Washington Post: Diebenkorn/Matisse exhibition documents a one-way love affair

Left: Henri Matisse. “The Yellow Dress,” 1929-31; Right: Richard Diebenkorn. “Seated Figure with Hat,” 1967. © Succession H. Matisse/ARS NY and The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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.

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