To Follow and Extend: Matisse / Diebenkorn

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The Baltimore Museum of Art’s Exhibit of Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn Offers a Dynamic and Mutual Notion of Artistic Influence by Kerr Houston

We often tend to think of artistic influence as a linear, unidirectional process: an earlier example intrigues a later artist, inflecting a subsequent process of production. In other words, as the art historian Michael Baxandall put it in his book Patterns of Intention, “If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X.” Examples of such a process are certainly easily located. Caravaggio’s paintings impacted the practice of Baroque artists across Europe; Cézanne’s work inspired that of Picasso; Duchamp opened the door for Rauschenberg.

But what if we invert the idea, and speak instead of the later generation changing the work of predecessors? This was Baxandall’s suggestion, as he mulled over the concept of influence.

“In the consideration of good pictures and paintings,” he contended, “the second is always the more lively reality.” So Manet riffs on a work by Titian; Duchamp adds a moustache to Leonardo’s iconic Lisa; Douglas Gordon treats Hitchcock’s Psycho as an elastic, malleable material. Artists influenced by earlier works, then, need not be merely passive vessels; rather, they appropriate, revise, absorb – or even, proposed Baxandall, feast on what has come before them.

houston_3The final room of Matisse/Diebenkorn  at the BMA (Photograph by Cara Ober)

Matisse/Diebenkorn, which opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art on October 23 and will run through January 29, offers a useful space in which to ponder such ideas. Curated by Katherine Rothkopf of the BMA and Janet Bishop of SFMoMA (to which it will travel in the spring of 2017), this satisfying show is a visual treat. Both Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn were, you might say, painters’ painters, and almost all of the works on display reward close looking. But this is also a show that pursues a more particular theme. Featuring more than ninety drawings and paintings, it is dedicated to an investigation of the many points of contact between the work of the two artists. In short, it is a curated meditation on artistic influence.

The link between the two artists is not, it’s important to point out, a new discovery. To the contrary, for the abiding interest of the younger Diebenkorn (who was born in 1922, when Matisse was already 52, and who died in 1993) in the French master has long been recognized by scholars. In a 1990 dissertation, for example, Susan Shawver Leonard traced the influence of Matisse in work by Diebenkorn, and in 1992 Jack Flam offered a thoughtful analysis of the relations between the two artists. Perhaps the most important discussion of the subject, though, appeared in 1997, in an essay by Jane Livingston that accompanied a show of Diebenkorn’s work – and that clearly impacted, in turn, the thinking of Bishop and Rothkopf.

In a sense, then, Matisse/Diebenkorn can fairly be seen an example of what the curator Boris Groys recently termed a ‘traditional exhibition’: an exhibition, that is, in which “the narrative is already known, broadly speaking, and what’s important is that the exhibition is created to afford access to the individual works.” Organized as a chronological survey of Diebenkorn’s work, the show traces major developments in his oeuvre: early forays into abstract expressionism give way, in the mid-1950s, to a representational mode that then yields to the bold formal experimentalism of his renowned Ocean Park series. And along the way, interposed works by Matisse suggest his perpetual relevance in the evolution of Diebenkorn’s work.

The wall texts discuss and contextualize that relationship in more specific historical terms. Diebenkorn first saw works by Matisse as early as 1943 (when he was invited to the house of Sarah Stein), and in 1947, while a soldier stationed at Quantico, he managed to visit the Phillips Collection, and took in Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel. Subsequently, two major Matisse retrospectives deeply affected Diebenkorn and led to further changes in his work. And in 1964 he traveled to the Soviet Union, where he sought out several paintings by Matisse, including the famous Red Room – whose daring color scheme, prominent use of patterning, and largely abstract conception of the distinction between interior and exterior all subsequently appeared in a painting that Diebenkorn executed soon after returning to the States.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-11-25-17-amLeft: Henri Matisse, Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908. The Hermitage State Museum, Saint Petersburg. Right: Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965. Private collection. (Images courtesy of WikiArt)

Red Room, unfortunately, is not included in the present show. But by any other standard this exhibition certainly affords what Groys would surely call meaningful access to the individual works. Featuring examples from a number of collections (15 of the pieces are drawn from the BMA’s Cone Collection, and 18 from the collection of SFMoMA; the rest are drawn from collections in cities as disparate as Buffalo and Copenhagen), it is in fact the most comprehensive show ever dedicated to the relationship between the two artists. As a result, it offers chance to consider a familiar argument in unfamiliarly physical terms.

