Ghosts and Goldfish at “Matisse/Diebenkorn”

SFMOMA's ambitious exhibit examines the strong kinship between two artists who never met.

In May 1985, the painter Richard Diebenkorn — by then a titan in the art world — spent three full days with art historian Susan Larsen sitting for an oral-history interview, elaborating on his career and personal life in a way he’d rarely done for the public record.

Among the subjects was Diebenkorn’s college experience at Stanford with art teacher Daniel Mendelowitz, who’d died five years earlier. Diebenkorn said Mendelowitz had conflicted feelings about the likes of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in the early 1940s: “At that time, the European Modernism was really a kind of a thorn in Dan’s side. … He would defend Matisse and his patterns and what not. ‘And you know, there’s nothing really, nothing wrong with this. It’s like a nice necktie. A nicely patterned necktie.’”

Diebenkorn laughed at his recall of Mendelowitz’s back-handed compliment of Matisse, then told Larsen, “I would never have repeated this story while he was alive.”

But that was only part of the story. The other part: In 1943, Mendelowitz took Diebenkorn to the Palo Alto home of Sarah Stein, who with her husband Michael — Gertrude Stein’s brother — had amassed one of the largest U.S. collections of Matisse’s work. Diebenkorn spent 90 minutes inside Sarah Stein’s home at 433 Kingsley Ave., and after seeing Matisse’s Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat) and La Baie de Nice (The Bay of Nice), Diebenkorn was never the same.

“Right there,” Diebenkorn told another art historian in the 1980s, “I made contact with Matisse, and it has just stuck with me all the way.”

That stickiness is central to SFMOMA’s “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” which is the first major retrospective to analyze the artistic connections between two two artists. Diebenkorn never met Matisse, but felt such an artistic kinship that he traveled the world to see Matisse’s paintings first-hand. Diebenkorn, who spent much of his life in the Bay Area, also collected scores of Matisse’s books — many of them displayed at SFMOMA — so even when Diebenkorn couldn’t be with Matisse’s canvases, he kept facsimiles in his house. (“Obsession” is not too strong a word to describe Diebenkorn’s interest in Matisse.

Plus, Diebenkorn looked to many other artists for inspiration in his lifetime, including Edward Hopper, whom Mendelowitz had championed. But Diebenkorn’s immersion with Matisse was absolute — so much so that Diebenkorn borrowed Matisse’s colors, his settings, and even his perspectives.

It took two decades after Diebenkorn’s death for curators at SFMOMA and the Baltimore Museum of Art to completely draw out this pattern, which wasn’t obvious to average art-goers because Diebenkorn’s paintings were often abstracted interpretations of Matisse’s paintings. The clues were nearly hidden in plain sight — but they were always there, and became more widely known as Diebenkorn, who passed away in 1993, talked more openly about his influences in the last decade of his life.

John Elderfield — a former top curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art who organized several acclaimed Matisse exhibits there and was friends with Diebenkorn — tells SF Weekly that Diebenkorn’s later channeling of Matisse was almost unintentional, unlike Diebenkorn’s earlier years, when he deliberately reflected other artists’ work, including that of Matisse but also the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning.

“I think that, as a young artist, Richard Diebenkorn was consciously paying attention to and emulating Matisse and other artists,” Elderfield, who is now a curator and lecturer at Princeton University, says by email. “In fact, early on de Kooning was more important to him than Matisse. … Later on, though, I think the references to Matisse were more or less unconscious.”

The painter Jasper Johns, Elderfield says, had a “ghosts” theory for why artists continue to reference other painters’ works: “Johns once said, ‘Because works of painting tend to share many aspects, working itself may initiate memories of other works.’ ”

“‘These ghosts’ is what he called such memories,” Elderfield adds. “It is like writing an article and finding oneself writing something that just came to you out of the blue, then realizing your mind had delivered a memory to you. It was definitely there in Richard Diebenkorn, but we do see it in other artists — if they do have open, curious minds.”

