Baltimore — The Baltimore Museum of Art has had extraordinary success with its large and appealing exhibition “Matisse Diebenkorn,” which closes Jan. 29. It has extended museum hours to accommodate the crowds, the largest of any ticketed show it has presented in the past decade, and the exhibition has attracted attention and visitors from far outside of Baltimore.
It is billed as the “first major exhibition” to explore connections between the great French modernist, Henri Matisse, and the American painter Richard Diebenkorn, who pursued both figurative and abstract work and is best known and most loved for his sunny, pastel-colored geometric forms dubbed the “Ocean Park” series. The relationship was, of course, one-way, with Diebenkorn studying and incorporating ideas from Matisse. The two artists never met, and the much younger Diebenkorn (born in 1922) was barely launched on his career when Matisse died in 1954 at the age of 84.
Still, influence is a popular subject, and detecting its operation from one artist to another yields satisfying insights — especially when dealing with abstract art. Influence gives us an appealing approach to art that might otherwise be unapproachable, a way of describing something tangible in work that eludes verbal description.
The influence that Matisse exerted on Diebenkorn was enormous, and this exhibition documents it thoroughly. Diebenkorn freely acknowledged his deep admiration for his French predecessor and made special efforts throughout his career to seek out Matisse’s work. These included visits to art museums, including the Phillips Collection in Washington, while Diebenkorn, a Marine, was stationed at Quantico during the Second World War. There was also an early encounter with the Matisse works owned by Sarah Stein (who married into the famous clan of art collectors that included Gertrude, Leo and Sarah’s husband, Michael). The Stein residence in Palo Alto, which Diebenkorn visited while a student at Stanford, was stuffed with Matisse’s work, and Sarah had been both a collector and an influential advocate for his art in the early part of the 20th century. Diebenkorn also sought out Matisse exhibitions and gained access to the large collection of Matisse’s work in the Soviet Union, which he visited on a cultural exchange in 1964.
It’s easy, and for a while pleasurable, to explore the exhibition looking for the more obvious examples of Diebenkorn’s meditation on Matisse. A 1916 Matisse that Diebenkorn saw at the Phillips, “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel,” had a particularly profound impact on him, and one can detect its basic geometries, color palette and other elements in the younger artist’s 1953 abstraction “Urbana #4.” You may sense that something fairly primitive is going on, that perhaps Diebenkorn has simply made an image of what Matisse’s canvas might look like if viewed through a fuzzy mirror or lenses smeared with thick oil. Has he merely reduced the figurative particulars of Matisse to a set of abstract shapes that no longer function as representative elements? And if so, is that enough to qualify as an important or great painting?
But as the exhibition continues, it becomes obvious that Diebenkorn’s work doesn’t need Matisse behind it to give it sense or meaning. In some cases, juxtapositions of paintings by the two artists leave one feeling more inclined to celebrate Diebenkorn’s work than that of the older master, especially Diebenkorn’s “Chabot Valley,” from 1955, which manages to suggest a far greater sense of space and atmosphere with its careful deepening of blue tones in the sky than the slightly clumsy sunset in Matisse’s “Corsican Landscape” from 1898, which hangs near it.
More important, the exhibition ultimately exhausts its premise, leaving one looking not for the similarities, which are easy to see, but rather for what makes Diebenkorn’s work distinctive. Where could he go that Matisse never traveled? The 1963 “Cityscape #1,” which shows a green, grassy landscape from on high, with a palpable sense of speed and emptiness, as if you are flying over it rapidly, is one clear example of Diebenkorn operating far beyond the possibilities of his revered predecessor. Matisse often painted scenes from a high vantage point, as if he were surveying the room from a ladder that lifted him up near the ceiling. Diebenkorn takes this perspective to a far more challenging place, such that the earth itself has the strange, tilted-up planes of one of Matisse’s tables, and the viewer isn’t just perched on a ladder but installed precipitously somewhere in a hang glider or hot-air balloon.
Both Matisse and Diebenkorn were interested in the empty room, but there is also a marked difference between the emotional valences of the emptiness they depicted. Matisse’s interior spaces may be temporarily void of people, but they always feel only momentarily abandoned. Someone will return shortly to take up the violin in the bright blue violin case, or feed the fish in the 1914 “Goldfish and Palette.” Diebenkorn, by contrast, often depicts an empty chair in a space that doesn’t give a clear indication of ordinary human habitation. His spaces are emptier, more forlorn, with little of the civilized enchantment one feels in Matisse.
Diebenkorn went back and forth between representational and abstract work before ending up firmly engaged with abstraction during the final decades of his life. The presence of Matisse seems to fade in the last room of the exhibition, despite the inclusion of some peculiar and fascinating works in which Matisse pushed as far into the realm of abstraction as any artist could in 1914, including “French Window at Collioure” and “View of Notre Dame,” both from the same year. These feel like outliers for Matisse, and despite their importance to Diebenkorn (he saw them in a 1966 Matisse show in Los Angeles), he was soon going in a direction that made the old Matisse connections tenuous. These were the “Ocean Park” paintings, full of luminous bands of color, shapes that suggest translucent windows onto a sun-drenched landscape, with a strong but coy sense of three- dimensional space, as if one is looking at a thin screen that hides the world behind it.
Matisse may have helped him get there, but once there, Diebenkorn’s work is entirely his own, and it doesn’t make sense to think of influence at this late stage in his career. But one needn’t give this exhibition a happy ending, as if Diebenkorn finally found himself and his own voice in the 1960s and asserted his true and proper independence. In fact, despite the celebrated “Ocean Park” series, Diebenkorn is at his most exciting while trying to find his way in the middle ground between abstraction and figurative work. Paintings such as the 1959 “View From the Porch,” which somehow manages to give a horizontal landscape a sense of vertiginous perspective, are among the most powerful works produced in the 20th century. So, too, the 1965 “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” which references Matisse’s love of floral patterning with a blunt homage on the left side of the canvas.
Ideas such as influence, the development of style, the emergence of a voice or the resolution of tensions between different ways of looking at the world — these all tend to leave us thinking that the point of art is to get the artist to some sense of conclusion. Life is like an arrow pointing to a place of rest and finality. But the best moments of this exhibition show us an artist working through things, not quite arrived or fully achieved. The apparent fading of Matisse’s influence wasn’t necessarily a good thing, even if it yielded the work that we now think of as Diebenkorn’s greatest.
Matisse Diebenkorn is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Jan. 29. For more information, visit artbma.org.