I've never been to California, but the light and colors in Richard Diebenkorn's paintings offer a glimpse of it. A frantic, sunny chaos permeates his Berkeley paintings, and the coastal colors in his landlocked Urbana paintings feel less real, more simulated and remembered. And then there are his roads—whether or not they're literal roads, or abstracted lines that zip and wind through many of his works.
Diebenkorn's artistic career ran the gamut from non-objective abstraction, back to figuration and still life, and then again back to abstraction, but many of these boundaries were fuzzy. Though of course Diebenkorn looked to other artists (it's easy to pick up an Edward Hopper or a Willem de Kooning reference here and there), no one gave him as much inspiration over the years as Matisse, whose work he was first introduced to at the home of collector Sarah Stein (sister-in-law to Gertrude and Leo) while he was an undergrad student at Stanford University. They never met in person, but Diebenkorn's obsession with Matisse was well-documented, and his relationship to the French painter was one of continuous study, immersion, and absorption.
Back to those roads. Somewhere in the middle of the exhibit, between Diebenkorn's bright and articulate residential landscapes, 'Cityscape #1' and 'Ingleside' which both feature wide and curving paved streets cutting through, is the much smaller painting 'Notre Dame, a Late Afternoon' (1902) by Matisse. It's a hazy, warm purple and blue high-up view of the famous cathedral and the Seine River, with indistinct people traversing the walkways next to it, and crossing the bridge over it. Here, the painting's soft touch and cool colors contrast sharply with its neighboring Diebenkorns—it's disorienting to the eyes, like trying to adjust to a dark room after being out in the sun. Where Matisse often employs line to emphasize forms and figures, we don't find that here. And after making our way through some of Diebenkorn's earlier work, getting used to his emphasis on designing and flattening space, or his jumbled and anxious piles of abstract shapes, here we see a more calculated exaggeration of depth and space, where the hills of San Francisco are almost caricatured. It's an interesting play or reversal between what we're used to seeing from the two artists.
On the neighboring wall, Matisse's 'The Blue Window' (1913) hangs with its cool, modernist, blue interior/exterior; we see through large window panes (or, a disappeared wall) that the sky and bulbous trees are similar hues to the interior, making them feel like part of the same continuous space. Pops of orange vases, a portrait bust, a rug or a bowl—ordinary objects that seem special simply because of their careful placement—enliven the room. Next to this is Diebenkorn's 'Man and Woman in a Large Room' (1957)—a painting of two faceless people surrounded by an overwhelming dark space, with a few bright spots in the three windows and a doorway. Like Matisse, Diebenkorn here ruptures the whole mood of the painting, bringing the outside to the inside, flattening planes and putting everything on the same level, creating a foreboding tension between the figures and the space they occupy.
"Matisse/Diebenkorn" is up at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Jan. 29, with extended hours: Viewers can see it until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and beginning at 10 a.m. on weekends. There will be a curatorial talk with Katy Rothkopf on Jan. 12 from 7-8 p.m. For more info, visit the BMA's website.