Although Henri Matisse (1869-1954) still had a decade to live when Richard Diebenkorn first glimpsed his art as a Stanford undergraduate the two men never met, so the influence flowed in only one direction: towards Diebenkorn (1922-1993). An assiduous student, and ardent observer, Diebenkorn absorbed the aesthetic and intellectual emanations of Matisse’s works by scrutinizing them in private collections, public exhibitions and in books. The Bay Area artist didn’t always respond immediately, but rather let the French artist’s ideas, methods and sensibilities seep into his own work via a kind of osmosis. Currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Matisse/Diebenkorn, features 100 paintings and drawings—40 works by Matisse and 60 by Diebenkorn—that collectively chart the influence of the revered French Modernist Henri Matisse on an American artist born more than a half-century later.
Diebenkorn’s various exposures to Matisse—as scrupulously documented in a catalog essay by SFMOMA curator Janet Bishop—began with a 1943 lunch at the Palo Alto home of Sarah Stein, arranged by Stanford art professor Daniel Mendelowitz, who during one of his lectures had lamely defended a Matisse painting as “a nicely patterned necktie.” Diebenkorn came away with impressions of a variety of Matisse paintings, likely including the Fauvist masterpiece Woman with a Hat (1905), a key work from the SFMOMA permanent collection that is included in the show. However, it would be nine years until Diebenkorn saw Matisse’s full-scale retrospective in while on vacation in Los Angeles in 1952, and during the intervening years a range of other influences—from Surrealism and the likes of Joan Miró to Edward Hopper to Willem de Kooning—would inform his work. Like all of the modern artists in his circle—with the notable exception of his close friend David Park—Diebenkorn entered the 1950s as an Abstract Expressionist.
The earliest demonstrable influence of Matisse on the younger artist occurred after viewing the 1952 retrospective, exemplified here by the pairing of Diebenkorn’s 1953 painting, Urbana #5 (Beach Town) with Matisse’s Interior at Nice (1919). Urbana #5 (Beach Town) offers an escape from the artist’s dissatisfaction with his recently acquired job in Urbana, Illinois, and the surrounding landscape. Diebenkorn painted a kind of abstract Mediterranean fantasy, featuring a Matissean palette and firm geometries applied to breathing areas of glowing color. The freshness and refinement of Matisse’s Interior, which Diebenkorn had just seen in Los Angeles, had made an impression. So had one of Matisse’s characteristic projects: the depiction of feminine presence framed by luxurious calm.
In the mid-1950s, as Diebenkorn added representation to his repertoire—initially in the form of modest landscapes and still-lifes of familiar objects—Matisse’s influence grew. Throughout, Diebenkorn’s wife Phyllis was his constant muse, sitting in innumerable chairs, sipping coffee, often reading patiently on porches or in rooms where cantilevered glimpses of ocean and sky did their pictorial duties. Perhaps she quietly cursed Matisse for her job as a muse, but likely not. By the time the Ocean Park paintings came along Phyllis Diebenkorn had appeared in a shifting array of poses and situations that situated her as the calm center of a dynamic, semi-abstract world.
One of the highlights of “Matisse/Diebenkorn” is a room of drawings by both artists in which their overlapping approaches to drawing female models are pleasingly apparent. Both men used the presence of women in their art to generate erotic interest that could be refined and into formal inventiveness. Both were cultured, introverted men whose art tended to say more about their own states of mind—and their artistic processes—than the psychology of their sitters. Perhaps it was this inclination that ultimately led Diebenkorn to abstract his work further, obscuring and sublimating recognizable subjects and instead manipulating formal elements to generate an atmosphere suffused with private memories and reveries.
“Matisse/Diebenkorn” leans towards Diebenkorn—at least in terms of numbers—especially in the final room where a selection of his glowing Ocean Park paintings are on view. Clearly, the combination of atmosphere and geometry these paintings present has a connection to some of Matisse’s more experimental canvases such as his 1914 View of Notre Dame. Because of the physical limitations that kept him in bad and wheelchairs in his later years, Matisse famously refined his art mainly through “cut-outs” that worked with bold flat colors and rhythmic cut edges. Diebenkorn, on the other hand, was healthy in late-middle age, and was able to expand the scale of his canvases, which sometimes exceeded eight feet in height. It’s likely true that no artist ever refined the figure to its essence more completely than Matisse, but it’s also fair to say that no painter ever made a large surface breathe as well as Diebenkorn.
After seeing “Matisse/Diebenkorn” one may come away feeling that the Ocean Park paintings are, in some respect, a series that Diebenkorn took on to extend some of Matisse’s ideas into the future: although they were painted in Santa Monica, the Ocean Park series have their deepest roots in Matisse’s paintings of the Mediterranean. Matisse and Diebenkorn both used their art to selectively engage the world: to refine it into a kind of lovely submission. Painting is a cultured man’s way of coping, something that Diebenkorn learned from Matisse. He learned it entirely by looking—very, very carefully—and by doing so he answered a question that an elderly Matisse had once posed to his friend Picasso: “And in a generation or two, who among painters will still carry a part of us in his heart, as we do Manet and Cezanne?”
“Matisse/Diebenkorn” will remain on view at SFMOMA through May 29, 2017.