Typically, analyses of Diebenkorn’s interest in Matisse have appeared on the printed page, forcing readers to flip between reproductions. Here, however, the relationships take shape on the walls before us.

Ultimately, though, this exhibition also exceeds the limits of a merely traditional exhibition – for even as it reiterates a widely recognized connection, it also features new findings, furthering and refining our sense of Diebenkorn’s interest in Matisse. The curators discovered a letter, for example, that indicates that Diebenkorn visited Baltimore and viewed works in the Cone collection in 1947. Notably, too, Rothkopf located and interviewed the junior diplomat who hosted Diebenkorn during his trip to the Soviet Union, and learned that the two men visited the Pushkin Gallery twice, and the State Hermitage Museum once. These are modest revelations, perhaps, but they nevertheless clarify the historical picture, and demonstrate that this show is not a mere restatement of received opinion, but rather an exercise in active scholarship.

An interest in re-thinking Diebenkorn’s interest in Matisse is also discernible in the show’s judicious and effective use of supplementary materials. Working with the Diebenkorn Foundation, the curators secured the loan of a number of books from Diebenkorn’s personal library. Over the course of his career, he collected more than forty books on Matisse (family members later recalled that they made terrific Christmas gifts), and several of them are on display here. The overall effect is compelling, without being intrusive or distracting: Diebenkorn’s worn copy of a catalogue of a 1966 Matisse retrospective, for example, touchingly evokes the regularity with which he consulted the work of his predecessor.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-11-01-28-amLeft: Matisse, Reclining Model with a Flowered Robe, c. 1923. The Baltimore Museum of Art © 2016 Succession H. Matisse/ARS NY. Right: Diebenkorn, Woman Seated in a Chair, 1963. The Baltimore Museum of Art © 2016 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Given, then, the depth of the relationship, can we be any more precise about its forms? In what ways, exactly, did Diebenkorn learn from and respond to Matisse? The very structure of this show offers one central answer: in addition to organizing Diebenkorn’s work chronologically, it also imposes several loose categories on the work, stressing particular genres. One room, for instance, emphasizes figural work, and another focuses on still-life subjects. Over the course of his career, Diebenkorn eventually worked in many of the genres that had been explored by Matisse: in the work of both men, domestic interiors and images of studios recur, and female models both sit alert, or lie in languid repose.

Those spaces and subjects suggest, in turn, a mutual interest in the process of making art. Such an interest is evident, to be sure, in the many pentimenti, or unerased changes and corrections, in the works of each artist. The paintings on display are often layered, and sections are obviously the result of heavy revision; there is, in these works, a patient and resolutely, determinedly investigative aspect. (One thinks of John Constable, who wondered “Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?’) To this end, the inclusion of several drawings by both artists is also effective; indeed, as Jodi Roberts suggests in a sensitive essay in the catalogue, the daily activity of drawing was fundamental to the practice of each artist.

