New BMA exhibit showcases Matisse paintings alongside works of one of his heirs, Diebenkorn

Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn make a joyous mess on canvas at the Baltimore Museum of Art

The studios used by the painter Henri Matisse and one of his most illustrious heirs, Richard Diebenkorn, were separated by not quite half a century and nearly 5,400 miles.

Yet the similarities between the artworks depicting these two very different rooms — Matisse's studio in northwestern France in 1916 and Diebenkorn's workplace in Berkeley, Calif., in 1963 — nearly leap off the canvasses.

Both paintings will be on view Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the illuminating exhibit "Matisse/Diebenkorn."

"Richard Diebenkorn was more inspired by Henri Matisse than by any other artist," says the show's co-curator, Katy Rothkopf. "Though that link is well-known, this is the first major show in which the two artists have ever been shown together."

Most people today have heard of Matisse; he and Pablo Picasso are widely acknowledged as the two foremost artists of the first half of the 20th century. Diebenkorn hasn't yet achieved the same penetration into popular culture.

But Rothkopf, who co-curated the show, says that art world cognoscenti rank Diebenkorn with such seminal painters as Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still.

Though Diebenkorn died in 1993, his paintings continue to fetch a lot of money. In 2014, the artist's "Ocean Park #89," an abstract image of a sunset he created in 1975, sold at auction in New York for $9.68 million.

"My father was a tremendous fan of Matisse's for his whole life," says Diebenkorn's daughter, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant. "He would be very pleased that their work is being shown together. My father never stopped seeing, never stopped working, never stopped thinking about what he was doing."

Juxtaposing the old master with the younger one can be illuminating.

For instance, both paintings of the artists' workspaces — Matisse's "Studio, Quai Saint-Michel" and Diebenkorn's "Studio Wall, 1963" — feature one or two chairs in front of a dark wall, on which are tacked up examples of the artists' recent work.

Matisse's studio contains a nude woman reclining on a red bedspread and posing for the unseen artist. Diebenkorn's studio has no live model, but one wall sketch shows a naked woman posed nearly identically to Matisse's subject.

But Diebenkorn's nude is noticeably more erotic. Where Matisse is relatively circumspect in depicting the female anatomy, the later painter is detailed.

Artists who paint their studios are making both an intensely personal statement and a declaration of ambition. Diebenkorn couldn't have expressed his intentions more clearly: He planned to follow the artistic path originally blazed by Matisse. But he would forge ahead in his own way.

Christopher Bedford, who recently became the new head of the Baltimore Museum of Art, described the show as "a gift-wrapped present for an incoming director" and said the exhibit presages the direction in which he hopes to guide the institution.

"This is a model of what museums can achieve when they invest in the curators who are their brain trusts," Bedford says. "This is a bicoastal partnership that has been in gestation for 15 years and which is grounded in original research."

The exhibit, co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, contains 36 paintings and drawings by Matisse and 56 by Diebenkorn. But it is in many ways the more contemporary artist's show.

The questions that Rothkopf, the BMA's senior curator of European painting and sculpture, and her California co-curator, Janet Bishop, seek to answer are about the French painter's influence on the American: Which works by Matisse would Diebenkorn have been familiar with? Which of Matisse's motifs, palette and techniques did Diebenkorn borrow for his work, and in what way did he put his own spin on them?

The show traces Diebenkorn's somewhat contrarian journey from the abstract works he did early in his career to his switch to more representational paintings, at a time when such a choice was considered positively regressive — especially for a successful abstract artist. Then, in later years, the artist moved back to conceptual art and created the lyrical planes of color in what now is his most celebrated work, his Ocean Park series.

Museumgoers may find themselves running back and forth between galleries, tracking the decades-long, if mostly one-sided, conversation between the artists about color and form.

Rothkopf said that when Diebenkorn was serving in the Marine Corps in 1944, he was stationed in Virginia and took that opportunity to scour local arts institutions — including the Baltimore Museum of Art. He was a passionate admirer of stylists ranging from Paul Cezanne to Edward Hopper. But it was during his Washington-area years that he fell for Matisse. When he examined how Matisse handled the view from windows in his paintings, it was a revelation.

"He loved the structure of the Matisse paintings and his use of color," Rothkopf says. "And he loved the way that Matisse treated what was inside [the window] and what was outside as equally important."

In paintings such as Matisse's 1918 artwork "Interior with a Violin," and Diebenkorn's 1962 "Interior with Doorway," the objects closest to the viewer are no more or less important than their more distant surroundings. No element is privileged over any other. A musical instrument in its case, a folding chair, a bush growing toward the sun, the gas station across the street — all seem to carry the same visual weight.

Grant says that for her father, studying a work of art required the utmost concentration. On museum excursions, family members were expected to entertain themselves.

"We would all look at the art separately," Grant says. "My father was very involved in what he was seeing and didn't like to talk much when he was looking at art. Even today, I'm always shocked when I see two people standing in front of a painting and carrying on a conversation."

Diebenkorn and Matisse also shared a fascination with the process of painting and wanted viewers to understand how particular artworks were created. They did it by not hiding or covering over their false starts and changes of direction.

For instance, Matisse's "View of Notre Dame, 1914" is an energetic, monumental mess. Steel-blue paint is all over the place. You can see where Matisse started to draw a shape, and then scratched it out. But the painting is so alive, it almost shoves its way out of its frame.

Similarly, in Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park #93," the brush strokes in the mostly beige background couldn't seem more slapdash. No house painter ever would leave a wall looking so streaky and with the old green background leaking through the creamy top coat. And yet the work shimmers with such a serene light that viewers who spend any time in front of the canvas may feel their shoulders relax.

Not surprisingly, Diebenkorn's two children were encouraged to make their own drawings and paintings when they were growing up. But Grant remembers that one standard tool, in particular, was noticeably absent.

"My father was not interested in making things look perfect," she says. "We could never find any erasers in the house."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Matisse/Diebenkorn" runs Sunday through Jan. 29 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. This is a ticketed exhibition, costing $7.50-$17.50. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org. The artist's daughter, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, will conduct a free talk at 2 p.m. Sunday at the museum in which she shares memories of her father.

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