Richard Diebenkorn had strong ties to Berkeley. But home-boy pride is only one compelling reason to see SFMOMA’s Matisse / Diebenkorn exhibition, a radiant, revelatory show, tracing the deep, life-long impact of French modernist artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) on a major American artist over 50 years his junior, whom he never met.
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) was a Bay Area native. Born and raised in San Francisco, he studied art at Stanford, UC Berkeley and the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). With a faculty that included Clyfford Still, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Diebenkorn himself, CSFA was a hub for Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 50s. Ab Ex was then the dominant U.S. painting style, and Diebenkorn’s early work was entirely in that mode.
That began to change in 1953, when Diebenkorn and his wife, Phyllis, moved (after a brief, unhappy sojourn in Urbana, Illinois) back to Berkeley, where they lived and raised their two children. Influenced by Berkeley-based artist friends, including Bischoff and Park — who, as renegades from the prevailing Ab Ex orthodoxy, were exploring representation in their paintings and in regular life-drawing sessions — Diebenkorn’s artistic practice shifted radically.
In Berkeley, Diebenkorn became a prominent exponent of the Bay Area figurative style. His prolific output of interiors opening onto the outdoors, seated female figures, landscapes, still lifes and quasi-abstract aerial views of East Bay terrain, suffused with nuanced Bay Area light and rich complex colors, were sumptuously displayed in Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, an exhibition organized by Timothy Burgard at the de Young Museum in 2013.
Diebenkorn’s move to Southern California in 1967 signaled another stylistic about-face. Living in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, and inspired by LA’s raking light and pastel colors, he embarked upon a flattened, geometric form of abstraction with his luminous signature works, the Ocean Park series.
In 1988, the Diebenkorns returned to the Bay Area and bought a house in Healdsburg, where he kept working despite ill health. Richard Diebenkorn died in Berkeley in 1993. His daughter and son still live here, and Berkeley is the locus of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.
As Matisse/Diebenkorn reveals, Diebenkorn’s obsession with Matisse persisted and evolved in tandem with each phase of his career. The exhibition pursues that central thread in Diebenkorn’s artistic trajectory. It’s also a curatorial tour de force. Conceived and co-organized by Janet Bishop, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, and Katy Rothkopf, Senior Curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, it assembles a breathtaking array of paintings and drawings by these artists — 40 by Matisse, 60 by Diebenkorn — from collections all over the world, that illuminates and enriches our understanding of, and appreciation for, them both.
Diebenkorn first saw Matisse’s works in person as a Stanford undergrad in 1943, when his art professor took him to the Palo Alto home of Sarah Stein. Sarah, wife of Michael Stein — who was brother to Gertrude and Leo Stein — had collected Matisse’s work when she lived in Paris. She owned more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and ceramics by Matisse, including his portraits of her — notably, the arresting, Fauvist Woman with a Hat (1905) — and she commissioned him to make portraits of both her and Michael in California. (Matisse visited the Bay Area in 1930.) These pieces — some of the major ones are now in SFMOMA’s collection — made an indelible impression on the young Diebenkorn. Like a newly hatched duckling, he seems to have imprinted on the first artistic kindred spirit he encountered. Matisse became his lifelong idol and exemplar.
Soon after that visit, as a newly married Marine stationed near Washington D.C. during World War II, Diebenkorn made frequent pilgrimages to see the Matisses in the Phillips Collection in D.C., and travelled to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to absorb their Matisse collections and exhibitions. According to art critic Phylis Tuchman, “At each institution, he continued to be enthralled by Matisse’s color combinations, sinuous lines, and flair for composition — and he was intrigued, too, by the former Fauve’s pentimenti, decorative flourishes, and downright awkwardness.”
The 1952 Matisse retrospective in Los Angeles, which Diebenkorn saw while visiting his LA in-laws, was an epiphany for him. “It absolutely turned my head around,” he said. In 1963, he accepted an arduous cultural exchange trip to Russia specifically to see the Matisses in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in Leningrad; while waiting for his visa in Paris, he used his time to view Matisses in the art museums there. He was deeply impressed by the internationally traveling Matisse retrospective when it came to UCLA’s Art Galleries in 1966.
Constructed almost like a legal brief, Matisse/Diebenkorn applies persuasive visual and biographical evidence to argue the case for Matisse’s artistic inspiration in every facet of technique, composition, medium and subject matter, and through every stylistic stage, of Diebenkorn’s practice. Their relationship is illustrated via brilliant pairings of similar — often uncannily similar — paintings and drawings by the two artists, following the chronology of Diebenkorn’s oeuvre (not Matisse’s). The side-by-side juxtapositions are startling in their resemblance to each other, even when one is figurative and the other abstract.
As the over-used and and variously attributed aphorism goes, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Diebenkorn’s works are not slavish copies, nor are they simple homages to the elder artist. Yet Diebenkorn clearly channeled and metabolized into his own compositions Matisse’s architectonic structures, geometries and flattened perspective, his interest in depicting homely interiors opening onto the outdoors, his preoccupation with the female figure, his experiments with landscapes and still lifes, his unorthodox use of color, his love of decorative motifs, his assertive clash of patterns and interlocking shapes, and his practice of leaving traces that deliberately reveal the trial-and-error process involved in arriving at the picture’s final form.
Like Matisse, Diebenkorn was very much his own artist with his own vision, of his own time and place. Where Matisse’s studio windows opened to the sun-drenched plage at Nice, the door of a Diebenkorn room opens out to a Berkeley gas station. Matisse’s sensuous, sinuous portraits of his female models convey tenderness and intimacy. Diebenkorn’s stiff depictions of female models (including his wife) often lack facial features and usually show them looking away from the viewer, rapt in their own inwardness. Matisse’s interiors burst with color, light, pattern and joie de vivre. Diebenkorn’s interiors are spare, dark and relatively bleak; they seem empty, even when cluttered with the artist’s work. The scattered flower petals in a small Matisse still life, reminiscent of both Chardin and Cézanne, delicately convey the entire tradition of the European memento mori. Diebenkorn’s wonderful still life of an overflowing ashtray may also metaphorically foreshadow death, but it alludes more directly to the early 20th-century American Ashcan (or Ashtray?) School of painting.
Like the world of Edward Hopper, whom Diebenkorn also admired, the latter’s world seems one of isolation, distance and detachment. His work describes an estranged state of being that would have been quite foreign to Matisse.
By the time you reach the final gallery in this show, you begin to wonder what kind of artist Diebenkorn might have been without Matisse’s influence. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you also wonder if Matisse would have been flattered by Diebenkorn’s adulation. Those questions aren’t answerable, but it’s fun to speculate.
Diebenkorn’s bromance with Matisse was, of necessity, unrequited. As everybody knows, the heartache of unrequited love may inspire great poetry. Hence this show.