Finally, there are numerous formal similarities. The two artists clearly shared, for instance, a profound interest in structure. Flam once argued that the paintings executed by Matisse between 1908 and 1917 “suggest a larger sense of order that goes beyond the organization of the merely visible,” and something similar might be said of many of Diebenkorn’s works, too: there is here a common commitment to an underlying geometry. Indeed, both Matisse and Diebenkorn often straddled the line between abstraction and representation, as they sought a deep logic in seemingly quotidian scenes. That approach informed, as well, their palettes, for while both men were given to audacious color choices, they were also willing to deploy paints in sharp geometric planes. Color, as a result, is at once descriptive and constitutive, representative of and somehow unmoored from the world at large.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-11-04-04-amLeft: Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914; Right: Diebenkorn, Window, 1967. The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. © 2016 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Many of these tendencies can be seen in one of the most productive juxtapositions in the show, which pairs Matisse’s Goldfish and Palette and Diebenkorn’s 1967 Window. Clearly, the later work was partly motivated by Matisse’s studies of interiors: unpeopled, these are both attempts to reconcile volume and form. Space, in each work, is at once evoked and flattened. At the same time, a delight in surface pattern constitutes another shared idiom, for the curving wrought iron arabesques in each painting establish another site of contact. And, finally, both paintings point to the processes by which they were made: Matisse’s visible brushwork and the chair in which Diebenkorn often sat to ponder his next step are open acknowledgments of the ongoing decisions that yielded the finished works.

No question, then: Diebenkorn learned from Matisse, in a number of ways. But of course, in prosecuting that argument so insistently, this show runs the risk of feeling almost hermetic. There is, for example, in this exhibition almost no evocation of contemporary artistic strategies; one gets the sense that Diebenkorn preferred to learn from the past rather than to engage with the theory of his own peers. Ultimately, though, that’s probably not inaccurate, for Diebenkorn certainly did tend to swim against the tide; in fact, his representative turn in the 1950s was seen by some of his friends as a contrarian or even suicidal move.

Still, Matisse was not the only relevant influence on his practice. We know, for instance, that Diebenkorn also admired the work of Edward Hopper, and it’s not hard to spot some of Hopper’s tendencies here, as well: the spare inanimate geometry of a work like Early Sunday Morning must have intrigued Diebenkorn. Moreover, twenty years ago Livingstone showed that during a trip to Italy Diebenkorn expressed a strong interest in the work of the Quattrocento masters, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see some of his paintings as distantly related to the linear rationalism of Piero della Francesca. But why relegate ourselves, in any event, to artistic examples? Diebenkorn often spoke of an experience he had had while flying over New Mexico in 1951; the patterned landscape seen from above apparently appealed to (or even sparked) his developing interest in a potent tension between surface and solid form. Influence, in other words, can be multivalent, diffuse, and complex.

In the end, though, one judges the show at hand, rather than the show that one imagines – and there’s no question that Matisse/Diebenkorn offers a robust and rewarding look at the ways in which one artist learned from another. As Janet Bishop puts it, this is no small thing: indeed, it fairly be called one of the “most productive instances of one painter looking at another’s paintings in the history of twentieth-century art.” Moreover, as we walk through this show, we may just find that our notions of influence are productively challenged, and complicated.

houston_10Diebenkorn’s copy of Alfred Barr’s book on Matisse with pasted additions

Here’s what I mean. In one of the first rooms of the show, we can see Diebenkorn’s copy of Alfred Barr’s book on Matisse, which was issued in conjunction with a show that, in Diebenkorn’s words, “absolutely turned my head around.” In such a phrasing, artistic influence seems active and unidirectional: Matisse’s work dramatically affects Diebenkorn, who seems to object of a force. But as the curators of the current show point out, Diebenkorn soon began to make active and dramatic changes to Barr’s book, pasting color photographs into its blank pages. He began, in other words, to manipulate Matisse’s example, and to treat it as a material that could be modified and rearranged. Y, in Baxandall’s words, was doing something to X.

“I’m really,” Diebenkorn once claimed, “a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it.” To follow and extend: that’s exactly it, for it evokes a dynamic and mutual notion of artistic influence that can be observed in detail, for the next three months, on the walls of the BMA.


Author Kerr Houston has taught art history and art criticism at MICA since 2002. He is the author of the book An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2012), and his recent writings range from an article on a metaphorical aspect of the Sistine Chapel chancel screen, in Source, to an extended essay on Candice Breitz’s Extra, in Nka.

Matisse/Diebenkorn will be on exhibit at the BMA through January 29, 2017.

Top Images: Left: Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame, 1914. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Succession H. Matisse/ ARS NY.Right: Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park #79, 1975. Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.


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