Friday, November 25, 2016

Matisse/Diebenkorn: Paint It Black

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is set in its own majestic portico’d place, augmented with a sweeping addition. It seems very far away from the city, and to travel there is to be (somehow) in art. BMA presents the “Matisse-Diebenkorn” through January 29, 2017 and then, after a re-hanging, the show opens again at SFMOMA in the spring.

What would these two artists say to one another across time? We know that Matisse went all the way to the edge of abstraction and just peered over with great delicacy, (with “View of Notre Dame” in 1914, for example):

and then retreated a few inches.  Diebenkorn set up shop just past his predecessor, but would make use of Matisse’s floral grillwork for safety’s sake.  You’ll see.

Pretty much everyone can picture a Matisse. Close your eyes. Okay? Got one?

This is my Matisse, “Red Room (Harmony in Red)” from 1908:

But not everyone can pull a Richard Diebenkorn image out of thin air.  And if you could, what period would you choose? Abstract? Figurative? or Ocean Park? Maybe, after seeing the show at BMA or SFMOMA, it would be this one, “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965, which is Matissean but also Diebenkornish:

To Begin with Diebenkorn
Let’s start by thinking about the “new” guy. I had seen a massive Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA) in London in the spring of 2015.*  The Royal Academy offered generous texts on their walls and a thorough introduction to the artist on their site. Here is an example:

To weigh Diebenkorn’s reception in England, so Paul Carey-Kent, a financial policy analyst and art critic, brought 6  “well-established painters” to the RA’s Diebenkorn show, and recorded their comments along with his own. Carey-Kent started with the assumption that Diebenkorn is “a painter’s painter.” Half of his guests were pleased with the art on view, half were not. The painters are: Katrina Blamin, Claudia Carr, Christina Niederberger, Michael Stubbs, D.J. Simpson and Dolly Tompsett ; see the article for details (

In the article, Michael Stubbs observes that Diebenkorn’s abstract work of the 1950’s was “typical of the early ‘50’s, in developing a Cubist space into more fluid forms which value spontaneous gestures, and which simultaneously construct and contradict the space.” YES. Diebenkorn faced into everything, right up through Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, and found his own voice. This is what makes him a “painter’s painter”: we can see him struggle, almost watch him think. Diebenkorn reveals everything beautiful and unsightly, brushstrokes that lesser artists would worry about exposing. Here is a detail from “Ocean Park 43” (Royal Academy of Arts exhibition catalogue, 14 March-17 June, 2015, p. 140):

Look at the escaped blue squiggle, up against a deliberate long dripped line. Now take another look at the gray line that anchors the blue triangle: there is another shape partly visible inside that. There are no straight lines on either top or bottom of the purple stripe; the artist didn’t auto-correct. The green drip slams into an orange line that then veers off to nothing, allowing the green to re-appear. This is not the work of a minute. This apparent spontaneity is earned through time and incredible patience on the part of the artist.  Marking, erasure, marking, stopping.

Another of the artists brought to the RA exhibition, D.J. Simpson, uses an electric router to mark/draw onto his wood support, and then paints in the backgrounds to make his art (his art is “fetishising,” says the artist and critic John Chilver). Simpson thinks that Diebenkorn knew exactly “when there was enough push and not enough pull.”  I think that, by “push” Simpson means the sustained agitation in the painting, flowing and just a bit untethered. Here is the question... Does Simpson mean that Diebenkorn would then add in the “pull” to lock in the work? Or does he mean that Diebenkorn would allow the painting to remain un-resolved, that this state of flux was the goal?

Matisse and Diebenkorn
The RA ‘s Diebenkorn show was big and beautiful. But it was a show that crested with the Ocean Park series, as if all the previous work was only preparatory.  The hanging was rather convincing as a yellow brick road, and it left me very little room to breathe. In this context, I saw the 1950’s work as flawed, and left feeling odd. I should have liked it; Diebenkorn is a painter’s painter, and, even more, an abstract painter’s painter.

