On the spur of the moment, I took an afternoon last week to drive to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit before it closes on January 29. These are two of my favorite painters, and I’ve long known about Richard Diebenkorn’s admiration for Henri Matisse. But it was fascinating to see their canvases side-by-side and begin to understand how closely Diebenkorn studied the drawings and paintings of the older artist. Both men were so intent on using paint—that impossibly thin film of pigment suspended on a canvas—to describe their vision of the world in new ways. In his long career, Matisse experimented with the abstract and the figurative, always defying expectations and contributing to the invention of modern painting. Diebenkorn was an abstract painter who had achieved a certain renown when he suddenly shifted to figurative painting, but late in his career he returned to the abstract with his “Ocean Park” series. When Diebenkorn was starting out in the 1940s, the work of Matisse was becoming better known in the U.S., and he was able to view it in museums and gallery exhibitions. With the juxtaposition of their paintings at the BMA, it's easy to see the younger painter experimenting with his predecessor’s color, line, and structure. It's also clear that Diebenkorn was building mastery in his own right. Diebenkorn believed “influence is natural when a young painter discovers an older one...here’s this tremendous experience, and what’s [he] supposed to do with it—stick it under the rug?” I believe that asking artists about their influences is like asking writers where their ideas come from. The creative process is like a river—water flows into it from a lot of different sources. In fact the word “influence” comes from medieval French “influentia,” which means “inflow” (from Latin “influo,” to flow into). The BMA exhibit certainly demonstrates the energy flowing from the hand of one great painter to another.
Matisse/Diebenkorn will be at the Baltimore Museum of Art until January 29, 2017, then travels to San Francisco. Featured works were gathered from major museums and private collections in Europe and the U.S. (including the legendary Cone Collection at the BMA). A beautiful catalog for the exhibit is available online (but in a rare occurrence, it’s cheaper to buy it at the museum).