Art is ineffable. It can engender love and turn on a light in your heart. It can make you come alive, and when it does, you never forget it. Most of us first encounter art in reproduction – in books, on postcards, online, as posters or through the media. So when we are confronted with the full force of the real thing, the actual work, like seeing an old love, almost takes the breath away. Such is the effect of the stunningly beautiful, and moving, Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition at SFMOMA.
This inspired exhibition of 100 paintings and drawings provides the extraordinary opportunity to contrast and compare, side by side, the work of Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), who deeply influenced Diebenkorn throughout his acclaimed career. The show is organized along the spine of Diebenkorn’s creative trajectory, from early abstraction, to figuration, to the radiant Ocean Park paintings. Owing to the scholarship and research of curators Janet Bishop and Katherine Rothkopf, the thoughtful pairing of works is informed, often brilliant.
We see the orange bedspread in Matisse’s “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel,” 1916 reconfigured 37 years later into a horizontal plank in Diebenkorn’s “Urbana #4.” Like call and response, we see how a pensive model seated in an upholstered chair in a1963 Diebenkorn drawing could be the same model, rearranged, in Matisse’s 1923 chalk drawing of a woman reclining on a chaise. But more than finding corresponding stylistic tendencies between these two artists, the curators give us the opportunity to see how Matisse’s searching attitude toward drawing shaped Diebenkorn’s, how their shared observational rigor defined their voices, and how Matisse’s mutable, interlocking compositions provided the scaffolding upon which Diebenkorn built what are arguably some of the greatest architectural abstractions of the 20th century. The exhibition is a living, breathing story of art history, of how the language of drawing and painting builds upon itself, and how the story remains alive and evergreen.
Although their lives overlapped, Diebenkorn and Matisse never met. Diebenkorn’s first encounter with Matisse’s work was as a student at Stanford. He was invited to the Palo Alto home of Gertrude Stein’s sister-in-law, Sarah Stein, to see more than a 100 works by the French master. His connection was visceral and to the core. As Diebenkorn’s life took its turns, so did his efforts to seek out works of Matisse – from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., to the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, to exhibitions in Leningrad and Los Angeles.
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The exhibition astutely focuses only on Matisse’s work that Diebenkorn actually saw, enabling us to see not only what he saw, but also how he internalized it in the development of his own work. American abstract expressionists were asserting notions of power and toughness over European concepts of beauty and taste. The best of Diebenkorn is an alloy of both.
“Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965, makes an overt reference to Matisse’s “Red Room (Harmony in Red),” 1908. In Diebenkorn’s painting the square of arabesque motifs echos the decorative allover curvilinear scrolls of Matisse’s “Red Room.” Yet Diebenkorn’s painting possesses a murky palette and sectional architecture that is indelibly his and points to the lean geometry of his Ocean Park paintings to come.
In assessing Diebenkorn’s work, it becomes abundantly clear how spatially radical Matisse’s work was and may even still be. Composed of four bands of flat color, “French Window at Collioure,” 1914, is an utterly minimal exploration of interior/exterior light and space. It would be a mistake to fold Matisse away with the mothballs of history, for he is still unrelentingly, unflinchingly out there.
The exhibition ends with Diebenkorn’s great Ocean Park paintings. Vast fields of color are scarred with lines that delineate space and excavate depth. “Ocean Park #122,” 1980, stacks chalky bands of white, Naple’s yellow and orange that sink, then float and then evaporate into translucent emanations of light and breath and the Southern California sky. Like Matisse, he has winnowed out the excess, stripping his work to its abiding heart.
Painting by Heart: Matisse/Diebenkorn
When: Through Monday, May 29; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays-Tuesdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; closed Wednesdays
Where: SFMOMA, 151 Third St., San Francisco
Cost: Tickets required for timed admission to the exhibit; $19-$25; free for members and those 18 and under
Information: 415-357-4000; www.sfmoma.org