One example at the Matisse-Diebenkorn overlap: Matisse’s Goldfish and Palette, from 1914, which is paired side-by-side with Diebenkorn’s Urbana #6, from 1953. Instead of Matisse’s vertical black panels, Diebenkorn utilizes a series of large, black blotches. Instead of Matisse’s large blue textures, Diebenkorn submerges blues here and there. The goldfish in Matisse’s work are, in Diebenkorn’s, red and yellow blotches that almost look like goldfish.

The most striking example of Diebenkorn’s homage to Matisse is the 1962 painting Interior with Doorway, a six-foot-tall canvas of textured blues and reds that punctuates its scene with an open door frame, angled windows, and an empty chair. To its left at SFMOMA is Matisse’s Interior with a Volin from 1918, which has a remarkably similar perspective, although its blues are much more centralized. As much as Interior with Doorway owes something to Interior with a Violin, it also gives a nod to Hopper’s starkness and detached vision of the world. Parsing out the different connections is one of the joys of “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” as is the reminder that Diebenkorn did what many artists, including rappers like Jay Z and Snoop Dogg, have always done: Sample from previous generations, and have fun with it.  

The impetus for “Matisse/Diebenkorn” goes back decades. In the early 1990s, Claude Duthuit, Matisse’s grandson and an executor of his estate, told Elderfield that he wanted to see an exhibit that paired the two painters’ work. When “Matisse/Diebenkorn” toured at the Baltimore Museum of Art before coming to

SFMOMA, Matisse’s great-granddaughter, Sophie Matisse, said that Matisse and Diebenkorn exchanged “a mystical language.” In other words, the two painters’ artistic relationship wasn’t just a “one-way street” but almost “two ways” — as if Matisse, who died in 1954, expected someone like Diebenkorn to come along and re-channel his canvases.

By himself, Matisse would be a major draw. If SFMOMA were only exhibiting Matisse — 40 of his works are here — art-goers would be lining up around the block to see pieces like Quai Saint-Michel, a colorful, complex work with multiple sightlines, and Notre Dame, a Late Afternoon, which partly abstracts Paris’ most famous religious building. Matisse’s fans make pilgrimages to Tangier, Morocco just to see the buildings that inspired the artist’s paintings there. Diebenkorn’s fans have flocked from around the United States to see this exhibit — just like Diebenkorn followed Matisse wherever he could, decades after his fortuitous first encounter at Sarah Stein’s Bay Area home. 


A new exhibit space has opened in the area around 16th Street and Potrero Avenue, adding to the coterie of important galleries already there. Space 151, which debuted late last year at 151 Potrero Ave., is a grouping of second-floor corridors with high ceilings in a brick building where artists have worked for years. Affiliated with Levy Art + Architecture, Space 151’s current exhibit, “Manual Digital,” features art with both digital and analog foundations, as in Konstantin Zlatev’s Playing With Polar Bears, an algorithmic media work that randomly changes the shapes of the two Slinky-ish shapes that face off. The accompanying music, full of dramatic drums and tones, helps give Playing With Polar Bears its unique dynamism.

Curated by Beth Waldman, “Manual Digital” (whose closing party is Saturday, March 25, 6-9 p.m.) also deserves attention for Ted Lawson’s Nowhere In Particular, a milled, acrylic work of epic orange swirls that seems like a sand desert come to life; and GABA, Bottom of a Dream, an etching of brain function by Neil Murphy that’s like a turquoise-tinged map of the unconscious mind. Thankfully, Waldman included her own paintings from her “City of Sillar” series — scenes of an urban horizon where reworked volcanic stones and echoes of modernity merge through pastiches of paint streaks. The horizons of windows and white surfaces create patterns and layers one finds around the world, whether it’s the old city of Jerusalem or a neighborhood in Mexico City where the tension between old and new architectures is always unfolding.

“Matisse/Diebenkorn,” through May 29, at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or

“Manual Digital,” through March 25, at Space 151, 151 Potrero Ave. Free; 415-641-7320 or

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