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A Diebenkorn Moment

By Frank Gruber

I have often written -- as recently as last week, in fact -- about the pride I have living in a small city that has had a large impact on Culture and the culture, from A for art to Z for z-boys. Along those lines, I had a "life imitates art" moment Friday afternoon.

Or rather it was "life imitates scholarship." Friday was New Year's Eve day, more or less a holiday, and I was home in Ocean Park, reading outside, nursing a cup of coffee, looking out over the ball field at Los Amigos toward the ocean and taking in the sun.

The rain was taking a break.

The book on my lap was California historian Kevin Starr's Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003. I had only started it, when at page 47 I was pleased to begin a chapter entitled "Ocean Park."

The chapter was about art in California, and, predictably, given its title, it ended with an appreciation of Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series of abstract landscapes. Prof. Starr quoted a reviewer of the major Diebenkorn retrospective in 1977 as saying that the California landscape had become linked to Diebenkorn the same way a "'stone farmhouse on a lavender Provencal hill proclaims Cezanne.'"

My moment of communion with the page I was reading came when I read Prof. Starr's follow-up: "No art-aware Californian could ever again sit in the sunshine with a glass of wine, with the blue Pacific in the distance, and not have that moment in some way authenticated because Diebenkorn had painted it."

Substitute a cup of coffee for a glass of wine, and last Friday, I was experiencing what Prof. Starr was talking about, an "authenticated" Diebenkorn moment.

And reading about it at the same time.

Of course, at that moment I was also thinking about whether the ridge along Fourth Street would be high enough to protect my half of Ocean Park from a tsunami; or if the waters would rush up Ocean Park Boulevard, under the Fourth Street viaduct, and wash us into Lincoln Boulevard.

But back to my authenticated moment. I love California, my neighborhood and Diebenkorn's work, but I won't pretend; when I moved to California in 1978 and Ocean Park in 1983 I wasn't "art-aware" enough to know who Richard Diebenkorn was. (Actually, for years I confused him with Joseph Cornell and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what connection those boxes had with Ocean Park.)

Art did not authenticate my first moments in Ocean Park. Instead, like most people who live any place, what I found real there was reality itself: the little house my future wife and I rented on Raymond with the pull-down ladder to the office in the attic; the two avocado trees; and a loquacious landlady who lived in another house in the back.

And how if we walked over to Fourth Street, and then to Ashland, we could see the ocean.

Only as I learned more -- about art and my neighborhood -- did I discover that unlike Moliere's character who learns he has been speaking prose all along, I was living in poetry.

* * *

"Any place." "Place" is, lately, the big word in urban planning. Place as in "sense of place," as in a place is no good unless there is some sense of it.

The places that aren't supposed to have senses of themselves are the faceless suburbs; or worse, generic developments, such as CityWalk or The Grove, cynically designed to imitate "places."

But I wonder. Chronicler-of-our-time-and-place D.J. Waldie has shown in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir that even the seemingly most placeless place, Lakewood, is a place for the people who live there. Didn't Fast Times at Ridgemont High (etc.) show -- authenticate -- that there could be life in a mall, too?

I'm thinking about this not only because I am reading Prof. Starr's panoramic book, which he says he wrote in response to a fascination he had that California might be going "seriously awry," but also because last week the L.A. Times published excerpts from a talk Mr. Waldie gave recently at the L.A. Public Library where he recited numerous "scriptures" that we recite today to rationalize our willingness to disengage from our fellow Southern Californians.

Scriptures such as "[t]he story of Los Angeles is an elegy for a place of former perfection, a perfect place, once upon a time -- and the time was just before your new next-door neighbor arrived."

Mr. Waldie concluded his remarks as follows (at least as reported in the Times):

"This city has failed to give its residents what they critically need: reasons to be faithful to each other that go beyond the politics of shared grievances. This city has not inspired faithfulness because it has not offered much that stands against the easy belief that no shared loyalties are possible at all.

"Los Angeles is a ruined paradise. I agree, and in desperate need of us.

"It was the fate of Los Angeles -- I almost said the grace of Los Angeles -- to be the paradise we've ruined and, as a consequence, now our home."

Mr. Waldie's call for faith in each other and our city is unarguable; but he of all people -- the Diebenkorn of Lakewood, the one who showed it for the place it has the sense to be -- should not despair.

Our metropolis has had a bipolar history; a century of manic boosterism that ended in the 80s, with the crash of the growth machine, riot, and natural disaster, and since then a depression that seems to deepen every year, fed by grievances both shared and conflicting.

Perhaps, as an immigrant to this ever-growing urban mass generically called L.A., this tumor I insist is benign, my glasses are tinted with an immigrant's optimism. Perhaps having not known Eden, I have no regrets for the Fall. But at this moment when L.A. is the most observed and influential city on the planet, the most necessary, I can't imagine living anywhere else.

But then, thanks to Diebenkorn, another immigrant to L.A., I know I am living in poetic moments.


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