I appreciate abstract artwork intellectually, and puzzling over its hidden meanings while drinking coffee with friends is a favorite pastime, but my preference is for a kind of work that makes its points more directly. Oblique art seems to be a bit of a cheat—with the artist doodling in the id or just not thoughtful enough to make a statement. Unconscious work can be revealing and entertaining, but an artist who does what he does with deliberate intent is something holy. Great art is not an accident.
That preconception has been reinforced, then gleefully demolished in the wake of my viewing the more than 80 paintings, collages, prints and drawings on display at Orange County Museum of Art's (OCMA) newly opened "Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series," curated by Sarah C. Bancroft in follow-up to her recent, equally enthralling "Two Schools of Cool" exhibition. "Palimpsest" has been used to describe Diebenkorn's paintings, and that feels like the perfect description to these ears. Like a manuscript that has been written on, erased and rewritten with the previous words still faintly visible, Diebenkorn's work feels like process made visual. Reminiscent of map gridwork with patches of colored land surrounded by ongoing streets, lines collide with or block other lines; areas have been painted on, then painted over. Frustration is the mainstay as borders of color put a full stop to lines that feel as though they have lives of their own: If Diebenkorn's brush (or frame) didn't stop them, the lines (which seem to vibrate and brim with motion) would certainly continue right off the canvas and onto the wall or ceiling.
They're not maps, however much they may look like they stumbled out of a Thomas Guide: Visible are X's (Ocean Park #16, 1968); a Hockney-like swimming pool (Blue with Red, 1987); thick lines snapping in on themselves, traveling in one direction, and then another (Ocean Park #24, 1969); the suggestion of a curtain pulled back to reveal black (Ocean Park #135, 1985); an emotional landscape (the mostly black Ocean Park #138, 1985); an area that looks like beachfront (Ocean Park #89.5, 1975), an unfolded envelope (Untitled #24, 1983); or an old document whose words have faded from view [Untitled (Ocean Park), 1977]. Those are just some of the things I saw on my walk through, but is that all it is? Just a fancy Rorschach test?
"Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series" at Orange County Museum of Art, www.ocma.net. Open Wed.-Sun., 11-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m-8 p.m. Through May 27. $12-$10; children younger than 12, free.
Maybe, but the answer may be a little more concrete than that. Diebenkorn denied he was painting his surroundings, but Bancroft hands us a clue to decoding the abstract series with little fanfare at the halfway point of the exhibition. Adjacent to a timeline detailing the artist's life are three oversized photographs of the Ocean Park neighborhood by Miriam Ginzburg. If you're not paying attention, you may glance at it and keep walking.
That would be a mistake; it's this clever display by Bancroft that opens the door to Diebenkorn's work. There's a hint by the only "realistic" piece in the exhibition, Untitled (View from Studio, Ocean Park) from 1969, a drawing of rooftops and smudged palm trees in gouache, charcoal and ink on paper. It's at the entrance to the gallery (and can get lost in the mix when you start viewing the serenely startling paintings), but every dead-ended line, every tiny bit of color, vast horizon of blue or cement gray makes perfect, immediate sense when you see the Santa Monica telephone poles poking the sky, the crisscrossed power lines, the boarded-up windows and sandy beach paths in the photos, with Bancroft gracefully trusting our innate intelligence to make the connections.
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As is always the case at OCMA, there's almost too much work on display, with even the greediest of art fanatics likely to have their brains feel similar to Mr. Creosote's collision with the wafer-thin mint in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Yes, your brain will likely explode, but let's venture to say this isn't a bad thing.
My mind exploded with possibility after seeing the show. I'm a Diebenkorn admirer (though, prior to visiting OCMA, I'd never heard of him), but I have his work to thank for that less than I do Bancroft's skill at informing and guiding her audiences. The intelligent ideology behind the exhibition (as well as the lovely hardcover catalog of the show she edited, available in the bookshop) has, like one of the lines in the artist's paintings, erased and rewritten my earlier suspicions of abstract art. Stopped that misperception in its tracks, putting a frame on it, thus making it circle back in on itself in a cycle of re-examination is, as Diebenkorn clearly knew, not frustrating at all. It's liberating.
This review appeared in print as "A Palimpsest of an OCMA Exhibit: Uncovering the mysteries of the drawn and redrawn in 'Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series.'"