Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Interview with Sarah Bancroft , Curator of "Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series" at The Orange County Museum of Art

Left to Right: Richard Grant, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, Phyllis Diebenkorn, and Exhibition Curator Sarah C. Bancroft. Photo Colin Young-Wolff

"Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series" is the first major museum exhibition to explore the artist’s most celebrated series created from 1967 to 1988. Recognized as a leading West Coast Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s, Diebenkorn turned his attention to figurative painting in 1955 and achieved equal success in this alternate style. In 1967 he returned to abstraction, and during the next twenty years would forge one of the most compelling and masterful bodies of work of the 20th century: the Ocean Park series. 

Sarah C. Bancroft joined the Orange County Museum of Art as curator in May 2008. In addition to Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, Bancroft curated the recent exhibition Two Schools of Cool, and organized the 2010 California Biennial. In 2009 she curated Video Work by Gao Shiquang and Chen Qiulin at OCMA as part of the Ancient Paths, Modern Voices China Festival, organized by Carnegie Hall and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and she coordinated OCMA’s presentation of the exhibition Carlos Amorales: Discarded Spider. Bancroft previously worked at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she co-curated James Rosenquist: A Retrospective (2003) with the late, great curator Walter Hopps and coordinated an international masterpiece exhibition from the permanent collection that traveled to Rome and Tokyo. Bancroft received her MA in the history of art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London in 2000. Just prior to moving to Orange County, she spent six months traveling from Stockholm to Rome conducting PhD research pertaining to the tour of James Rosenquist’s monumental painting F-111 through Europe in the mid-1960s. Her area of specialization is modern and contemporary art from the 1950s to the present.

Sarah Bancroft talks to me about Richard Diebenkorn, The Ocean Park Series and Diebenkorn's role in the development of art in Los Angeles and contemporary painting.

Why Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series?

Diebenkorn's beloved and certainly most celebrated series--The Ocean Park Series--has never had a comprehensive museum exhibition. It was time! And, OCMA has a history with the artist: our precursor (The Pavilion Gallery) was the only west coast venue of the artist's first retrospective in the mid-60s. We are also blessed to have one of the magnificent Ocean Park paintings in the permanent collection.

Diebenkorn was one of a few artists who were able to go back and forth between abstraction and figuration. How do you think his figuration period, which ended when he returned to Southern California, helped in the development in the Ocean Park Series?

For Diebenkorn, I think the most important factor is that he *was* comfortable switching between the two, representational and nonobjective work. He didn't mind whether the figurative or the abstract work was in fashion in his community or the "art world" at large, he was true to his own desires. For instance, when he had started painting figuratively in the 1950s, after achieving acclaim as an abstract expressionist on the West Coast, it was shocking to many that he would paint in a representational fashion seen as old fashion or out of mode. Of course, he soon proved his doubters wrong when he achieved equal acclaim as a Bay Area figurative painter. Similarly, when he began painting the Ocean Park works a decade later in the 1960s--while others were developing conceptual practices, performance practices, artistic practices using new and unusual materials and formats (plastics, video, etc.)--it was seen as shocking or old fashioned to paint large abstract canvases again. Well, he didn't care, he was happy to do his own thing, and the Ocean Park work became his most well known body of work. He was working independent of fashion, and it stood him in good stead. It was his forthright independence more than his commitment to either figuration or abstraction that prepared him to develop the series.

Richard Diebenkorn
Ocean Park #79, 1975
Oil on canvas
93 x 81 in. (236.2 x 205.7 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and with funds contributed by private donors, 1977
©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn
Image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Ocean Park Series refers to a section of Santa Monica, California. Were they intended to be landscapes?

No, the series was simply named after the area where his studio was located, in the neighborhood of Ocean Park.

 When organizing the show, what was the biggest challenge in preparing and curating the exhibition?

Each week, month and year (because a large exhibition like this does take years), your focus changes, so there's never one thing. Negotiating the loans of the art works from private and public collections is one of the most important challenges, and takes a lot of time. Thankfully, I love it! It's an endurance sport, you're in it for the long haul with a project like this.

While you were researching the Ocean Park series, was there anything that surprised you about Diebenkorn’s painting and the Ocean Park series? Was there something you did not know before?

