Ocean Park, Goldfish, and Women in Hats at SFMOMA

Richard Diebenkorn channels Henri Matisse in an enormous show that took more than six years to put together.

A few years ago, I went on a tour of New York’s Frick Collection led by art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who I like to call “Peter Unpronounceable-Last-Name.” I got all excited when he talked about how much he loves Rembrandt and Velazquez, thinking, “I love them too! We’re so in tune, Schjeldahl and I!”

Then I realized that it’s hardly as if I’d recognized the greatness of some under-appreciated, little-known artists. They’re considered two of the greatest painters of all time.

I remembered that the other week, talking to a friend about how excited I was for “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” the show at SFMOMA about how French Modernist Henri Matisse inspired and influenced California artist Richard Diebenkorn.

When I gushed about how much I love Diebenkorn, he replied, “Sure. Everyone loves Diebenkorn.”

Henri Matisse, Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat), 1905; oil on canvas;San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Elise S. Haas; © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York

Well, I realize my views aren’t unique. But I really do love Diebenkorn: his figurative paintings, his luminous Ocean Park series, the way he seemed to absorb every color around him. Along with pretty much everyone else, I also love Matisse, and this exhibit was all I could have wanted. I never put the two of them together before, but now I don’t know if I can think of them apart.  The exhibition makes me wonder why I didn’t notice all the similarities between them before: the colors, the subject matter, the structure.

Diebenkorn first saw Matisse’s work in 1943 at the Palo Alto home of collector Sarah Stein, Gertrude Stein’s sister-in-law, when he was a student at Stanford, and a professor suggested he visit her. Later, when stationed on the East Coast with the Marines, Diebenkorn and his wife, Phyllis, spent a lot of their free time visiting museums. His favorite was the Phillips Collection, says Janet Bishop, the co-curator of the show, which was in a house, had classical music concerts on Sunday and where you could smoke. (She suggested SFMOMA director Neal Benezra might consider bringing that back, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.) It also had Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, which Diebenkorn called “the big one for me.”

Henri Matisse, Studio, Quai Saint Michel, 1916.

In Los Angeles visiting his in-laws, Diebenkorn saw a traveling Matisse retrospective in 1952, which included Golfish and Palette and Interior at Nice, and had a big impact on him. Shortly after this, he started using brighter colors and more structure, which shows up in the paintings he did in Urbana when he was teaching at the university there.

Co-organized with the Baltimore Museum of Art, the exhibition has about 100 paintings. Besides Matisse’s early influence on Diebenkorn, it goes through his time in Illinois and in Berkeley, and then his switch to more representational paintings with still lifes, landscapes and figurative pictures before he started his Ocean Park series, which he’s known for.

The two 20th century artists never met. Matisse did come to San Francisco once, where Bishop said he hit lots of touristy spots, including Fisherman’s Wharf, the aquarium and Mount Tam, but Diebenkorn was just a little boy at the time. But seeing this conversation in paint feels like a question getting answered, and there is something so satisfying about seeing Matisse work mirrored in Diebenkorn’s, and Matisse through Diebenkorn’s eyes.

Matisse/Diebenkorn, SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, March 11-May 29, 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org

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