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The ‘one-way love affair’ between Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn

Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame (1914) (Image: © Succession H. Matisse/ARS, New York; digital image © MoMA, NY)
Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame (1914) (Image: © Succession H. Matisse/ARS, New York; digital image © MoMA, NY)
When he was a 21-year-old student at Stanford University, Richard Diebenkorn had the rare opportunity to visit one of the greatest private collections of European Modernism. He was taken by his teacher, Daniel Mendelowitz, to nearby Palo Alto, where Sarah Stein and her husband Michael had amassed in their home more than 100 works by one particular French artist who drew Diebenkorn’s ardour. “Right there I made contact with Matisse,” Diebenkorn later recalled of his life-changing visit, “and it has just stuck with me all the way.”

The first museum show about these two artists comes to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this month, following its launch in Baltimore last year. “The exhibition follows Diebenkorn’s trajectory, because it’s really his story; it’s a one-way love affair,” Janet Bishop, the co-curator, says. “And then we intersperse works by Matisse that he either encountered directly along the way, or works where we as curators could see the resonance.”

Diebenkorn’s career can be neatly divided into three parts: the early, loose, Abstract Expressionist works; a figurative middle period; and his best-known paintings, the Ocean Park series, up to his death in 1993. “The influence shows up in very surprising ways,” Bishop says. She cites Diebenkorn’s early abstract work, made in Urbana, Illinois, where he was “picking up on elements of structure and geometry and colour, even though he’s looking at figurative canvases, and there’s very little evidence of figuration in his own work at that time”.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79 (1975) (Image: © the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)
Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79 (1975) (Image: © the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)
Linking the two is “a very open declaration of process”, Bishop says. “Both artists were very willing to show layer upon layer in the final work of art.”

It is a quality that appears repeatedly in Diebenkorn’s work, but the ghostly traces of composition are echoed particularly in his figurative work, made between 1955 and 1967. One of the most profound encounters Diebenkorn had with the art of Matisse occurred in 1964 on a visit to the Soviet Union, where he saw Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov’s great collections in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

“He knew those paintings through reproduction and he had seen them primarily, if not entirely, in black and white,” Bishop says. “So it was an incredible thrill to see them first hand. And it had an impact on the rest of his career: you see his work flatten out and become more geometric, and then he transitions into the Ocean Park series within a couple of years.”

In the exhibition, those great, late, sensually geometric paintings appear alongside supreme examples of the French master at his toughest and most reductively abstract, for example French Window at Collioure and View of Notre Dame (both 1914). It is an electrifying, illuminating combination.

• Matisse/Diebenkorn, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 11 March-29 May
Venue details
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
151 Third Street
San Francisco
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