The exhibition Matisse/Diebenkorn, co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and The Baltimore Museum of Art, is an excellent examination of two brilliant artists and shows the extent of how a single artist’s admiration of another can live through works produced years after their deaths. Although there are more paintings and drawings of Richard Diebenkorn’s showcased than of Henri Matisse’s (60 to 40), Matisse enters each piece of work due to the way Diebenkorn held the great French master in a very high regard.
In 1943, at the age of 21, Diebenkorn encountered works by then 75-year-old Matisse for the first time while visiting the Palo Alto home of Sarah Stein, an important early supporter of the French artist. A decade later Alfred H. Barr, the founder of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, organized a Matisse retrospective in LA, the show that led Diebenkorn to fully absorb Matisse’s approach to painting. While abstract expressionism ruled the art scene when Diebenkorn moved back to the Bay Area in 1953, Matisse’s paintings inspired him to add certain elements to his own work, such as unusual color combinations and compositions organized through distinctive passages.
1955 began the 12-year interval in Diebenkorn’s career that later would be known as his Bay Area Figurative Period. Diebenkorn shifted his focus to subjects of daily life, catching many by surprise; the sudden nature of his switch to representation coincided with Matisse’s death in 1954.
Matisse never fully fades from Diebenkorn’s overall work. A commonality between the two artists was the female figure as a central subject painted in ‘quiet moments’. Attention to the female form was further exemplified through ink, charcoal, and watercolor drawings –both of them enjoyed working directly with a model as a means to experiment for future paintings. A small room off of the exhibition’s main path contains an exquisite collection of these drawings, leveling Matisse and Diebenkorn as equals in this medium.
Matisse’s influence slowly began to infiltrate Diebenkorn’s works once more as his Figurative Period came to its close –Diebenkorn turned to elements in his workspace, highlighting his own work and furnishings, with reminiscences of some of Matisse’s studio scenes from the 1910s.
Diebenkorn used Matisse’s compositional characteristics as a guideline for his own vision: the foreground does not overshadow the background or vice versa –they are treated as equally important to the overall scene; the perspective creates the illusion of being within an interior space with a view of the outdoors; and geometric structures are emphasized (a throwback to organizing the composition based on distinctive features in the Berkeley series).
Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series (1967-88) was the result of a combination of two major events that he experienced in the 1960s: his trip to Russia (back then the Soviet Union) in 1964, and the 1966 LA exhibition Henri Matisse: Retrospective. Diebenkorn took cues from the works he encountered in Russia –such as the large scale compositions and the use of Matisse-esque decorative patterns and flourishes– while exemplifying the ability to adapt what he observed for his own means.
The Ocean Park series is Diebenkorn’s most sustained body of work, in which he returned to abstraction with the same suddenness of his technical switch in 1955. As in his Bay Area Figurative Period, where he wrestled with trying to incorporate his love and knowledge of abstraction, this series bears vestiges of his figurative work. In this area of the exhibition, Matisse’s 1947 ‘Two Girls, Red and Green Background’ offers a bolder palette with broad areas of color and shape, a recurring theme in Diebenkorn’s incorporation of Matisse’s style that resonates with the compositional strategies in his late abstractions of Ocean Park.
Although Diebenkorn made it clear Matisse’s techniques were merely incorporated and adjusted to fit his own work, he left his legacy in the form of a love letter to Matisse. What started with Matisse’s transference onto Diebenkorn’s work has continued to live on through artists of our time. Along with paintings and drawings, books on Matisse from Diebenkorn’s personal library are showcased throughout the rooms, clearly well-read in the never-ending study of Matisse’s work undertook by the American painter. The impact Matisse had on just a single young artist creates a link to his work that lives on today, 63 years after his death.
Matisse/Diebenkorn is open until May 29, 2017 on the 4th floor at SFMOMA. Tickets are available here. If you’re in the Bay Area be sure to plan a trip and see how Diebenkorn translated his home onto the canvas!