and classicizing type of pictorial abstraction.

The first defection set the artist against formalist critics like Clement Greenberg. Greenberg thought that high-quality paintings should be nonobjective and resolutely flat, employing the canvas-staining methods of painters like Morris Louis or Kenneth Noland. Around 1956, Greenberg sent Noland to Diebenkorn’s studio to see what the West Coast painter was up to; instead of cutting-edge abstraction, Noland was apparently confronted by figure studies, self-portraits, and still life. “[He] as much as told me, ‘What the hell have you done?’,” Diebenkorn later recounted. “He was really very disappointed.”

Diebenkorn turned away from the New York art world; then he turned away from the Bay Area figurative scene with which he was identified. Neither turn made any sense, career-wise. Diebenkorn followed his work wherever he felt it needed to go, incorporating the qualities of light wherever he happened to be and not minding too much if it gave his work some sort of idiosyncratic regional stamp. “I arrive at the light only after painting in it, not by aiming for it,” Diebenkorn once said—as if he were powerless to do any work other than what his surroundings and his materials demanded.

However set apart from the big arguments of his day Diebenkorn was, his fidelity to a certain kind of seeing and painting looks more like courage than comfort. He charted his own course not once, not twice, but three times. Any one of his careers, taken separately, would be enough for him to be remembered. That the two decades presented at the Corcoran only represents a piece of his development is astonishing. Would that all artists could fail so spectacularly to figure out what art that matters ought to look like.