Diebenkorn is known as a colorist, for his delicious palette, sensitivity and sensibility with color. Yet, when I looked at images of all the works he produced in the series, I was surprised by a number dark works produced in the 1980s. Works that were black, grey, grisaille, dark blue, and were rarely seen or discussed. But, there you go, that's classic Diebenkorn! Always doing something, creating something unexpected, just when you thought you knew what he was up to. He works against your expectations and does it well!

Richard Diebenkorn
Ocean Park #27, 1970
Oil on canvas
100 x 80 in. (254 x 203.2 cm)
Brooklyn Museum, Gift of The Roebling Society and Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Blatt and Mr. and Mrs. William K. Jacobs, Jr.
©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn
Image courtesy the Brooklyn Museum

There [was recently] the Getty initiative called Pacific Standard Time, where institutions all over Southern California celebrated the art of Los Angeles and Southern California (The Orange County Museum of Art was one its participants). Although your Diebenkorn show was not part of that initiative, how do you think the Ocean Park Series and the Art of Richard Diebenkorn contributed to the development of Los Angeles art?

Diebenkorn was one of the many significant artists who made a career here in Southern California in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and made a national and international impact. (He was collected broadly across the United States, and exhibited nationally and internationally). His work and that of other artistic explorers really put Los Angeles on the map as a creative center. It remains a place where students come to study with their artistic heroes and remain to continue their artistic practices, many going on to teach as well. So, it's not only a vibrant and diverse community of artists who live and work here, it is a community of artists who teach younger generations (as Diebenkorn did) and that is tremendous.

As a follow up to that question, Sister Wendy Beckett called Richard Diebenkorn the greatest Los Angeles artist. Would you agree?

You gotta love Sister Wendy! I saw her at the Chicago Art Institute once, and loved her pure passion and engagement with the art work. I think Sister Wendy would agree that depending on what she is looking at at the time, her preference may change. I am in love with the Ocean Park works, with Diebenkorn's facility and nuance and courage and commitment to his vision. Just as I can't commit to having one favorite color or a favorite flavor, I cannot commit to ONE "greatest" or best artist. Amongst the best? Without a doubt, Diebenkorn is one of the most significant artists of the 20th Century, and not just in LA, I mean significant nationally.

Richard Diebenkorn
Ocean Park #24, 1969
Oil on canvas
93 3/4 x 77 1/2 in. (238.1 x 196.9 cm)
Yale University Art Gallery, The Twigg-Smith Collection, Gift of Laila and Thurston Twigg-Smith, B.E. 1942
©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn
Image courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

As you walk chronologically from his first Ocean Park painting to his last, there is a development from an organic landscape to a hard edge abstraction, did Diebenkorn give any indication of why he developed the series this way?

He developed each work individually in an intuitive, improvisational fashion. I think the series developed along the same lines.

Although he made a few drawings of the view from his studio window as well as a number of drawings and prints of clubs and spades that are the exceptions to the rule during this time, the Ocean Park Series was not representational. Diebenkorn was quite adamant that the Ocean Park paintings and drawings were not landscapes, although people sometimes interpret them that way. He was, however, quite sensitive to the light and the environment in each place he worked, and I think he said it best: "I see the light only at the end of working on a painting. I mean, I discover the light of a place gradually, and only through painting it." (He said this in 1987, near the end of the series). It's the largest body of work he produced, and also the longest period of time he worked on one series.

Final question, and this one is about the Orange County Museum of Art and the California Biennial. You curated the last California Biennial. What is next for you as a curator? And is there any news you would like to share about the next biennial?


I'm currently working on the layout and various details for the next installation of the Diebenkorn exhibition, which opens at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. this summer. I'm very much looking forward to bringing the show to the East coast.

Dan Cameron, our new Chief Curator, is organizing the next biennial set for 2013. I'm very much looking forward to seeing what he develops! He's sure to bring a new energy and vision to the biennial and OCMA.

Richard Diebenkorn
Ocean Park #138, 1985
Oil on canvas
49 1/2 x 48 1/4 in. (125.7 x 122.6 cm)
Private collection
©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn
Image courtesy the Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn
Ocean Park #43, 1971
Oil and charcoal on canvas
93 x 81 in. (236.2 x 205.7 cm)
Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen, San Francisco
©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn
Image courtesy the Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn
Untitled, 1975
Acrylic, gouache, and pasted paper on paper
11 3/4 x 8 1/2 in. (29.8 x 21.6 cm)
The Grant Family Collection
©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn
Image courtesy the Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

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