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This week, Washington’s most important show of the summer will open at the Corcoran.
“A pivotal figure in the history of modern painting, Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993) was an innovator whose work inspired legions of artists and greatly advanced the lexicon of abstraction. The Corcoran is the only East Coast venue for Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, the first major museum exhibition to focus on the artist’s most celebrated body of work. Named after the Southern California beachfront community where Diebenkorn worked between 1967 and 1988…these powerful abstract investigations of space, light, and color evoke landscape and architectural forms as well as the psychology of place that defined the California coast during this time.”
I grew up just a few miles from Ocean Park and passed by Diebenkorn’s studio daily on my way to school. It was an experimental, vaguely Episcopalian post-hippy grammar school known for its strong emphasis on the arts, and was probably more influential in my later decision to study art history than I could have imagined.
The year I entered Princeton’s PhD program in Art and Archaeology, I spent a lot of time on the phone with my grandmother. While I studied ancient civilizations, she replayed in her mind, and for me on the phone, episodes from her own past.
One night on the phone she bowled me over with a story I’d never heard before. She told me that in the late 1950s or early 1960s she had the opportunity to buy a painting by a Berkeley-based artist named Richard Diebenkorn who was emerging as one of the leading figures of American post-war painting. She loved the lyrical abstraction of the picture and thought artist had the hallmarks of a great and important painter. My grandmother, famously chic and notoriously frugal, could afford the painting on her teacher’s salary. But just barely.
Not many months after this phone conversation, my grandmother was forced to admit that she just couldn’t continue to live alone. The possessions that she took with her, first to my uncle’s home and eventually to hospice, were symbols of family: letters from her late sister, a photograph of my grandfather in his WWII naval officer’s uniform, and many many photographs taken over a span of ninety years.
But not the Diebenkorn painting. That night on the phone, she told me that after a lot of soul searching, she had decided not to buy it. She loved it, she believed in the artist, and she was convinced of its value. “But I also had two children who’d be going to college soon,” she told me. “I’d always taught them that education was the most important thing. They’d worked so hard to get there and I just couldn’t justify spending money on a painting which could send them to college. I just couldn’t do it.”
Today, that painting could probably send any number of children to college many times over (just last month Christie’s sold the iconic Berkeley #59 for $6.24 million). But in the 1960s, for a middle-class teacher to spend even a tiny fraction of that would have meant jeopardizing her children’s education. For a woman who valued education above all things, the cost was too great.
What we collect says a lot about who we really are, about the things we value and the people we love. The lesson I learned that night, listening to my grandmother, is that the things we don’t collect sometimes reveal even more, because they represent the sacrifices we make for the people and ideals we believe in.
Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series runs Sat, June 30 through Sun, September 23 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design
500 Seventeenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006