…meeting/introducing my influences (part two) …

A couple of weeks ago Allin and I spent several wonderful days in San Francisco. It usually rained in the morning and evening, but was sunny during the day, and as a result we enjoyed crystal clear springtime weather. We ate great food, traveled around a beautiful city, and went to see Hamilton (which was wonderful, but not quite so wonderful as I expected). However, as I related in my last blog, the main reason for going west was to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit, which is currently on view at the SFMOMA.

The exhibit met my expectations and more! While the connection between Diebenkorn and Matisse would perhaps not be particularly obvious when viewing their works separately, because of the interesting way in which the show was curated—that is, the artist’s works were generally paired, presented side by side—the influence Matisse exerted over Diebenkorn became as clear as day. In fact, as I had mentioned in my last blog, Diebenkorn collected many books on Matisse and made detailed notes about his work. These same books, as well as many of his notes and clippings (often written directly into the books), were on display at the museum and pointed directly to the long study of Matisse’s art that Diebenkorn made.

…technical influences…

With each pairing the connections between the painters was on display, and many of their similarities involved technique. For example, clear technical parallels could be drawn between the brushwork of the artists; the way in which each artist loosely layered different colors (often related, sometimes contrasting) in order to create a vibrant and texturally rich composite hue. Take the paintings below. We can clearly see a connection between the loose brushwork in Matisse’s Woman with a Hat and Diebenkorn’s Seated Figure with Hat. Additionally, look at the fields of yellow in each painting; notice the layers of paint that combine to create a rich background. Of course there are differences: Matisse layered related colors; Diebenkorn applied a layer of yellow over a contrasting deep blue or violet.

Matisse and Diebenkorn artwork
Left: Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905
Right: Richard Diebenkorn: Seated Figure with Hat, 1967

Which brings me to color in general, and one of my favorite pairings of the exhibit: Matisse’s Goldfish and Palette and Diebenkorn’s Urbana #6 (below). With these paintings it is impossible to avoid the stylistic differences, yet there are equally unavoidable connections between color palettes. Observe in both paintings the islands of blue, the daubs of pink, yellow and orange. Also observe the geometric division of the canvas: in Matisse, columns of white separated by columns of black; in Diebenkorn, a horizontal stratification of black and white.

Goldfish and Palette and Urbana #6
Left: Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914
Right: Richard Diebenkorn: Urbana #6, 1953

Both Diebenkorn and Matisse were able to draw you into a painting through their use of color. In the paintings above, each artist framed the edge of the painting with strips of color (Matisse: right edge) or black (Diebenkorn: upper right corner, bottom edge), creating a foreground, middle ground and background while maintaining different levels of abstraction. In the pairing below, it’s possible to see how Diebenkorn followed Matisse, drawing the eye deep into the painting by connecting the different perspectival planes with his use of orange.

The Blue Window and Woman on a Porch
Left: Henri Matisse, The Blue Window, 1913
Right: Richard Diebenkorn, Woman on a Porch, 1958

…thematic influences…

Each pairing also reinforced the similarities between the artists and their subject matter. The first example already provided a clear example of Matisse’s influence on Diebenkorn’s choice of subject matter; both paintings depict a seated woman with a hat. However, the “thematic” similarities went further. The paring of Matisse’s Red Room with Diebenkorn’s Recollections displays not only a connection between subject matter and composition, but also Diebenkorn’s appropriation of Matisse’s use of wallpaper patterns as a way of creating contrast between a flowing visual rhythm (the wallpaper) and a geometric division of the canvas.

Red Room and Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad
Left: Henri Matisse, Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908
Right: Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965

And finally, with Matisse’s Interior with a Violin and Diebenkorn’s Interior with a Doorway, it is possible to detect an appropriation of atmosphere—that is, the exploration and juxtaposition of the cool interior against the warm exterior (below).

Interior with a Violin and Interior with a Doorway
Left: Henri Matisse, Interior with a Violin, 1918
Right: Richard Diebenkorn, Interior with a Doorway, 1962

If there were a single aspect of the exhibition that I found to be most interesting, it would have to be viewing the stylistic convergence between these artists. It seemed that as Matisse grew into artistic maturity he became more abstract; his paintings began to explore fields of color as much as subject matter (an exploration that Mark Rothko would begin extend in the late 1940s). Conversely, it seems that as Diebenkorn grew into his own, and became more influenced by Matisse, he became less abstract. The decade that saw Diebenkorn’s temporary return to representational art—between the mid 1950s and 60s—could be characterized as the period in which this convergence was most pronounced, the result of a “meeting in the middle” between individual, yet related, styles.

The Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit was without doubt the highlight of our trip. In particular, getting the chance to inspect Diebenkorn’s technique up close—his brushwork, the way he layered paint—was incredibly instructive, and gratifying as I noticed that, when underpainting, Diebenkorn seemed to use mainly warm colors, something (I am happy to say) I do as well! Additionally, I discovered techniques that I was not expecting to see. In particular, the framing of the painting that I alluded to in Urbana #6 is a technique that I like very much and may consider using in the future.

A great adventure, a great exhibit and a wonderful art lesson!