Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 3, 2018
Janet Bishop and Katherine Rothkopf, eds. Matisse/Diebenkorn Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2016. 184 pp.; 120 color ills.; 14 b/w ills. Hardcover $49.95 (9783791355344)
Baltimore Museum of Art, October 23, 2016–January 29, 2017; SFMOMA, March 11–May 29, 2017

Installation view, Matisse/Diebenkorn, Baltimore Museum of Art, October 23, 2016–January 29, 2017 (photograph © Mitro Hood)

An ambitious exhibition, Matisse/Diebenkorn delivers on its goal to delineate the influence of Henri Matisse (1869–1954) on Richard Diebenkorn (1922–93), showing a remarkably significant number of parallels between two modern, avant-garde artists. However, it does much more, and not only in its review of Diebenkorn: it also provides a nuanced consideration of the concept of influence, thereby making a significant contribution to the field of American art, as well as comparative museum display. Co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Matisse/Diebenkorn is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated, scholarly catalogue. Edited by Janet Bishop and Katherine Rothkopf, who also wrote essays for the catalogue, additional contributors include John Elderfield, Jodi Roberts, and Jared Ledesma.

Matisse/Diebenkorn marks a turning point in the presentation of Diebenkorn, tracing the influence of Matisse on the American artist and Diebenkorn’s use of that influence to forge his uniquely individual style. The presentation—broad but detailed, general but focused, public but intimate—equally encourages grand connections and quiet observations. This exploration takes the visitor on a visual tour of influence through five large galleries (as the exhibition was installed in Baltimore) filled with more than thirty paintings and drawings by Matisse and more than sixty by Diebenkorn. The show is comprehensive and illuminating, and inherently invites multiple visits to thoroughly consider its many connections. 

In the first gallery, the visitor is met with Diebenkorn’s Urbana #4 (1953), a large, colorful, though not bright, work reminiscent of many early paintings by Willem de Kooning; however, when viewed next to Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel (1916), with a nude, reclining figure, an obscure parallel becomes apparent. The placement of these two paintings, side-by-side, immediately indicates this is a show in which the visitor needs to look carefully, evaluate, and look again. In this particular case, the horizontal, gray abstracted area in the foreground of the work by Diebenkorn juxtaposes nicely with Matisse’s horizontal nude, in orientation, palette, and placement on the canvas. The upper sections of both pieces overlap as well; not only are they abstracted, but most of the square areas of dulled pinks that are placed in similar locations in each picture form a compelling visual connection. This comparison is strong, and an excellent visual introduction to an exhibition that encourages true engagement with the works on display. 

Diebenkorn was not only looking closely at Matisse’s paintings and drawings, but also reading and thinking deeply about his work. He amassed a small library of books on Matisse, examples of which are included in the exhibition. Alfred Barr’s Matisse, His Art and His Public (1951) affords an appropriate reference: just as Diebenkorn became a member of Matisse’s “public,” so are we, too, now part of Diebenkorn’s.

The next gallery illustrates Diebenkorn’s move away from abstraction. The room is essentially split in two—one side displaying mostly objects integrated into pictures, and the other, the figure. Examples of the latter forms show palettes strongly aligned between Diebenkorn and Matisse, with rich coloration in the works; a particularly interesting comparison underscoring this connection is that between Diebenkorn’s Man and Woman in a Large Room (1957) and Matisse’s The Blue Window (1913). Several works explore the subject of nudes and mark a distinct though nuanced difference in sensibility between Matisse’s and Diebenkorn’s artistic output; Matisse’s interest in the subject is emphasized by his Nude with a White Scarf (1909), which exudes sensuality through concealed references, while Diebenkorn’s nude works appear photographic in nature and include more overt references.

The third gallery of the exhibition is split into several viewing spaces concentrating on different themes. The first is titled “Still-life Compositions” and is immediately followed by “Interiors and Landscapes.” Viewers encounter a stunning comparison between Matisse (Interior, Flowers, and Parakeets, 1924) and a very large Diebenkorn (Girl with Plant, 1960). Matisse’s work here appears much more ornate, from the gilded, heavily decorated frame to the flowers and soft, veiled effect of the painting. Diebenkorn, by contrast, imbues his elegant work with mystery—of a woman with her back to us, only providing a slight glimpse of a right profile—as well as a decadence. The elegant, sumptuously painted flower plant with its thick layers of paint and a hint of centrally placed bright red add drama to the work.

