The idea for this show began with the discovery of two drawings in the basement of the Baltimore Museum of Art, one by Matisse and the other, by Diebenkorn. The curators were captured by the links between the two pieces of art.
They went from this finding to the discovery of many other works that reveal how hard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) had looked at Matisse's (1869-1954) work and used it in his own. The walls of this exhibit tell the story of how Diebenkorn, who collected as many books about Matisse and attended as many shows of Matisse's work as he could, saw something in a Matisse painting or drawing that he then adapted and moved forward. That something might be a strong diagonal black line, a splash of bright hot orange-red in a painting made up of large areas of cool color, a fusing of the outdoor landscape and the indoor interior, the reduction of the figure or portrait to the essential drawn lines, the arrangement of patterns and blocks of color...
Beware: The relationship between Matisse and Diebenkorn should not be seen simply as one artist copying another. Diebenkorn did his very distinctive work through and beyond the work of another unique artist, Matisse. Diebenkorn saw things in Matisse that helped resolve problems that he, Diebenkorn, had been struggling with. An example of such a problem was Diebenkorn's wonder at what to do about facial features in a painting that was on the border between abstract and figurative. He used Matisse to bridge the gap he had been trying to cover; for example, Matisse provided him many examples of heads without any features or with only simple lines indicating eyes, nose, and mouth. In many instances, it is as if Diebenkorn had been able to so deeply and carefully enter Matisse's imagination that he could use it to take a next step in art: A step that solved a problem for Diebenkorn and enhanced the contribution Matisse has left to all of us.
Some students who took my study of lives (psychobiography/life writing) class may remember a class exercise in which everyone wrote an obituary for herself or himself. The obituary could be written as if one died in one's present state or at some imagined future time. If you remember the assignment, you remember the distress it provoked. In light of that, I offered my own version of the exercise. In my first paragraph, I wrote that I died in a museum while looking at a canvas by Matisse. I was so overwhelmed by its beauty that I just dropped dead in front of it.
I really liked the Baltimore show but I am happy to report that I left breathing; deeply, pleasantly breathing.
But if I had been overwhelmed, it might have been by this very large nude (36 1/4" x 28 3/4") by Matisse, 1935-36, that I don't remember ever seeing before.