“Matisse/Diebenkorn” draws lines from California painter Richard Diebenkorn to his lifelong study of Matisse

I’ve never been to California, but the light and colors in Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings offer a glimpse of it. A frantic, sunny chaos permeates his Berkeley paintings, and the coastal colors in his landlocked Urbana paintings feel less real, more simulated and remembered. And then there are his roads—whether or not they’re literal roads, or abstracted lines that zip and wind through many of his works. 

“Matisse/Diebenkorn,” at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Jan. 29, follows Diebenkorn’s paths as a painter, while also tracking his self-taught scholarship of Henri Matisse. Co-curators Katherine Rothkopf (the BMA’s Senior Curator of European Painting and Sculpture) and Janet Bishop (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Thomas Weisel Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture) pair the younger artist’s work with many of the elder artist’s paintings that he would have sought out in person or studied in books throughout his life. Featuring over 90 paintings and drawings by the two artists from both the BMA and SFMOMA’s collections, as well as various collections all over the world, “Matisse/Diebenkorn” pokes holes in the ideas of “originality” and singular male genius.

Diebenkorn’s artistic career ran the gamut from non-objective abstraction, back to figuration and still life, and then again back to abstraction, but many of these boundaries were fuzzy. Though of course Diebenkorn looked to other artists (it’s easy to pick up an Edward Hopper or a Willem de Kooning reference here and there), no one gave him as much inspiration over the years as Matisse, whose work he was first introduced to at the home of collector Sarah Stein (sister-in-law to Gertrude and Leo) while he was an undergrad student at Stanford University. They never met in person, but Diebenkorn’s obsession with Matisse was well-documented, and his relationship to the French painter was one of continuous study, immersion, and absorption.

Back to those roads. Somewhere in the middle of the exhibit, between Diebenkorn’s bright and articulate residential landscapes, ‘Cityscape #1’ and ‘Ingleside’ which both feature wide and curving paved streets cutting through, is the much smaller painting ‘Notre Dame, a Late Afternoon’ (1902) by Matisse. It’s a hazy, warm purple and blue high-up view of the famous cathedral and the Seine River, with indistinct people traversing the walkways next to it, and crossing the bridge over it. Here, the painting’s soft touch and cool colors contrast sharply with its neighboring Diebenkorns—it’s disorienting to the eyes, like trying to adjust to a dark room after being out in the sun. Where Matisse often employs line to emphasize forms and figures, we don’t find that here. And after making our way through some of Diebenkorn’s earlier work, getting used to his emphasis on designing and flattening space, or his jumbled and anxious piles of abstract shapes, here we see a more calculated exaggeration of depth and space, where the hills of San Francisco are almost caricatured. It’s an interesting play or reversal between what we’re used to seeing from the two artists.

Several works included in this exhibition reflect an anxious melancholy, like Diebenkorn’s ‘View from the Porch’ (1959), a large, almost square painting that straddles traditional landscape and smooshy abstraction, a lush and sunny view of fields and hills and a big blue sky. A post bisects the painting vertically, while dark, rectangular blocks of color disrupt the green fields, bringing your eye down, step by step, to the lower right corner of the painting. Beneath the black, blue, and gray-green steps is a fiery red underpainting that’s also echoed further back in the landscape, under the swaths of angry green. And that sky, a harmonious blue-gray, is feathered by frantic brushstrokes; something about it feels exactly at the edge of a sudden downpour.

On the neighboring wall, Matisse’s ‘The Blue Window’ (1913) hangs with its cool, modernist, blue interior/exterior; we see through large window panes (or, a disappeared wall) that the sky and bulbous trees are similar hues to the interior, making them feel like part of the same continuous space. Pops of orange vases, a portrait bust, a rug or a bowl—ordinary objects that seem special simply because of their careful placement—enliven the room. Next to this is Diebenkorn’s ‘Man and Woman in a Large Room’ (1957)—a painting of two faceless people surrounded by an overwhelming dark space, with a few bright spots in the three windows and a doorway. Like Matisse, Diebenkorn here ruptures the whole mood of the painting, bringing the outside to the inside, flattening planes and putting everything on the same level, creating a foreboding tension between the figures and the space they occupy. 

There are many moments like these—this dance of anxiety, from one piece to the next—throughout the exhibition, a thoroughly immersive and impressive show that was 15 years in the making (the show travels to SFMOMA in March).

The Matisse paintings on display here are works that Diebenkorn would have seen in real life—such as in the Stein home, or at retrospectives in 1952 and 1966 in Los Angeles and New York, or on a visit to the BMA’s Cone Collection, or as an artist representative on a 1963 trip to the USSR as part of a “cultural exchange initiative” by President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev—or as color and black-and-white reproductions in the many Matisse catalogues and books that Diebenkorn read and collected throughout his life. Many of these books are on display under glass cases in this show. At times the pairings are obvious, like wrought iron arabesque grates in a Matisse painting that Diebenkorn nearly copies. But some are more subtle, like the power-clash of fabric patterns that appear in Matisse’s ‘Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard’ (1928), which Diebenkorn may have referenced with an unusual polka dot/swiss cheese pattern that functions as a window into the rest of the messy, abstract composition in ‘Berkeley #58’ (which also seems to reference Matisse’s Notre Dame compositions). But throughout the show, it’s rarely a one-to-one translation or comparison; it’s more about a pervasive and lasting effect of one artist’s longtime study of another.