In another section of this gallery, the visitor reaches an area again split into sections—one with a focus on the figure, another with a central table displaying selections from Diebenkorn’s personal library of books on Matisse, and finally the prevailing force of the space: the theme of “Travel to the Soviet Union.” Diebenkorn’s massive painting Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965) dominates the gallery not only by sheer size, but also with its fully saturated color. Here, the curators present Diebenkorn alone, with a smaller Matisse nearby only for comparative purposes, emphasizing that while the force of Matisse’s influence stayed with Diebenkorn throughout his career, indeed Diebenkorn’s outlook was varied and broad, and his output prolific.

The fourth gallery highlights Diebenkorn’s “Leaving Berkeley for Santa Monica.” While this space is filled with additional examples of Diebenkorn’s Matisse library, along with nude drawings by both artists in charcoal and conté crayon, the main attraction is Diebenkorn’s large, brightly colored yellow painting Seated Figure with Hat (1967). As if marking its significance by the use of a stanchion, the viewer is now prepared to better understand the importance of Diebenkorn as an influential artist in his own right. This confident work marks a high point in the artist’s career.

The pinnacle of the show, the final gallery is dominated by Diebenkorn’s abstracted and breezy Ocean Park Series. Also included here is Matisse’s famed Seated Pink Nude (1935–36). This juxtaposition is perhaps the most interesting and thought provoking of the entire show. A fitting comparison, yet one not readily evident, it marks a fascinating source of inspiration for this style of abstraction by Diebenkorn. Matisse’s line, palette, sensibility, the emulated quietness—all are components Diebenkorn integrated in many of his abstracted works. Next to Seated Pink Nude is Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #6 (1968); the curves of the nude in Matisse’s work almost reverberate in Diebenkorn’s lines. As if this fascinating comparison is not enough, the curators treat visitors to another key Matisse painting on the other side of Diebenkorn’s. Matisse’s legendary Large Reclining Nude (1935) is an excellent comparative choice, and a rare opportunity to see the work in this setting. This parallel is one that challenges the viewer to look closely and ponder the works and connections, observing the comparative nuances.

A final comparison hangs on one of the last walls in the exhibition: Matisse’s small but seminal French Window at Collioure (1914) next to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #94 (1976). The resulting dialogue is fascinating: simplified, darker palettes and an airy sensibility. This pair is in direct conversation, yet still brilliantly references the show’s opening Matisse/Diebenkorn juxtaposition. We end where we began—the circle of influence is clear, evocative, enthralling.

Mirroring the exhibition, the catalogue explores a range of intersections between Diebenkorn and Matisse, while providing extensive illustrations of the artists’ works. Tracing the trajectory of Diebenkorn’s interest in Matisse, the authors examine this influence from multiple perspectives, charting the course of Diebenkorn’s career against the backdrop of his knowledge and understanding of Matisse’s work. Thus, the reader—just like the exhibition goer—gains an appreciation for both artists in terms of their individual output as well as overlapping interests, with the catalogue thereby highlighting similarities and differences in how the artists interpreted art, influence, and the world in general. Utilizing such an approach, the authors take the reader on an interesting journey through Diebenkorn’s life and experiences, providing critical biographical information both through consideration of his broad, artistic outlook and his specific interest in Matisse’s work.

This powerful exhibition probes the notion of influence, showing the viewer a meaningful, nuanced approach to the concept. It makes abundantly clear that Diebenkorn took in every bit of Matisse’s influence, but only to the extent that it enabled him to form his own, completely new, individual, and expressive way of making art. The connection between the two artists was never extinguished, but the personal ingenuity of each shines through in Matisse/Diebenkorn. Deeply thought provoking, Matisse/Diebenkorn presents a refreshing challenge to viewers to look closely, draw connections, and of course ponder the very associations eloquently presented in the exhibition itself. 

Sybil E. Gohari
Independent scholar

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