Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965Oil on canvas,
Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, Berkeley, California.

“Matisse/Diebenkorn,” the current exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, frames the American painter Richard Diebenkorn as a stylistic descendant of Henri Matisse. The show’s comparison between the two is not a new one—viewers familiar with both Matisse and Diebenkorn have long been struck by their shared mastery of color structure and line. They were both “painter’s painters”: artists who rejoiced primarily in the medium of paint, who cared deeply about the tradition of that medium, and who privileged formal matters over conceptual postulation or literary narrative. The idea is to have the work speak for itself—to follow the dictum attributed to Edward Hopper: “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” The result is that Matisse and Diebenkorn share in saying a whole lot.

Despite their long-evident similarity, the BMA claims to be the first to connect these two artists in exhibition, bringing them together to directly demonstrate the influence of Matisse on Diebenkorn’s work. The exhibition, which runs through January 29, makes the point that Diebenkorn could not have happened without Matisse, and does so in a few ways. First, books on Matisse from Diebenkorn’s personal library are displayed throughout the galleries. But more broadly, the exhibition provides biographical information on Diebenkorn’s life as it pertains to his exposure to Matisse’s work. Important moments include Diebenkorn’s first sight of his predecessor’s work in the home of the Palo Alto collector Sarah Stein, his visits to Matisse retrospectives in Los Angeles in 1952 and 1966, and his 1964 tour of the Soviet Union, during which he saw paintings by the French artist in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Finally, and most importantly, the exhibition compares the two artists through its careful hangings of their works. Scattered among the larger and more assertive Diebenkorns are paintings and drawings by Matisse, carefully selected as works that Diebenkorn had specifically seen throughout his career.

Diebenkorn is increasingly recognized as one of the premier American painters of the twentieth century—his catalogue raisonné was just published last October by Yale University Press. His unfortunate characterization as a “west-coast painter,” however, along with the relative unavailability of his paintings in the Eastern United States, has somewhat inhibited public recognition of his work on a national level. The Baltimore curator Katy Rothkopf seems to have sensed this underexposure—in spirit, the exhibition feels like a retrospective of the Californian’s career. For the many fans who have long loved Diebenkorn’s work but have not had the chance to see more than a few of his paintings in person, the weighted balance of the exhibition in his direction was welcome. The BMA’s grand collection of his body of work is exhaustive and repeatedly breathtaking. 

The exhibition itself is broken up into three main stages: Diebenkorn’s early Abstract Expressionist “Berkeley” period, his bold turn towards figuration during the middle of his career from about 1955 to 1967, and finally the well known “Ocean Park Series.” Walking through this progression of his career, one can clearly see that Diebenkorn carried his knowledge from each period to the next. His figurative works show the confident brushstrokes and awareness of the paintings’ surfaces that he must have learned from intensive training in Abstract Expressionist composition, and the Ocean Park Series seems to have adopted the cleanliness of color that Diebenkorn developed during his representational phase. The exhibition’s collection of figure sketches by both Matisse and Diebenkorn demonstrates the importance of drawing in both artists’ work, and suggests that perhaps Matisse’s mastery of line and composition, more so than the Fauvist color that many mischaracterize as central to Matisse, had the greatest influence on Diebenkorn. In his figurative works, Diebenkorn’s mastery of illusory space through the language of abstraction, as well as his understanding of the subtlety of color, is on full display.

“Matisse/Diebenkorn” justly presents two painters of near-equal caliber, and is a must-see for anyone interested in the tradition of painting as it extends toward the end of the twentieth century. Further, the investigative parts of the exhibition that demonstrate Diebenkorn’s access to Matisse are a reminder of a pre-internet age in which visual materials and artistic information were not as available as they are today. With the instant access to an essentially infinite wealth of visual information that the internet provides, one can fairly assume that today’s serious artists have seen the work of their related predecessor. But it was not always so easy. “Matisse/Diebenkorn” notes that at the outset of Diebenkorn’s career, color printing was rare and relatively expensive. While the LED light of a computer screen can never fully mimic the power of a painting seen in person, the high-resolution, color-accurate reproductions available on the internet provide artists with far more useful visual information than the art publications of Diebenkorn’s age ever could.

As such, Diebenkorn’s fascination with Matisse—with paintings made fifty years earlier, and some earlier still—demonstrates the seriousness with which he approached his craft. Today, it is rare to find artists so committed to specific predecessors. In the constant push to be “contemporary,” and in the overload of visual imagery associated with modern culture, there is a serious danger that today’s painters will ever more rapidly distance themselves from those of ages past. Exhibitions like the BMA’s “Matisse/Diebenkorn” work to right this error, shedding light on the dependence of one seminal painter on the work that came before him.

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