Saturday, March 25, 2017

Art I'm Looking At: Matisse/Diebenkorn at SF MoMA

Yesterday (March 24) I went to see SF MoMA’s Matisse/Diebenkorn show (March 11 through May 29, 2017). The show has been open here for a couple of weeks. I was hoping crowds would be thin with an initial rush of interest already past, but the galleries were crowded, even on a weekday. Perhaps rain was to blame, as a ticket-taker suggested when I enquired. I sometimes had trouble getting an unobstructed view of the mostly large canvases, and I see that elsewhere in the museum they’ve made no effort to improve the signage since my last visit—wall lettering so small as to be mostly useless (and signs are much needed given the illogical, disconnected layout of the stairways). These complaints aside, I very much enjoyed seeing this close look at the influence of Matisse on the work of Richard Diebenkorn.

The exhibition begins with a timeline showing where and when the American artist had significant contact with Matisse’s work, both through visits to collections with important Matisse holdings and through reproductions (several display cases hold books about Matisse that Diebenkorn owned). The exhibition follows Diebenkorn’s career in broadly chronological fashion and thematically, starting with large abstractions from his Urbana period. A side room focuses on black and white drawings by the two artists. Many works by Diebenkorn are mounted beside works by Matisse that organizers and catalog editors Janet Bishop (SF MoMA Thomas Weisel Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture) and Katherine Rothkopf (Senior Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, The Baltimore Museum of Art) believe were particularly important to Diebenkorn or that they believe show obvious influence. Matisse/Diebenkorn presents more than 100 works by the two painters from private collections, the estate of Richard Diebenkorn, museum collections all over the US, from museums in Paris and London, and other sources, including SF MoMA’s own holdings—about 40 by Matisse, 60 by Diebenkorn. San Francisco is the second of only two locations that will host the show. Matisse/Diebenkorn was at The Baltimore Museum of Art from October 23, 2016 to January 29, 2017.

Matisse: Studio, Quai St. Michel, 1916
The Phillips Collection
Richard Diebenkorn moved to Urbana, Illinois, in 1952 to take up a year-long teaching position there. He doesn’t appear to have liked the landscape much, but during his stay he produced some important large abstractions (these and the Berkeley-period pieces are among my personal favorites). The show includes Urbana No. 2, Urbana No. 4, Urbana No. 5, and Urbana No. 6 (all from 1953), pairing Urbana No. 4 with Matisse’s 1916 Studio, Quai St. Michel (shown above) and Urbana No. 6 with the French painter’s Goldfish and Palette (below). The show would be of interest just for the opportunity to see this group of Urbana paintings, but the pairings highlight similar color choices, a willingness to leave behind traces of process, and an approach to composition marked by an ever-present tension between opposing forces—tension between the abstract and the representational; between complex gestural areas suggesting motion on the one hand and static expanses of subtly modulated color on the other; between the linear and the un-delineated; between the patterned and the plain; between three-dimensionally rendered form and flatness. This dialectical approach to composition (along with a distinctive use of color) is perhaps what most clearly makes Matisse recognizable, particularly in his highly experimental work of 1914–1916, and walking through the galleries I began to feel it may also have been the most fundamental lesson Diebenkorn learned from Matisse. Both painters were adept at creating a slightly disturbing ambiguity that generates the same feeling you get when looking at an optical illusion presenting two contradictory perspectives the brain struggles to reconcile. The real magic Matisse and Diebenkorn achieve, however, is in at the same time providing just enough solid ground to stand on that we aren’t compelled to turn away.

Matisse: Goldfish and Palette, 1916
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Goldfish and Palette is a good example of the ambiguity. It’s not at all clear what kind of space we're looking into here. The junction of the base of the blue trapezoid in the top half of the painting and the white in the bottom half suggests the meeting of a floor and a wall at the back of a room, two planes presumably meeting at a 90-degree angle, but the more-or-less centrally placed vertical black strip flattens the space—although not completely: the fine white lines on top of the black (both the two vertical lines above and apparently beyond the fishbowl and the less-assertive horizontal lines under the table-like surface that appears to support the fishbowl) argue again for a three-dimensional space (is that a door beyond the fishbowl?). The flat, supporting surface of the "table" grounds the fishbowl, but an interpretation of that surface as a table top is undermined by the incursion of blue at the left and by the black edge of the table-like plane doubling as part of what looks like a pattern on the blue wall beyond (which again flattens the space—if it is a wall; perhaps it is blue sky seen through a decorative balcony railing?). Thus, the “table top” apparently supports the fishbowl yet it threatens to fold down against the blue space at the same time, while, logically, it can’t do that because there appears to be a pair of legs under the table (or is it three?). The cross-like black lines in the upper right corner of the painting perhaps represent bars on a window, but, if there is a window there, the blue area must be a wall…and on and on.

