Henri Matisse: “Exactitude is not truth.” …… Richard Diebenkorn: “One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the artist.”
Henri Matisse: “I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors is black.” …… Richard Diebenkorn: “It’s starting with a plan and letting the painting change your mind.”
Recently I had the great pleasure of seeing the exhibition, Matisse/Diebenkorn, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. My husband and I made a spur of the moment decision to hop on a plane to Baltimore for the sole purpose of spending two glorious days with two of my all-time favorite artists. The exhibition was all that I hoped for and more!
All artists are inspired and influenced by other artists both past and present. One can find many fine examples throughout art history of artists being inspired and influenced by other artists and how necessary those influences were in discovering their individual voices. Richard Diebenkorn spoke often about being inspired and influenced by Henri Matisse, the artist whose approach resonated with him most deeply. After seeing a Matisse exhibition in 1952, thirty year old Diebenkorn felt that he began to internalize new ways of looking, seeing, and translating the world onto the flat picture surface. Matisse, often cited as the father of Modernism, posited that shapes that correspond with objects in a representational painting could also function in terms of the abstract formal elements, something that Diebenkorn focused on in his figurative images, which in turn profoundly influenced my own figurative work.
In his essay for the exhibition catalog, John Elderfield wrote, “Matisse and Diebenkorn both began with the wish to record something close at hand – to make an image that rang true to their experience of it. Then, in their different ways – both came to the realization that to make a true statement in a painting – something that spoke credibly of its subject in their own individual voices – would require attending very carefully to the language of art. This obliged them to both pay attention and call attention to the means they used. It is reasonable that critics have concentrated mostly on the stylistic affinities between the two artists, but their most important practical commonality may be a quality of alertness – a mixture of judgment and vigilance – about what happens in the process of making a painting.”
The paintings were in chronological order, with many side by side examples of both artists’ work. Seeing the paintings and listening to the very informative audio lecture, I felt that I was privy to a lively chat the two artists were engaged in about abstraction, flatness, color, form, space, and “grand compositions”. They spoke not a word about exactitude, they chatted mostly about the glorious process of painting – spontaneous and improvisational mark making, juicy and expressive brushstrokes, and how much depth and meaning they felt that the erasures, corrections, and revisions they made in their paintings added to their final imagery.
I found myself adding my own thoughts and ideas to the spirited chat as I listened, looked, and internalized it all. On day two I brought a notebook with me and took extensive notes on ideas that resonated with me throughout the chat. I was already very familiar with both Matisse’s and Diebenkorn’s work as the paintings of both artists have been major influences in my own work. They were the mentors I turned to for answers when I was desperately seeking ways to get past “the exactitude factor” in my paintings – what Cezanne referred to as “the tyranny of subject matter.” And Diebenkorn ‘s improvisational approach of “plastering it on”, making changes, revisions, and corrections during the process of painting, and letting the painting change his mind deeply resonated with me and was very instrumental in my decision fifteen years ago to move from transparent to opaque watercolor. Diebenkorn was sometimes called “indecisive” because of his painting process, and when I first read that I had an “aha” moment and became aware of the fact that in my painting, I’m pretty indecisive too. Not a good trait for a transparent watercolorist! I felt like I was given permission to own my indecisiveness and to stop trying to change my personality to suit a painting medium – I needed to find a painting medium that suited my personality.
The Boston Globe called the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition “deeply stirring; the result is an unusually beautiful show, in which the unique glow emitted by one painter meets the glow from another and seems almost to create new atmospheric conditions.”
I am so grateful I had the privilege of basking in that glow. I’m already dreaming up new ways of looking, seeing, internalizing, and translating my subject matter onto the flat picture surface.