Brooklyn Rail: From Russia With Love

October 4, 2016

Richard and Phyllis Diebenkorn at their Hillcrest Road home, c. 1964 © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard and Phyllis Diebenkorn sent these postcards to the artist’s mother in the fall of 1964 while on a cultural tour of the U.S.S.R. In the midst of the Cold War, President Kennedy and Premier Khruschev established an exchange program as an attempt at diplomacy, inviting artists and writers to travel throughout each country visiting schools and engaging with selected figures. The program was organized by the United States Information Agency (USIA); Diebenkorn found himself invited not only because of his success as a representational painter in the Soviet Union’s preferred mode of social realism, but also because of his relatively quiet and steady lifestyle. This was his and Phyllis’s first trip outside North America; it threw them into a political and social whirlwind they were neither expecting nor prepared for.

Their visit proved formative for Diebenkorn’s work. The couple toured the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, in Moscow, to view their restricted collections. Diebenkorn was particularly struck and influenced by the dozens of Matisse paintings. The environment was rife with history: Khruschev’s resignation was announced the day Diebenkorn visited Matisse’s The Conversation.

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