BALTIMORE — When you love an artist, you tend to love everything by that artist. It’s not that you lose the ability to discriminate between failures and successes. It’s that your feeling for what the artist wanted to do, and for the temperament and the thinking behind those ambitions, becomes so engaged that everything he or she attempted interests and involves you.
Richard Diebenkorn had that feeling for Henri Matisse. And “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” a deeply stirring exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art (it was co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), demonstrates that Diebenkorn’s intense love extended to every corner of Matisse’s career.
That was news to me. Until now, anyone could see that Diebenkorn’s celebrated “Ocean Park” series, with its taut, geometric divisions and blue and pastel palette, sprang out of Matisse’s severe and imperious 1912-1917 period — paintings like “The Piano Lesson,” “On the Terrace,” and the two unusually abstract works Matisse neither signed nor exhibited: “View of Notre Dame” and “French Window at Collioure.”
But this show reveals the connection went much, much deeper. Without being too literal-minded, it matches Diebenkorn paintings and drawings with relevant works from Matisse’s tentatively experimental turn-of-the-century phase, his breakthrough Fauve paintings (1904-1907), the large-scale decorations and Cubist-influenced canvases from 1908-1917, and the entire Nice period. There are none of Matisse’s late cut-outs, but there is one yellow paper collage by Diebenkorn to remind us that these, too, called out to him.
The result is an unusually beautiful show, in which the unique glow emitted by one painter meets the glow from another and seems almost to create new atmospheric conditions.
Matisse and Diebenkorn were both modernists. But they were also empiricists lovers of colored light, bodies, palm trees, and oil paint — and they placed a high premium on truth-telling. Both realized, as John Elderfield writes in the catalog, that “to make a true statement in painting . . . would require attending very carefully to the language of their art.”
And doing that, says Elderfield — a leading Matisse authority who was also a long-time friend of Diebenkorn — meant not just paying attention to the means that they used, but actively calling attention to those means: Their canvases are covered with ghost-lines and erasures, evidence of indecision, signs of struggle.
Neither artist fussed, exactly. They hated histrionics; emotion and form were always in equipoise. But both made works that were a palimpsest of process, of the struggle to make a true and sensuous statement about the world.
Diebenkorn’s corner of the world happened to be California, where the landscape and the built environment have little in common with Paris or Nice. And indeed, the best Diebenkorns are the ones that, at least superficially, appear least like Matisse, most like California.
But look more closely and you see how time and again, Diebenkorn, trying to get closer to the feel of California, counter-intuitively adopted compositions, devices, and colors straight out of Matisse.
The pink, yellow, turquoise, and cream in Matisse’s “Interior at Nice” feeds directly into works like “Berkeley #57,” which is the best of a volley of abstract Diebenkorns that opens the show. Similarly, the vertical bands of red, green, and yellow in the background of Matisse’s “Yellow Pottery from Provence” are simply turned on their side in Diebenkorn’s “Berkeley #47.”
Diebenkorn was especially entranced by the Matissean device of an interior thrown into relative darkness by bright light coming in through a far window. (The best example is the ravishing “Interior with Violin,” on loan from Copenhagen.) Both artists were concerned to make inside and outside continuous in these gorgeous games of rectangles nesting within rectangles. Thus a striped sweater or tablecloth inside rhymes purposely with Venetian blinds and palm fronds that stripe the sunlight, binding interior and exterior together.
No artist could hope to match the excruciating finesse and metaphysical nuance with which Matisse handled this inside-outside dynamic. But Diebenkorn was on the case, and made some of his best paintings, both figurative and abstract, in hot pursuit.
Inevitably, you spend a lot of time in this exhibition “spotting the influence.” But even when the influence is less than overt, Matisse is always there as a kind of background hum. How did this come to be?
A Matisse retrospective in Los Angeles in 1952 was an epiphany for Diebenkorn. But it wasn’t the first time he had been exposed to Matisses en masse. In 1943, his art teacher Daniel Mendelowitz, had taken him to the Palo Alto home of Sarah Stein, who had been Matisse’s most important early collector. Sarah and her husband Michael, the brother of Leo and Gertrude, owned more than 100 Matisses.
Over the years, Diebenkorn savored other Matisse paintings in San Francisco (where SFMoMA has works from the collection of Leo and Gertrude Stein), Baltimore (home of the Etta and Claribel Cone collection), Philadelphia (the Barnes Foundation), New York (the Museum of Modern Art), Washington, D.C., (the Phillips Collection, where Diebenkorn adored Matisse’s “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel”), and even Boston (where he fell under the spell of the Gardner Museum’s small 1904 Matisse, “The Terrace, Saint-Tropez”).
In fact, then as now, if you wanted to see a lot of Matisse, you were better off living in the United States than in the artist’s native France. But Soviet Russia wasn’t bad either: Beginning just a few years after the Steins, the Russian cloth merchant Sergei Shchukin had formed a great collection of Matisses that were nationalized after the Bolshevik Revolution (his collection is currently the subject of a major exhibition in Paris.)
Thus, for decades, artists in the West were unable to see key Matisse masterpieces like “Red Room (Harmony in Red),” “The Conversation,” “Dance” and “Music.” So when Diebenkorn was invited on a cultural tour of the USSR in 1964, he accepted. It was the first time he and his wife, Phyllis, had left the United States.
Seeing the great Shchukin Matisses triggered another burst of energy in Diebenkorn, evident here in figurative paintings that combine large expanses of flat color with passages of serpentine foliage and flowers. They’re not entirely successful, but they are steps on the way to the “Ocean Park” series.
Matisse’s electrifying studio nude, “Carmelina” (1903), on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, is one of only two pre-Fauve paintings in the show. It is the linchpin of a section that explores affinities in the two artists’ treatment of the female figure.
Most of these are drawings. Diebenkorn’s studio nudes are generally more gauche than Matisse’s, which, although they are as heavily worked, tend to be more settled and classical.
There are other big differences between the two artists — in temperament, style, and subject matter. But both had a genius for color that set them apart from their peers. Look at Diebenkorn’s “Still Life with Orange Peel” or his small landscape, “Chabot Valley” or (obviously) anything by Matisse and you cannot doubt it.
Color, once it has been liberated from a local concern to a full-throttle compositional principle, is incredibly volatile. It takes immense pictorial intelligence to harness it. Diebenkorn needed Matisse above all, I believe, for the example he provided in how to do just that.
At: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore, through January 29. 443-573-1700, artbma.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.