There are several moments as you travel from room to room where the painters align or overlap in ways that feel particularly profound, even if they also feel obvious. Diebenkorn’s ‘Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad’ (1965) uses a curlicue floral pattern that could be a reference to Matisse’s ‘The Red Room’ (1908) which Diebenkorn would have seen on that visit (and which is not included in this exhibition), and the painting—whose space is both landscape/interior and abstracted planes of color—seems like a crucial step in Diebenkorn’s move back toward abstraction from his previous rehashing of figurative work.

In the next room, Matisse’s ‘Goldfish and Palette’ (1914), a fractured and scraped-at, flattened still life with dark, drawn, curving wrought iron gates, sits next to Diebenkorn’s ‘Window’ (1967), which seems to grow out of its neighbor with a similarly curving structure on the painting’s left side. It’s a stark view, from a window or balcony, out onto blocky buildings and one large, oblong, Pink Pearl eraser-colored swath of a rooftop or wall (which also recalls Matisse’s ‘Large Reclining Nude’; more on that in a minute).

There’s so much back-and-forth within Matisse’s ‘Goldfish and Palette,’ rethinking and revision that remains apparent, that makes me wonder why “overworking” a painting is such a sin—where would this be if he hadn’t pushed it over the edge and tried to cover it up? Nearby, the bright yellow background in Diebenkorn’s large ‘Seated Figure with Hat’ (1967) screams at its viewer (“look at how hard I am working!”), his hasty, ground-covering yellow brushstrokes zigzagging around and contrasting with the placid profile of the resting woman, whose face is hidden by her hat’s wide brim.

In the final room, which showcases Diebenkorn’s most famous body of work, his “Ocean Park” series, a sensitive suite of three paintings contrasts the rest of the room’s hard geometry and frank forms. On the left, Matisse’s ‘Seated Pink Nude’ (1935-36) is an ethereal, ghostly figure whose pink and white body appears to be melting out of her thin, swooping black outlines, leaning on a teal and violet seat. Diebenkorn’s ‘Ocean Park #6’ (1968) has a similar palette, but the figure has been erased, reduced to faint, organic curves and lines. And then it’s Matisse’s ‘Large Reclining Nude’ (1935), that Pink Pearl eraser-colored bathing beauty, held loosely in place on that canvas by bold colors and thick, graphic lines and surrounding grids. Where the paint in the first two feels tentative and limp, the third feels so loud and real. The trio also harkens back to some of the earlier Berkeley paintings in the exhibit’s first room—which appear somewhat gummy and bodily, like the insides of mouths.

The “Ocean Park” paintings are often huge, contemplative, geometric abstractions that Diebenkorn made while residing in the Santa Monica neighborhood. Here, echoing the ‘Notre Dame, a Late Afternoon’ from a few rooms back is Matisse’s 1914 ‘View of Notre Dame,’ a further abstraction of the view in the earlier painting, this time done in scumbled blue tones, with singular black lines and arcs indicating the bridge over the river, the perspective of the river and walkway, and the edge of the window or wherever the artist looked out from. The cathedral appears as a proto-Brutalist edifice, half-filled in with blue, its two peaks scratched in and blunted. To the left is Diebenkorn’s ‘Ocean Park #54’ (1972), an enormous canvas composed of soft, whited-out strips of green, blue, and purple rectangular forms, whose shapes get incrementally smaller as your eye travels diagonally to the top right corner, where it stops at a Matissean blue square. Though neither artist was on his deathbed while making these, these paintings feel close to death, weirdly sublime.

Perhaps the most striking or surprising comparison is right near the exit. Matisse’s 1914 ‘French Window at Collioure’—with its daunting rectangular void (which I read as the window) right in the middle, with four horizontal brush strokes creeping out towards the blue wall, its right side an angular grey, then a green wall—is one of the most abstract pieces I’ve seen of his, and it fits right in with ‘Ocean Park #105’ (which pops with greens, blues, yellows and reds) and #94 that loom on either side of it. ‘Ocean Park #94’ feels at once like an architectural blueprint, a well-trod section of cement, and a view of some body of water from inside a cold warehouse studio. The BMA’s curator Rothkopf notes in her essay in the exhibition’s catalogue that the incomplete ‘French Window’ has been considered by some scholars to be Diebenkorn’s impetus for his “Ocean Park” paintings, but that that’s a faulty notion; none of his series can be traced back to any singular work by Matisse. After touring the exhibition—finding wallpaper patterns in one and brushstrokes that mimic them in the other’s painting in another room, or staring into a small pink or blue abyss and then forgetting who it belongs to—that rings true.

“Matisse/Diebenkorn” is up at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Jan. 29, with extended hours: Viewers can see it until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and beginning at 10 a.m. on weekends. There will be a curatorial talk with Katy Rothkopf on Jan. 12 from 7-8 p.m. For more info, visit the BMA's website.

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