Two Master Artists, Side by Side

by Sura Wood

SFMOMA’s new exhibition explores Henri Matisse’s influence on the work of Richard Diebenkorn.

Richard Diebenkorn was an undergraduate art student at Stanford University in 1943 when he visited the Palo Alto home of collectors Michael and Sarah Stein (brother and sister-in-law of Gertrude Stein). There, he had his first fateful encounter with the work of Henri Matisse; it was a moment that would change the course of his career. Matisse’s extensive impact on the younger artist is charted chronologically and vividly illustrated in “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” opening at SFMOMA this month. The show of about 100 artworks, displayed in 11 galleries—one of which is devoted to figure drawings by both artists—emphasizes Matisse’s influence on the arc of Diebenkorn’s development over four decades of painting, with 60 paintings and drawings by him and 40 or so by Matisse. Throughout the show, their works are paired or exhibited in small groupings, along with explanatory text.
“I do not think Diebenkorn would have been the same painter had he not encountered Matisse,” asserts exhibition co-curator Janet Bishop. “Diebenkorn’s interest in Matisse has long been documented in essays, articles and interviews, but this is the first time that people will be able to see the actual paintings side by side, first hand, in dialogue with one another.”

Although the two men, who never met, lived in different places and largely different times, they had much in common. Both were extraordinary painters and superb draughtsmen. They shared an affinity for bold, sublime color and an interest in the relationship between interior and exterior space and in composition—the way forms are structured and light is introduced on the canvas. With both, one can discern ample evidence of the artist’s hand in their creations; each deliberately left behind changes, revisions and mistakes that occurred on the way to completing a final work of art. In many instances, they also were drawn to similar subject matter: the artist studio, for instance, and women, their wives in particular. Take, for example, two works displayed next to each other: “Femme au chapeau” (Woman with a Hat), 1905, Matisse’s portrait of his wife, Amelie, a milliner, who gazes directly at the viewer, wearing an elaborate chapeau, and Diebenkorn’s “Seated Figure with Hat,”1967, which shows his wife, Phyllis, in profile, attired in casual blouse and skirt and sun hat, her figure set against an abstract, mustard-colored background.

In 1944, a year after his memorable luncheon with the Steins, Diebenkorn was stationed on the East Coast for military service. There he sought out Matisse’s work at various museums, including the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where he became enamored of “Studio, Quai-Michel,” 1916, a quintessential Matisse in which a nude lies on her side on a red floral bedspread with an easel nearby and a window looking out onto the streets of Paris. But it wasn’t until he attended a major Matisse retrospective in Los Angeles in 1952 that Diebenkorn began incorporating elements of the elder master’s approach in earnest. It was at that groundbreaking exhibition he saw “Interior at Nice”, 1919 or 1920, in which a woman, viewed through the half-open doors of an airy room, sits on a patio, waves breaking on the shore behind her. The bright palette, rectangular division of space and seaside theme of that work are reflected in the angular planes and sunny orange tones of Diebenkorn’s “Urbana No. 5 (Beach Town),” 1953. (He was living in the Midwest at the time, far removed from the coast, except in his memory and imagination.)

Matisse’s influence appears to have grown more pronounced as Diebenkorn moved from his roots in abstract expressionism, which he said had become “a stylistic straitjacket,” to figuration. (He was one of the founding members of the Bay Area Figurative movement, along with David Park and Elmer Bischoff.) In several works from this fertile representational period (1955-67), subjects are seated by themselves or with another person, sometimes in empty rooms, open doors and windows blending seamlessly with abstracted, improbable vistas and compressed horizons, such as in “Woman by the Ocean,” 1959, and “Woman on a Porch,” 1958; those paintings are exhibited alongside Matisse’s “The Blue Window,” 1913, in which it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the glassed-in, lush blue living room and the great outdoors. 

A pivotal trip, in 1964, to Russia’s Hermitage and Pushkin museums fueled the last of Diebenkorn’s Northern California figurative paintings and presaged the Ocean Park series he produced after relocating to Los Angeles in 1966 and returning to abstraction. In its kaleidoscopic merging of indoors and outdoors, with sea and sky evoked in azure and cerulean blue, and a prominent square of brightly colored flowered patterning seducing the eye, the glorious “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965, is a clear shout-out to Matisse. (The French artist was fascinated with wallpaper, opulent fabrics and fashion and reportedly kept a closet stocked with couture with which to dress his models.)

“Certainly [Diebenkorn’s] most explicit homage to Matisse was made after that trip to Russia,” explains Bishop. “But the impact of Matisse is really profound from the 1950s through the rest of his life. The exhibition shows not only the extent of Matisse’s influence, but how Diebenkorn was able to take what he saw in Matisse and make it his own. It has been really exciting to see Matisse through his eyes.”

Mar. 11 → May 29



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