So I was really eager to see the Matisse-Diebenkorn show.  Would Diebenkorn flounder in the face of the older man’s work? I had expected, because I have always loved him, to gravitate to the Matisses.  A brief aside: here is a lovely Matisse, (not at the show at BMA), called “Entrance to the Casbah,” (1912/3):

Years ago, I had gone to a Matisse show** and loved many paintings with this intense blue-dominated palette and come home immersed in what I thought of “Matisse blue.”  Bonnard said of a Matisse on his walls that

By day it is the blue that takes the lead. What an intense life the colors have, and how they vary with the light!  (1946)

On impulse, I added the color to every canvas then on my studio walls. It ruined them all, of course, because the paintings hadn’t called for that kind of interference.  What kind of interference would Matisse cause Diebenkorn? I thought blue might be involved.

But I was wrong. It was black, deep and abiding black. (Black is so important that one artist has recently claimed exclusive rights to the newest, strongest black mixture, Vantablack  (  
But I get ahead of myself.  I should start with the observation that the wall texts and the essays for this show are entirely convincing. The research is solid, the relationship clear. Diebenkorn studied Matisse beginning with his days at Stanford. He saw Matisse’s paintings in the home of Sarah Stein. He visited MOMA in New York and the Pompidou in Paris. Diebenkorn owned forty-one books on Matisse, even loaning one to MOMA’s curator John Elderfield in 1983 to help with an upcoming exhibition. Diebenkorn saw little-known Matisse paintings as a guest of the Soviet Artists’ Union (Matisse/Diebenkorn catalogue, eds. Janet Bishop and Katherine Rothkopf, BMA and SFMOMA, 2016).

Near the show’s entrance, I found myself moving back and forth, looking at Matisse’s “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel”:

And his “Goldfish and Palette”:

And then, with those two firmly in mind, I took in “Urbana 2”

And “Urbana 6”:

 And basically didn’t want to move on. (So I will basically stay here for this writing, but know that there are many, many more works in the show and go see it!). The irony of the day was that the two Diebenkorn paintings had both been in the RA show, but I obviously hadn’t SEEN them.  I saw them now. And they blew me away. I remember thinking about each one, “is it a room? a landscape? a state of mind?”  The “Urbana” series was all that abstract paintings are meant to be. They were open, un-resolvable, but there might be a key, if I stood there long enough, maybe... I wanted to stay in front of them forever. And what held me in was the black pigment. Look back at “Urbana 6” and imagine just the black in outline as I drew it in my sketchbook:

The shapes are powerful, even in outline, but here they are again in black:

The black paint won’t give it up.  It hangs there, receding and coming forward as if it were actually moving. Curator Janet Bishop writes about “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel” and “Urbana #4” that

... the young painter appears to have repurposed the blocks of color that make up the Parisian studio interior to create a composition seemingly devoid of familiar points of reference (catalogue, p. 23)

This is the goal. The “pull,” Mr. Simpson, is left up to the viewer. 

It is as if Matisse lived long enough to move a little closer to that abstract edge; Diebenkorn completes Matisse’s line of thought, taking the loose shutter of  “French Window at Collioure” (which, curator Katherine Rothkopf writes, was changed by Matisse to cover over  ‘a balcony and a landscape in the distance” were covered over by “a wash of black paint” [!!] (catalogue, p. 123) :

 And fastening it down (the “shutter” in Ocean Park #105):

*My husband, Charles Tarlton, wrote a series of ekphrastic tanka prose about the Ocean Park paintings, based on our visit; see, the entry on Diebenkorn from 11/21/16; there is a drama in prose & poetry on the relationship of Matisse and Picasso printed there as well.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Charles Tarlton's "Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park 17"

"...[the] classic situation of trying to reveal in language what the act of seeing provokes.”
                                                                                                              — Robert Creeley

The artist stands ready in the presence of a blank canvas, but nothing so far has happened.  Up ahead in time a finished painting is waiting, but something has to take place now to launch the creative act.  The painter has a long straight edge and a piece of charcoal; he draws three parallel horizontal lines, and then, fidgeting with the straight edge, lays in three more parallel lines diagonally.  The canvas has been “besmirched,” and the artist has his problem.

these are not pictures
out the transom, but pictures roused
by the geometry
of it. The lines creating
shapes in a regular pattern

from the toothings
of these inaugural gestures
the painting grows
according to a logic born
of the moment’s vagaries

Here is a definition of process.  Building on the stimulus of the first lines he drew on the canvas, the painter improvises colored shapes as needed, drawing other lines, following the promptings of whatever just emerged, gesture, then color, then another gesture, until he is exhausted.  But, wait, the next morning, back in the studio, he repents, and begins to scratch out and paint over yesterday’s markings, leaving hints to reveal here and there the way he had come.

