RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
During the turmoil of the late '60s - war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy - there was a painter here in California creating a series of tranquil, glowing, canvases. They made his reputation and transfixed art lovers. Now those works, "The Ocean Park Series," are on view at the Orange County Museum of Art, about an hour's drive from where they were painted.
In Southern California, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg visits the work and onetime studio of Richard Diebenkorn.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Main Street in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica is two blocks from the Pacific Ocean and hums with cars, young families pushing strollers, aging hippies, and fancy coffee.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Can I get a cappuccino cup, please?
STAMBERG: You can get the aroma of ocean behind the mocha java. Or bop into The Beyond O2 Water House on Main Street, for extremely safe thirst quenching.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What we do is we take water that we clean first; we take out the chloride, the fluoride...
STAMBERG: Walk a bit, sipping water, coffee - whatever, past shops, restaurants, and beach-y bungalows that can go for a million or more. In 2012, Ocean Park is very different from what it was in 1967, when Richard Diebenkorn began painting his "Ocean Park Series" here.
KIMBERLY DAVIS: It was still pretty derelict around here area. There were a lot of artists on...
STAMBERG: Kimberly Davis directs the L.A. Louver Gallery in nearby Venice Beach. Diebenkorn visited that gallery every week when he worked in Ocean Park.
So if there were so many artists that means the rent was cheap.
DAVIS: Really cheap.
STAMBERG: So they were living on the edge here, literally.
DAVIS: Literally on the...
STAMBERG: The edge of the country.
STAMBERG: But also on the edge of...
DAVIS: The edge of the city and everything that was really civilized. It was just where people could afford to live.
STAMBERG: Diebenkorn's first Ocean Park studio, where he began making the big, gently-colored, geometric canvases of his series, was on Ashland Avenue. Then he moved to Main Street.
DAVIS: He built this building here where there's an architect's offices now. And it's even designated, his studio, on the outside, which is something I've actually never noticed before.
STAMBERG: Twenty-four forty-eight Main Street and somebody put up a plaque. Very handsome one, by the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STAMBERG: Richard Diebenkorn Studio, From 1975 to 1988. Could we just take a look at the space - get a sense of it?
We go inside and upstairs.
DAVIS: And then you can see, how you would open up these windows. And now, of course, the trees are really blocking that view. But you would have been able to see right up the hillside.
STAMBERG: Which is what Diebenkorn did, looked up at the geometry of the hillside; how the streets crossed one another. Counter-intuitive, isn't it, turning his back on the ocean? But it's the light he was after.
SARAH BANCROFT: I don't know if this will make sense. I've never verbalized this before. But I see it as like a clarion call.
STAMBERG: Sarah Bancroft curated the Diebenkorn show at the Orange County Museum of Art. It's the first big retrospective of "The Ocean Park Series"- this series about light.
BANCROFT: I love the light here. I grew up in Arizona where there is a very harsh yellow light. And the light here is quite different. It's just - there is a very airy quality to it.
STAMBERG: It's such a pale light.
STAMBERG: It's almost white, but there's a softness to it.
BANCROFT: There is.
STAMBERG: It's just so compelling. It's so seductive.
BANCROFT: It is.
STAMBERG: It shimmers. Richard Diebenkorn, looking up at the Ocean Park hills through his studio's big windows, paints not the landscape but the quality of the light on the landscape, framed by the angled geometry of those windows. He's an abstract painter. His shapes are architectural. His colors chalky, pastelled blues, violets, yellows, greens make the geometry shimmer.
BANCROFT: They're very architectonic. But they're also lyrical. That's kind of a dangerous word to use with the work. And yet, you know, he was the first to acknowledge that music was so important and there's a relationship between his work and music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: He loved Bach, Mozart; played music in the Ocean Park studio as he painted. Richard Diebenkorn worked on his "Ocean Park Series" over the course of 20-plus years. He made some 145 paintings in the series. Each was numbered chronologically.
Curator Sarah Bancroft says many of the canvases have ghosts. "Number 79," for example, painted in 1975 - you can see it at NPR.org - blues, lavenders, aquas, and the ghosts of his earlier decisions about color.
BANCROFT: So he painted and repainted. He would scrape away, paint some more. He would focus on one area and then decide he would move onto another and destroy something he had worked on for quite a while, because he felt like he was treating it too preciously. And he identified it as just wanting to get everything right. Everything right: light, color, space, volume, the whole composition. But he wasn't afraid to show the mistakes.
STAMBERG: "Ocean Park 79" is a big canvas - 93 inches by 83 inches - full of little moments.
BANCROFT: There are these interesting little drips along one part, where he had applied paint and he left it there. You know, that was just that one moment happening in the painting.
STAMBERG: And I love just the skinny little horizontal strip of red near the top. It comes, in a way, out of nowhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STAMBERG: But it grounds it at the top.
BANCROFT: They're just gorgeous compositions of color. I really do see them as kind of music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: Richard Diebenkorn created his "Ocean Park Series" from 1967 to 1988. He died in 1993. Through the agonies of Vietnam, the anti-war protests, the resignation of a president, a gas crisis and unremitting change, he painted these calm curator Bancroft calls it riotous calm and incandescent canvases - paintings that must be experienced.
BANCROFT: The average viewer spends about four seconds looking at a painting, maybe five...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BANCROFT: ...in any museum. These paintings, there's so much going on. They're so delicate and beautiful and sumptuous. To truly appreciate them, not only do you need to spend more than five seconds with them, it would be ideal if you can spend hours and hours with them.
STAMBERG: There's all the time you like, right now, at the Orange County Museum of Art. "Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series," is there until the end of May. After that, it travels to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
In Southern California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can spend hours looking at some of Diebenkorn's paintings at NPR.org, if you like.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.