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Richard Diebenkorn and the Poetics of Place
In those days many American poets were concerned with making the locus or matrix of where they lived, commonly called “place,” an active part of the poem. American writers have often used this theme as a way to telescopically identify a specific locale so that readers could vividly experience the world of their writing at a human scale. The prominence of place in city poems of the 1960s and after often carried the added if unconscious intention to emphasize, against the increasing anonymity that beset the nation, that people live not just on some anonymous street or plot of land cut off from neighbors by the ubiquitous fence or hedge, but in a place particularly defined by color, light, landscape, and design as much as by the houses, storefronts, bus routes, school yards, and fellow citizens found in one’s daily life. The poets of sprawling Los Angeles were no different, and at some point we even had a panel discussion sponsored by the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program called “The Poetics of Place.”
Diebenkorn, of course, was a genius of place, specifically Ocean Park, though there’s no reason to believe that “poetics of place” was part of his vocabulary. Echo Park, Silver Lake, Boyle Heights, Ocean Park, Pico Boulevard, East L.A., Venice Beach, no matter—the poets of the conglomeration known as Los Angeles were giving a voice to the life that rose from the streets of those neighborhoods, and frequently the sentient and changeable color of the sky would also make an appearance as part of the poet’s singular moving canvas of human living, human longing and desire, on the outskirts of the city that packaged desire as a commodity for the world. Of course, such packaging could never express the poignant qualities of thought and feeling experienced by those of us who actually lived in Ocean Park, for example, where the mix of desert-ocean air was so benign and so blue that it acted upon us like a spiritual tone poem that sang in the rivers beneath our skin.
And so in those days place became an essential part of one’s identity for artists and regular citizens alike. Even some of the sadly growing number of local street gangs chose to be known by their specific locales. Whether it was the famed Eighteenth Street Gang in South Los Angeles or the V13 in Venice, who spray-painted their graffiti on the sides of houses and walls just south of Ocean Park, place became a touchstone, a personal tattoo. It shaped how the eyes saw what they came upon. It followed the nation’s fracturing during and after the Vietnam War and seemed to confer a political and moral stance that was subject to a small but noticeable shift as one crossed the invisible borderline from one neighborhood to the next.We used to pretend in a playfully wicked way that we’d fall off the edge of the earth if we crossed Lincoln Boulevard, the main thoroughfare that bisects Santa Monica and separates the eastern part of that city from the small-scale manifest destiny of our slightly beat but beloved Ocean Park on its western flank, bang up against the sea.
Increasingly, where you were became part of who you were. Locus became focus. The wordhomeno longer referred solely to the literal house one lived in with family or companions; it became a word inclusive of landmark street names and boulevards, strip malls like the one on Ocean Park Boulevard where you’d find a supermarket, a drugstore, a dry cleaners, and the classic coffee shop with waitresses who wore little black aprons and served up hearty early-morning breakfasts to the crowd. It called to mind the redbrick mini-mart where the kids would run for ice cream on hot summer afternoons, the smell of freshly made bread as we’d walk past the Boulangerie on the way to the pale green public library, the pastel facade of the local toy store, that promised eternal enjoyment simply by the way it reflected the glow of blue light that rose from the ocean mere blocks away.The angle and intensity of what I came to think of as “Ocean Park light” were so much a part of our daily livesthat we could tell the time of day by how it bounced off the stucco wallsof the modest ocher, russet, or pale blue homes, or the white wooden cottages that made of that neighborhood a world.
We didn’t just live in Ocean Park; we loved it. And despite its rightful reputation for subjectivity, love develops its own objectivity after a while, its own clarity and standard of truth, for love as we know it loves from the inside. Diebenkorn’s paintings make this clear. For all of the flattened, surface beauty and perfected light that I find in the shapes and shades of his OP work, it is how faithful those shapes and colors are that I see as a sign of love,the inner light that lets me know not just what the painter saw but how he saw it and what it meant to him to be surrounded by such a world as he walked to the store to get the morning paper or stepped away from the work at hand to stroll beside the ocean in the middle of the day.
As I recall the feeling of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park, I find that the paintings live up to a standard best expressed by a possibly apocryphal anecdote I was told years ago that I’ve held to in my own work as a test of what might be called true or real. As the story goes, at one point in his career Marc Chagall would look at his paintings and ask, “Is this color as true as the blue of my mother’s babushka? Is this line as honest as my father’s cap?”
By this criterion alone, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings pass the test. They possess a quality I can rely on; they propose a world of color and form I can verify in both memory and fact. It would be a mistake, however, to think that this work was merely a surface representation of the outer world in which the painter lived. Rather, the paintings call forth how it actually felt to live bathed in a wash of such color and light, to feel the steady, calm, and gradual movement of time reflected in the environment as one lived one’s moments, days, months, and years in a small seaside town (now grown overlarge) whose primary quality was the interaction of this extraordinary light with everything and everyone it fell upon. But there is more. The light of Ocean Park that Diebenkorn caught with such perspicacity also provided a pervasive, healing, and unifying natural element in one small part of a country that was being torn to pieces family by family, town by town. Ocean Park, as alive with the spirit of those times as any community, was far from immune to the nation’s struggle. Perhaps you will forgive the understatement when I say that it was a wild and colorful time.
Peter Levitt is an American poet. This is an excerpt from his essay in the exhibition catalog for Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series