he only knew it was
finished once he’d come back
from abandoning it
in despair, to find it all
working perfectly

any truth in the art
derives from his accruing
fragmented judgments
over a frantic period
of exasperated struggle

You cannot ask what any of it means or represents, more than his efforts to get right the thing that had kept going.  The peculiar angular drawings in the top half of the picture just happened in the working out of pressures from the day before.  They are pictures of nothing, lines arranged to the emotional satisfaction of the artist.  Still, they are interesting, are they not?

what do you think
stairways, the generally celestial?
closer up, the details
confute interpretation in the sense
of particular visions

what’s wonderful
is exactly that elaborate
drawing of figures
without subject or reference
then knowing they were right

All the Ocean Parks started the same manner, though this is not something one can say in a strictly historically way.  No one was there watching, but the familiar diagonals appear in nearly every painting (are they hiding in every one?) cutting across the horizontal-vertical matrix.  And in nearly every painting they have been worked back into the deep pentimenti by over-painting and erasure, never completely obliterated because they constituted the glimpse from which the works arose.  Not perfect evidence, perhaps, but enough to help us understand the genesis of the archetypal motif.

but still it’s details
differentiate each painting
from the others
keep each one interesting
in its own familial way

no two days alike
exactly, no two Ocean Parks
precisely the same
number of triangles, the same
dispositions of red

Art Criticism 101B

what if he had
a giant dictionary in his head
could he give meanings
to the shapes in their arrangement
so we’d know what they meant?

we might then indeed
find California light made manifest
O, geography of the west
in the myriad exotic objects
he is said to have portrayed

*Ocean Park #17 can be viewed online at:

Here is an excerpt from the descriptive curatorial essay on the University of Iowa Museum of Art’s website, a perfect illustration of what is most wrong with Diebenkorn criticism today.

No. 17 is a brilliant example of Richard Diebenkorn's now legendary exploration of architecture and light in his Ocean Park series.  The Ocean Park works are essentially conversations between "ocean" — broad areas of atmospheric color implying nature's vastness — and "park" — ambiguous lines evoking a desire for order and containment.

“Ocean Park” refers neither to the “ocean” nor to a “park,” but to an area near the beach in Santa Monica, California, north and south of Ocean Park Blvd.  This is where Diebenkorn had a studio. 

Architecture?  The idea must arise from all the straight lines.  Light?  All the bright colors, yellow and white, why, they must be representative of—light.  Ocean?  I don’t know.  You tell me.  And park?  You mean park like grass and trees and, oh, aren’t those the legs of giant picnic tables?

Charles Tarlton, "The Turn of Art"

This piece was originally published in Fiction International, Issue 45, "About Seeing." It is dedicated to Janet Bishop, Thomas Weisel Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture, SFMOMA, whose tour around "The Steins Collect" was so exhilarating.

The Turn of Art
A dramatic scene in prose and verse

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris.  It is 1907.
The room is filled with heavy furniture, a large writing desk, sideboards, tables, and cupboards.
1. Pablo Picasso (Left Stage Center) and Henri Matisse (right Stage Center) sit in low chairs across from each other in front of the fireplace (Up Stage Center). They face us as if looking into a camera (think of the famous photo of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by Man Ray taken in 1922).
On the wall (Up Stage Left) behind PICASSO, 5 MATISSE paintings are hanging—Woman in a hat (1905), Madame Matisse (1905), Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-6), Blue Nude (1907), and Self-portrait (1906).

On the wall (Up Stage Right) behind MATISSE we see 5 PICASSO paintings—Boy Leading a Horse (1905-6)), Gertrude Stein (1905-6), Young Acrobat on a Ball (1905), Nude with Joined Hands (1906), and Self-portrait (1906).
once we had turned
our backs on the museums
where could we go?
            Indicates MATISSE, sarcastically.
then he started drawing
lines of paint an inch wide
wasn’t easy
while so many others
were portraying
the fine line of a nose
details in strands of hair
not enough, not
for him.  Just to make it
look like real fruit
no more trompe-l'œil for him
dot’s enough for a nipple
I drew with brush
loads of flat blue house paint
made my lines thick
all around the outside
black between trees and sky

