Sunday, May 21, 2017


Matisse: Studio, Quai St. Michel. Seminal.
Okay, we're the last kids on the block to see the excellent exhibition on Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn up at SF MoMA.

But it's so worth seeing!

At first glance, you might not think that the prolific, French post-Impressionist genius, Matisse, has much in common with California mid-century modernist Diebenkorn.

But the whole point of this show is to demonstrate the connections between the two.

Diebenkorn was a lifelong admirer of Matisse. And through a judicious selection of paintings by both artists, this show suggest how Diebenkorn was inspired by the French master through different stages of his own career, during the process of finding his own voice.

Diebenkorn: Window (1967) I love this — so rich!
It's fascinating to see how that influence plays out — not necessarily in subject matter or theme, but certainly in color palette, shape, and the energy of the paint on canvas.

Both artists progress through stages of figurative and abstract work, and while connections between the works are not always obvious, we gradually come to realize how much even the abstract, color-blocked, expressionistic images for which Diebenkorn is best known pay subtle homage to Matisse — even the figurative and decorative Matisse.

In some cases, the curators attempt to show the direct effect of a certain Matisse over a subsequent Diebenkorn, but the influence is far more general and fluid than that.

The curators know this, too, and the connections are ours to discover.

Matisse: Blue Window (1913)
They wisely begin the exhibit with the Matisse painting above, "Studio, Quai St. Michel" (1916). As our docent tour guide pointed, out you could draw a direct connection between this seminal Matisse image and just about any Diebenkorn work in the entire show.

This exhibition got me thinking about inspiration vs. imitation. If you've spent any time at all in museums, you've probably seen some young student, or fledgling artist, with easel and paint box set up before some great painting, studiously rendering a copy.

The idea is not to replicate that painting exactly, like a forgery, but to teach yourself how and why that painting works through the process of painting it yourself.

This is a necessary step any creative artist has to go through —understanding something we love by making our own version of it — on the way to establishing our own, unique, creative voice.
Diebenkorn: Ocean Park #79 (1975)

The visual artist paints and paints and paints until he or she gets some idea of where their work is going. In the writing biz, we call this editing.

And you keep working over and over again until you get it right. The early, abstract Diebenkorns from his Urbana series (from his time as an art professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana) come first in the SF MoMA show. It's possible to glimpse the Matisse influence, but these paintings are a little chaotic for me; Diebenkorn is still finding himself.

But as the show continues, you can see Diebenkorn getting a grip on his art as he perfects the sophisticated distillation of color and line that owes so much to the spirit of Matisse, yet is so distinctly Diebenkorn.

Full disclosure — I didn't know anything about Diebenkorn, and most likely would never have sought out his work if he hadn't been paired up with the mighty Matisse in this show. I'm generally more of a figurative, narrative kind of art-lover.

Diebenkorn does Matisse!
But now, I'm a fan! His colors are extraordinary, and there's a kind of monumental serenity to his images that I find quietly profound.

My favorite piece in the show? Diebenkorn's "Recollection of a Visit to Leningrad" (1965) (at left). From across the room, this looks like a Matisse, with that swirling, organic pattern on the left. Up close, it looks like a Matisse grafted onto a geometric, color-blocked Diebenkorn.

Turns out the painting was done after Diebenkorn viewed Matisse paintings at The Hermitage in Leningrad on a trip to Russia the year before. In one way, you get the sense of viewing a Matisse on a wall with another landscape outside, possibly seen through a window.

But in another sense, you see in this celebration of Matisse, the old master beginning to make way on the canvas for the mature Diebenkorn.

This show is up at SF MoMA for one more week. See it if you can, and be inspired!

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