Last week in San Francisco, I went to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn show. It’s a beautifully put together exhibition which would’ve been perfect if not for the Saturday throngs which sardined their way through its galleries. I would’ve loved to’ve wandered through and lingered at this or that picture without phalanxes of audio-tour zombies blocking my view. But those are perfect world type gripes. I feel lucky that I got to see these paintings and to be reminded of some of my own painting roots, in which these two artists have played a not-insignificant part.
Throughout the show, examples of Matisse’s and Diebenkorn’s work are paired on the same wall. Sometimes it’s the color palette, other times a pattern or compositional similarity, but in all cases the curators have found great resonances between the two artists.
The pictures which spoke to me the most were ones where studio walls were depicted with paintings or drawings on them. Ever since art school I’ve had a wall of my studio devoted to reproductions of art I like. Twenty years ago I did a series of paintings which referred to these clippings as a wall of fame.
In the first painting of the series, there is a Diebenkorn studio sink painting right in the middle. There have been many other pictures which have incorporated works in progress or the work of others hung on apartment walls. Painting paintings of paintings adds a layer of complexity to depicting one’s reality. Like quoting a favorite writer, sampling, or riffing on a standard, it is a way to pay tribute, to acknowledge one’s own past, or to note the continuity in which the work exists.
As years pass I’ve forgotten about how much guys like Diebenkorn and Matisse influenced me. Seeing how one influenced the other brought it all back home. How almost nothing is made in a vacuum. That painting is an established language which, however much it mutates, remains readable through the ages. Late in the show—mostly devoted to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series—we see where he went to a level of abstraction which Matisse didn’t quite reach. But the older artist’s spare late paintings come pretty damn close to becoming completely untethered from the material plane as well.
Whether painting paintings into their paintings or teetering on abstraction, these guys have been two of my most trusted guides and it was great to be reminded of that by this show. I sometimes forget that I don’t come from nowhere but it isn’t true, no matter how much it sometimes feels that way. Between the two, there were canvases which accounted for most of the twentieth century. I overlap with Diebenkorn for my first seventeen years and his last. There many others who took some part of what he did and ran their own way with it. Perhaps someday, some museum even half as grand as the newly refurbished San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, there will be a show devoted to us as well.