MATISSE stands and crosses the room.  He takes Boy Leading a Horse from the wall and carries it back to his chair.  He leans it against the wall beside his chair and sits down.
Not every one, however, followed my lead.
Pause, admiring Picasso’s picture.
browns and some grays
this is a precocious child’s
drawing.  A horse!
a boy’s dream of the West
the open plains to ride
a poetic
dream might more easily
bring in the cash
hung on their wall till 1913
you often saw it there
Pause, PICASSO points to a spot on the wall
later Nazis forced
von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
to liquidate
art smuggled out and sold
like pigeons in St Marks
swarmed around you
as they changed to property
they escaped like wild birds
I was waiting
for you to drop it all
come up to art
renounce celebrity
stop showing off—show us!
works of genius
make us feel supremely
genius has to give it up
forfeit its advantage
has to give up what?
they used to say
I wish I could draw like that
now they say, anyone could
I felt deeply
every brush stroke of these
as I made them
but in cold aftermath
just financial success
            Pause, as if reflecting.
I was watching, you know, despite my cool demeanor.  But, I loved the life in the cafés, you know, the money, spreading my name around.  And the women, they all wanted to touch my genius. 
You did none of that.  You ran no races, gave no quarter.
How was that?
you were ahead
tossing off thick-limbed monsters
driving me mad
you made these obstacles
I had to climb over
I wanted to paint
with a heavier hand
lose all my fear
of teachers, my father
forget about the saints
could see clearly
down into the world’s heart
below surfaces
but you kept painting them,
the surfaces, the smiles
PICASSO stands and claps.  He then crosses the room behind MATISSE and removes Woman with a hat and carries it back to his chair and holds it on his lap, partly turning it so the audience can see.
this is, of course
all odd lumps of color
rub out the woman’s face
PICASSO covers the face with his hand.
—and behold Kandinsky!
you sped ahead
on wings of distortion
shape and color
yours to waste, invent
new wonders for the eye
no milliner
could make a hat like that
it was conceived
on an insane palette
laughing, you were laughing
MATISSE looks around the room, as if trying to orient himself. Coughs.
Somewhere near here, art’s roadmap changed abruptly.  Up ahead or looking just behind us, out of the corner of my eye, we were poking forward, looking for the line just so we could step over it. 
I saw you coming up.
the other side,
how I longed to be free
there’d be no looking back
make the first real pictures!
2. The stage goes dark. Two middle-aged men emerge from the wings (Down Stage Right) under a single spot, dressed as GERTRUDE STEIN (PETER CARMODY) and ALICE B. TOKLAS (ANDREW BLIGHT) and wearing the same hats worn in the famous snapshot taken in Aix-les-Bains, 1927.
they never knew
what the very next thing 
might be—tiny
legs, an arm, thick as trees
palm tree fronds like fish bones
They were always searching for it, for the new.  At first in different ways; Picasso, of course, classically trained, gifted, was a long time shaking off the lessons, his tutored instincts.  The Blue and Rose periods—he could have been using a camera. 
Henri was different, all for crude outlines, sudden colors, rough dabs of paint, the merest suggestion.
he made it strange
defied the viewer’s eye
no matter what
it was, it disappeared
into paint, just the paint
That’s it, of course.  He overthrew the subject.
Only the paint counted.
That was where the eye fell; there, on the paint, the thick paint piling up, the paint on top of other paint, the paint plowed by the brush like a field readied for planting. 
Look on the wall!  You see the picture of his wife, Madame Matisse, with the green line down her nose?  See what I mean? 
Compare that to Picasso; choose one there on the wall.
What about the portrait of Gertrude Stein?
I mean, my portrait.
PICASSO and MATISSE rise and retrieve their respective paintings and bring them (Down Stage Right).  They stand under the spot, holding the paintings in front of their chests.
He meant it to look like you, a resemblance, but, he said, if it didn’t look like you right now, that was all right, because it eventually would.
it was just exactly me.
PICASSO holds the painting out and turns it so he can see it.  He looks at CARMODY.
I was looking for truth
not just surfaces
behind those eyes, a mind
was watching for a sign
You’re right, I had seen so much
Pauses, musing.
on the lookout
your eyes reach out to probe
what you’re hearing
