KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 11: Spring 2019
Tanka Prose:
707 words

Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #17 (1968)

by Charles D. Tarlton

Ocean Park #17: painting by Richard Diebenkorn
Ocean Park #17 (1968)1
Painting, oil and charcoal on canvas (80"x72")
Copyrighted © by The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation


The artist stands ready in the presence of a blank canvas, but nothing so far has happened. Up ahead in time a finished painting is waiting, but something has to take place now to launch the creative act. The painter has a long straight edge and a piece of charcoal; he draws three parallel horizontal lines, and then, fidgeting with the straight edge, lays in three more parallel lines diagonally. The canvas has been “besmirched,” and the artist has his problem.

these are not pictures
out the transom, but pictures roused
by the geometry
of it. The lines creating
shapes in a regular pattern

from the toothings
of these inaugural gestures
the painting grows
according to a logic born
of the moment’s vagaries

Here is a definition of process. Building on the stimulus of the first lines he drew on the canvas, the painter improvises colored shapes as needed, drawing other lines, following the promptings of whatever just emerged, gesture, then color, then another gesture, until he is exhausted. But, wait, the next morning, back in the studio, he repents, and begins to scratch out and paint over yesterday’s markings, leaving hints to reveal here and there the way he had come.

he only knew it was
finished once he’d come back
from abandoning it
in despair, to find it all
working perfectly

any truth in the art
derives from his accruing
fragmented judgments
over a frantic period
of exasperated struggle

You cannot ask what any of it means or represents, more than his efforts to get right the thing that had kept going. The peculiar angular drawings in the top half of the picture just happened in the working out of pressures from the day before. They are pictures of nothing, lines arranged to the emotional satisfaction of the artist. Still, they are interesting, are they not?

what do you think
stairways, the generally celestial?
closer up, the details
confute interpretation in the sense
of particular visions

what’s wonderful
is exactly that elaborate
drawing of figures
without subject or reference
then knowing they were right

All the Ocean Parks started in the same manner, though this is not something one can say in a strictly historically way. No one was there watching, but the familiar diagonals appear in nearly every painting (are they hiding in every one?) cutting across the horizontal-vertical matrix. And in nearly every painting they have been worked back into the deep pentimenti by over-painting and erasure, never completely obliterated because they constituted the glimpse from which the works arose. Not perfect evidence, perhaps, but enough to help us understand the genesis of the archetypal motif.

but still its details
differentiate each painting
from the others
keep each one interesting
in its own familial way

no two days alike
exactly, no two Ocean Parks
precisely the same
number of triangles, the same
dispositions of red

Art Criticism 101B

what if he had
a giant dictionary in his head
could he give meanings
to the shapes in their arrangement
so we’d know what they meant?

we might then indeed
find California light made manifest
O, geography of the west
in the myriad exotic objects
he is said to have portrayed


Author’s Note:

This excerpt from the descriptive curatorial essay on the University of Iowa Museum of Art’s website is a perfect illustration of what is most wrong with Diebenkorn criticism today:

No. 17 is a brilliant example of Richard Diebenkorn’s now legendary exploration of architecture and light in his “Ocean Park” series. The Ocean Park works are essentially conversations between “ocean”—broad areas of atmospheric color implying nature’s vastness—and “park”—ambiguous lines evoking a desire for order and containment.2

However, “Ocean Park” refers neither to the ocean nor to a park, but to an area near the beach in Santa Monica, California, north and south of Ocean Park Boulevard. This is where Diebenkorn had a studio.

Architecture? The idea must arise from all the straight lines. Light? All the bright colors, yellow and white, why, they must be representative of—light. Ocean? I don’t know. You tell me. And park? You mean park like grass and trees and, oh, aren’t those the legs of giant picnic tables?


Publisher’s Notes:

1. Ocean Park #17 (1968) (oil and charcoal on canvas, 80"x72") by Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993) is held at the Stanley Museum of Art at the University of Iowa, and appears above with kind permission from The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

This painting and numerous others by the artist can also be viewed in Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park Series posted by Poul Webb to his blog, Art & Artists, on 15 February 2011.

See also The Drawings of Richard Diebenkorn by John Elderfield (Museum of Modern Art, New York; Houston Fine Art Press, 1988).

2. Full text of curatorial essay may be found online at the Stanley Museum of Art.

—From Tarlton’s full-length collection, Touching Fire: New and Selected Ekphrastic Prosimetra (KYSO Flash Press, December 2018); appears here with his permission

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