Diebenkorn: Urbana No. 6, 1953
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 
Diebenkorn’s Urbana No. 6 may not be as directly indebted to Goldfish and Palette as the curators suggest, but Diebenkorn has used similar techniques to create ambiguity, even if the image is much more abstract than Matisse’s. In Urbana No. 6, we see a similar central black band, although here horizontal rather than vertical. In Diebenkorn’s painting it's this band of darkness that seems to create a flat, supporting surface; Diebenkorn’s black band functions like Matisse’s table top, supporting pale forms and red accents that suggest Matisse’s fish. The pale blue area in the upper right suggests a window, reinforcing the notion that the black area is in an interior space. The blue could also give the impression of looking through an open door at the far side of a room. In that case, the black band would seem more like a large carpet. But this is abstraction. I don’t mean to suggest one should struggle to interpret a work like Urbana No. 6 as representational. Yet the human brain inevitably interprets and Diebenkorn gives our brains just enough to keep us groping—following the example of Matisse.

Left: Matisse: Yellow Pottery from Provence, 1905, Baltimore Museum of Art
Right: Diebenkorn: Berkeley No. 47, 1955, SF MoMA
In pairing Diebenkorn's Berkeley No. 47 (1955) with Matisse's Yellow Pottery from Provence (1905), the curators look at how Diebenkorn experimented with unusual color combinations apparently inspired by Matisse. If Diebenkorn had Matisse's Yellow Pottery in mind when he painted Berkeley No. 47, he turned things on their side again, translating Matisse's representational color into horizontal bands of abstract color.

Throughout the exhibition, the color echoes are striking. Diebenkorn's Untitled, 1964, for example, showing a spray of flowers in a small blue bottle on a chestnut-colored table with a window beyond rendered in contrasting light and dark blues (not shown here) echoes the brown table and grey wallpaper (patterned in similar light and dark blues) in Matisse's Pansies (c. 1903, not shown). More generally, there's a range of blues in Diebenkorn that strongly echoes the blues Matisse favored. Following his autumn 1964 visit to the Soviet Union (now Russia) as part of a cultural exchange (where he toured the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, in Moscow, both with large Matisse holdings), Diebenkorn made the paintings in his oeuvre most obviously indebted to Matisse. Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad from 1965 and Large Still Life from 1966 (below) use the characteristic Matisse blues, overtly decorative flourishes filling spaces that read as walls, and, again, spatial ambiguity. It's appropriate that Recollections adorns the catalog cover (top of this page).

The Matisse paintings Diebenkorn saw in the Soviet Union include some of the French painter's largest canvases. I was set to wondering if the monumental quality of Diebenkorn's large Ocean Park paintings was also inspired by Matisse. Diebenkorn started painting the Ocean Park series in 1967, returning to abstraction on a large scale and in earnest following a period of mostly figurative work not long after his return from the Soviet tour.

Diebenkorn: Large Still Life, 1966, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Drawings on display in a side room are instructive. Devoid of color, they make it easy to see Diebenkorn using some of Matisse's compositional tricks—in particular, the use of decorative patterns and the juxtaposition of flat and three-dimensional treatments. Matisse loved interlocking areas filled with patterns, sometimes suggestive of tiling. (It's tempting to think Matisse's 1912 and 1913 visits to Morocco inspired the habit, but he was already using this device before his trips to Africa.) The most striking example of influence among Diebenkorn's drawings is perhaps an untitled 1964 drawing in graphite and ink on paper showing a coffee cup, a plate, and silverware on a richly patterned tablecloth (below).

Diebenkorn: Untitled, 1964, Collection of Leslie A. Freely, New York
To illustrate the juxtaposition of two- and three-dimensional treatments, the curators pair Matisse's Reclining Model with a Flowered Robe (c. 1923-1924, not shown here) with Diebenkorn's Untitled (Woman Seated in a Chair) of 1963 (not shown here), pointing out that Matisse depicted his figure with volume against a flat (again heavily patterned) background, while Diebenkorn used a patterned drape to flatten his figure against background elements handled three dimensionally. I thought Diebenkorn's 1962 Girl with Flowered Background among the paintings an even better example (below).

Diebenkorn: Girl with Flowered Background, 1962
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
The figure is simplified, but it is clearly three-dimensional. The knees protrude, the waist recedes. One hand is behind an elbow, the other is in front of the girl's face. There is shadow below her skirt and under her chin, and her forearm throws a shadow across her chest. She casts a blue shadow on the wall behind her. The background is completely flat, and Diebenkorn muddies the relationship between the girl and the background—and here he shows how completely he's absorbed Matisse's example. The red-tipped floral curve at the girl's left shoulder (on the right side of the painting) connects with the line of trim on her collar,  undermining her three-dimensionality. The way the "horizon" line behind her is broken by the blue shadow has a similar effect, as do the connections between the shadow and the blue line of her collar (this time at her right shoulder, on the left side of the painting) and the connection between that blue line and the darker linear element on the wall behind her, just above her shoulder. The effect is to make the red and blue trim of her collar appear part of the decoration on the wall behind her.