as if to say, I had hoped
you’d not be like the rest
And, what do we say about Madame Matisse’s portrait? 
Can your discerning eye probe deeper meaning there? 
What do you make of that green stripe?
perhaps you meant
only to encompass
her, register
your discontent with life
the burden of marriage
I always felt
pushed into the background
in those black eyes, stern lips
how would you even know?
I still say it’s the paint; the spirits of all the wild emotions caught up in spread paint, bone splinters in the ambergris—color, thickness, smell—wide brushes. 
It looks like whatever you want it to look like. 
No. It was not about looking, or smelling, or being like anything at all. 
It meant in fact—red, the green, the violet, and orange; just as it means blue, black, and yellow—in any of their many permutations, in a chance encounter, as crude parts of the world.
it was to paint
because I was making
objects from paint
my mind’s eye gave the world
only the quickest glance
3. CARMODY AND BLIGHT exit. Spot off, Stage lights up. MATISSE and PICASSO are back in their chairs.  PICASSO points up at a painting, The Young Acrobat on a Ball.
there’s a story
in that one for certain
pure narrative
tempts us to wondering
who the large sad man is
I contemplate
more the lonely woman
child, boy, and dog
dreamily facing hills
where a white horse grazes
the acrobat
is a boy or a girl
learning to stand
on such uncertainty
focussing attention
it was Giotto
or me, could draw perfect
freehand circles
painted like Velázquez
aims now to be a child
MATISSE crosses the room and stands under his painting, Le Bonheur de Vivre. He points up to it.
Childishness, to be sure, yet there’s nothing childish about it. 
Your hills and distances are but suggested (did you notice?) while the big ideas, all the rest, are wild reds and greens, hints of mythology in all the playful poses, but circles and careless dots for eyes, spring frolics, and a touch of sensuousness, perspective out of whack
—verges on humorous.
far more expressive
than my pouting giant
or my morose
pale hills.  Your lovers run in
search of cartoon nudity
So, you want to talk about nudes?
MATISSE reaches up and removes Nude with Joined Hands.  He looks closely at it.
You were still painting like Velázquez.
you’re so polite
your nude’s too well-mannered
covers herself
could be from Pompey’s walls
a goddess or priestess
she’s a mural
painted on Spanish stucco
inside a church
I meant to paint
women someone could love
I was out to show the world who was master.  Infinite reflection and dark resignation show on the faces of my men; the deepest sadness, calm, or joy appears on the faces of my women, because they are so beautiful. The children know so much. 
I could not paint the kind of pulsing stones, the female boulders you were so happy to make.
I dreamt women
you could take out walking
they’d hold your arm
it took time seeing how
wrong; longer catching up.
4. PICASSO goes behind his chair and takes out a long pointer rod.  He goes over to the paintings and stands in front of Blue Nude.  He points to it.
            Long Pause. He is just looking at the painting, transfixed for a moment.
this was vulgar
so I at first decided
whore-sailor all in one
promiscuously drawn
PICASSO comes to (Down Stage Center), Pauses again, and leans intimately toward the audience, in confidence.
            Pause, sighs in resignation.
this beautiful hulk is
Look at it!  Look at it!
a carcass of hip bones
ankles, twisted rib cage
Pause, to MATISSE directly, as if, for the moment, giving in.
This was your high water mark. 
I knew it instantly.  I ran home and drew a hundred chunky naked women leaning on their elbows, sharp hip bones and one leg flung over the other—a hundred, at least. 
You had launched a thunderbolt, for certain, but I thought to myself, “I will rise to that, rise up to that!”
caught by surprise
lost sight of the way ahead
in a fever to catch up
with this the history
of modern art resumes 
that we could teach
the art world to embrace
this meaty toad
love and art together
move closer to the truth
The way ahead congealed, the compass and the raw materials were set. 
If anyone could have seen into the future, this would have been…
MATISSE makes an all-inclusive gesture with his waving arm.
…where it all started.
5. PICASSO reaches up and takes down the Self-portrait by MATISSE; MATISSE takes down the Self-portrait by PICASSO.  They both come (Down Stage Center) and stand holding the paintings and facing the audience. PICASSO pulls a false beard from the portrait of MATISSE. The two portraits reveal a strong family resemblance—the portraits of two brothers.