San Francisco Museum of Modern Art | March 11 – May 29, 2017
Baltimore Museum of Art | October 23, 2016 – January 29, 2017
The recent Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) features a Matisse painting of Notre-Dame next to a California landscape by Richard Diebenkorn, with a river of dark asphalt leading to a hill where a pair of white suburban houses echo the French cathedral’s towers. The similarity in composition is as striking as the contrast between the blunt California light and the refined, luminous grays of Paris. Matisse/Diebenkorn, with some fifty paintings and drawings by both artists, cultivates this sort of binocular vision. Just as Matisse once commented that he was fascinated by window views because they allowed distant things to share the space of objects in his studio, the relationship between these two artists rests on surprising connections across space and time.
These connections begin with Diebenkorn’s first encounter with Matisse’s works as a student, on a 1943 visit to the Palo Alto home of Sarah Stein, who had known and studied with Matisse in Paris before the First World War, and whose collection included the famous portrait of Mme. Matisse that scandalized Parisian audiences in 1905 (now owned by SFMOMA, it’s paired in the show with Diebenkorn’s Seated Figure with a Hat from 1967). Itself a bi-coastal collaboration between Katherine Rothkopf at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Janet Bishop at SFMOMA, the show traces Diebenkorn’s further encounters with Matisse’s work, from Los Angeles and Washington to the Soviet Union, even including Diebenkorn’s well-worn collection of books on Matisse—the “museum without walls” that sustained this long-distance relationship. The curators punctuate a chronological presentation of Diebenkorn’s development with masterpieces by Matisse like Studio at Quai Saint-Michel (1916), which Diebenkorn considered canonical, while interspersing other Matisse paintings to reinforce their suggestions of the French artist’s influence. Some connections are open to debate—we can’t be sure that Diebenkorn was thinking of the blue striped shirt of Matisse’s Blue Eyes (1934) when he used a similar pattern on a dress, but we’re convinced that both artists were keenly attuned to such details, and the virtue of such comparisons is to bring viewers into contact with the paintings at the same intimate level. Yet the show does more than enumerate art historical borrowings; more daring juxtapositions, as of Matisse’s figure paintings and still-lifes to Diebenkorn’s abstractions, inspire fresh scrutiny of works that might not normally be seen together. While the curators focus on borrowings of color combinations and compositional motifs, these only raise intriguing, deeper questions about the creative process—about how Diebenkorn translated European modernism into an American vernacular, tenaciously negotiating the cross-currents of the American scene in pursuit of a European vision of order and sensuality.
As the catalogue explains, Diebenkorn forged strong allegiances to sources in American art and popular culture before fully responding to Matisse’s influence; the teacher who introduced him to Sarah Stein was in fact a disciple of Edward Hopper, and it was the example of Hopper’s hard-won, vernacular images that guided Diebenkorn’s early engagement with the harsh literalism of the American scene, which was often hostile to modernism. Hopper himself painted on site in Paris from 1906 to 1909 but apparently took little note of Matisse or Picasso, as though viewing modernism as a party to which he was not invited. Poet William Carlos Williams (“No ideas but in things”) enjoined American artists to learn to see their local surroundings without recourse to European conventions, to overcome the emotional alienation imposed by a Puritan heritage suspicious of nature. If Puritanism held little sway over the cosmopolitan cultural scene of San Francisco, where Diebenkorn adopted the progressive style of Abstract Expressionism, his later figures, isolated with their drinks in front of abstracted spaces, still respond more to Hopper’s undertones of loneliness than to Matisse’s Joy of Life (1905–06)(for which a study would also have been on view at the Steins’).
Whether or not he was aware of Williams’s injunction, Diebenkorn moved to New Mexico for graduate study in 1950, into an American landscape whose mythic space inspired artists from Marsden Hartley to Agnes Martin, and which released an exuberant exploration of new American sources. Although isolated from centers of contemporary art, Diebenkorn was aware of Willem de Kooning’s ongoing combinations of figural and popular imagery in his stream-of-consciousness gestural process. Inspired by the loosening of conventional categories of realism and abstraction, he drew on the influence of aerial photography and on the vernacular Western imagery of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (1913–1944) to establish within his paintings an exuberant, improvisatory space, an all-over field that prepared him for deeper involvement with Matisse.
Matisse had worked his own way into abstraction through color, from perceptual studies based on Cézanne to the pointillism of Signac, immersing his subjects in luminous space, from which boldly simplified color compositions like The Blue Window (1913) were to emerge. Diebenkorn responded strongly to Matisse’s thorough re-working of his paintings, partaking in a process that favors emerging forms rather than descriptive depiction. The swatches of color and layered compartments that structure compositions like Urbana #6 (1953) are indebted to Matisse’s synthetic construction with broad planes. Where Matisse leavens his compositions with decorative patterns, Diebenkorn relies on biomorphic, gestural forms akin to Arshile Gorky’s. While neither expressed much interest in surrealism, Diebenkorn’s automatism and Matisse’s fields of color both find in art a sense of dreamlike suspension.
If abstract transcendence can be seen as merely the flip side of alienation from the local, we can understand how Diebenkorn, following David Park and other Bay Area artists, might view Abstract Expressionism as a “straightjacket” and find liberation in a return to everyday landscapes like Chabot Valley (1955), and the isolated reverie of Hopper’s figures. Connections to Matisse, of course, are abundant and obvious in the inhabited spaces of Diebenkorn’s figurative work, especially in the strong collection of drawings on view; both artists loved to draw, and Diebenkorn, like Matisse, had a great feeling for grays, even if he worried over his lack of the French artist’s long cultivation of the figure. His women sometimes sacrifice anatomical articulation for the “all-over power” he sought in his compartmentalized compositions, but they frankly assert their presence as people.
Just as Matisse moved south to Nice in later life, Diebenkorn moved to Santa Monica in 1966. Once there, though, he paid less attention to the patterned interiors of Matisse’s Nice period, which hark back to Vuillard, than to earlier, structured compositions like The Piano Lesson (1916). Wayne Thiebaud, another American painter who combines vernacular realism with European sophistication (and an interesting candidate for another dual show) was close to Diebenkorn in his Santa Monica years and recalls him envisioning the Ocean Park paintings he created there as a synthesis of Matisse and Mondrian—an ultimate dream of order. Yet in Diebenkorn there’s nothing of Mondrian’s idealized denial of the body. Indeed, the emptiness of these architectural compositions seems fully inhabited, lending new resonance to the famous comment of Sarah Stein’s sister-in-law, Gertrude, about her Oakland home, that “there’s no there there.” Their spaces breathe, embodying Diebenkorn’s devotion to the local in pursuit of European ideals.
HEARNE PARDEE is a painter based in New York and Northern California.