Left: Matisse: Seated Nude, Head on Arms, 1936, private collection
Right: Diebenkorn: Untitled (Seated Nude), 1966, SF MoMA
Also of interest were drawings by Diebenkorn that show substantial reworking (pentimenti), with heavy lines overlaid at the end to mark the artist's final decision about what ought to go where—a technique Matisse used in a number of his drawings. Shown above are the French artist's Seated Nude, Head on Arms from 1936 and Diebenkorn's Untitled (Seated Nude) of 1966.

I also thought it notable that one of the Matisse drawings had been augmented (made larger) with an additional strip of paper added at its top edge. A thumbtack hole is visible in each of the four corners of the original sheet. The artist appears to have run out of space and added the paper at the top, adapting his working space to the demands of a composition in progress. I mention this drawing in particular (Model Resting on Her Arm, 1936) because I have seen film of Diebenkorn working in this way, pasting strips of paper onto a piece in progress as the composition seemed to require. Again the influence of Matisse? (I saw the film at The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in 2015 in conjunction with a show of Diebenkorn's works on paper. The film shows Diebenkorn at work at Crown Point Press, in Oakland, collaborating with master printers Marcia Bartholme and Hidekatsu Takada, in 1986, photographed by Kathan Brown, the founding director of Crown Point Press. A review of that show is here.)

Matisse: French Window at Colliure, 1914
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
The Matisse/Diebenkorn show is a pleasure to walk through because it is a lucid explication by example of the way Diebenkorn learned from Matisse, but it's worth a visit simply because it's a collection of very fine work by both artists and work that we don't often have a chance to see. While I am very familiar with the Ocean Park series, for example, I'd never before seen any of the very early pieces in person, and the SF MoMA show includes Ocean Park No. 6 (1968), Ocean Park No. 12 (1968), Ocean Park No. 27 (1970) and Ocean Park No. 29 (1970). The early numbers look distinctly awkward. You can see Diebenkorn here struggling to find something he hasn't quite figured out yet. By Ocean Park No. 54 (SF MoMA) Diebenkorn has found his stride again. In the mature Ocean Park paintings, Diebenkorn reflects Matisse mostly in his palette and in the use of large, subtly varied planes of pale color broken up by linear elements, mostly lines parallel to the edges of the picture plane or at 45 degrees to those lines (although often ever-so-sligtly askew). Diebenkorn has now completely absorbed Matisse and removed the referential entirely, but, if seen beside Matisse's most experimental work, even these paintings are not so far removed from Matisse as they may at first seem—paintings like French Window at Collioure, from 1914, shown above, or his Seated Pink Nude (below).

There's a lot to see. Matisse/Diebenkorn is a show that will bear more than one visit—perhaps even three.

Matisse: Seated Pink Nude, 1935-36
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Art I'm Making: Wine Label Release, Imagery Estate

The release date for the Imagery Estate wine on which my label will appear has been set. There will be a release party on Sunday, April 9, at the winery (14335 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen, CA 95442; imagerywinery.com; (800) 989-8890).

 I'll be on hand to talk about my work and sign bottles of the wine, the 2016 Muscat de Canelli. The grape is also known as Muscat Canelli, and by a host of other names around the world. According to Jancis Robinson, in her Vines, Grapes, and Wines (Mitchell Beazley, 1986), its proper name is Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. She calls it "the real goody of the Muscat family." Like most Muscats, it usually makes a highly aromatic sweet wine. It is known for its small berries (hence the name, which translates to "Muscat with small berries") and for low yields and thus for high quality. Robinson goes on to say that many believe the Muscat family to be the oldest cultivated by man and that it was Muscat grapes that "Phoenicians, Greeks, and then Romans most commonly dispersed around southern Europe."

I have yet to taste the Imagery Estate version whose label will bear my artwork, but I'm looking forward to giving it a try and to meeting some art and wine enthusiasts at the release party. Please come on by if you can.

Rain: A Little More, for Good Measure (March 21-22, 2017)

In the past 24 hours we've had a little more rain. There was 0.80 inches in the rain gauge this morning. That brings our total for the 2016-2017 rain year at my location in northern Santa Rosa to 49.05 inches.

[Update: We got yet another inch of rain on March 23-24. So we now stand at 50.05 inches at my location. Sonoma County Airport is reporting 52.71 inches, however, which ranks 2016-2017 as the third-wettest winter on record since the 1880s, when recording began. Another 4-6 inches this year would break the record, which is 56.06 inches, set in 1889-1890. All we need is one or two more storms before the end of October.]

[Update: We got another 0.30 inches overnight on March 26-27, bringing the total to 50.35 inches at my location. The forecast is now clear for about 10 days, but who knows what April will bring?]
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