This past January I was staying with friends in Baltimore who took it upon themselves to educate me about their city. They drove me through beautiful neighborhoods, fed me legendary donuts, told me stories of departed mayors and fallen families, and after dark led me through secret doors of hidden cocktail emporiums. Naturally a visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art was also in order, to see the Cone Sisters’ Collection and catch a glimpse of something else interesting and beautiful. Since the museum was flying banners about the final days of their Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition—which had been a smash hit of a show for them—none of us needed convincing.
Left: Matisse, Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908
Right: Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965
If Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) is new to you, or you’re unsure what to make of his giant abstractions, to walk through this show is to see him explain himself through his enthusiasm for Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Hung side by side with the more familiar canvases by the older painter, Diebenkorn’s paintings make perfect sense. You begin to understand the language he is speaking; you see that many of them are answers to the same questions that Matisse was asking about what to paint and how to paint it. It’s a big show: 92 paintings and drawings with lots of visual room around each one so you can share the space with your fellow art lovers, and think about the comparison you are being offered. The curators succeed in making you feel smarter about everything you’ve seen, which is of course, the point. (If you are interested in more detail about the show, there are a number of reviews online, but you can start with the exhibit’s website. Naturally, the best thing you can do is to get to the show, now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, before it closes on May 29, and I urge you to do so if you are lucky enough to be in the area.)
Left: Matisse, The Yellow Dress, 1931
Right: Diebenkorn, Seated Figure with Hat, 1965
I loved the show. I found it beautiful. And inspirational. I had already become interested in Richard Diebenkorn due to a conversation I had at Rhinebeck last October with Brooke Sinnes, the natural dyer and yarn designer behind Sincere Sheep yarns, when she told me Diebenkorn was one of her touchstones. She’d grown up with a large poster of Ocean Park 79 in her living room, and that painting had remained a favorite. Inclined as we both are to turn every conversation to textiles, we had brainstormed about the creative possibilities to be found in his later paintings—the Ocean Park series—and how pretty any one of them would be if someone took the time to transcribe it into knitting. As I often look at art and wonder in textile terms about the fabrics worn by the portrait sitter, or the rug draped over the table, or if the painting itself would make a nice fabric design, this just seemed natural and obvious.
So, in the final room of the Matisse/Diebenkorn show, finding myself in front of Brooke’s favorite painting, I was entranced by all of the blues, so many of them familiar to me from Brooke’s own range of colors, many of them waiting at home for me in a box of Cormo she had recently sent. One thing became immediately apparent: I had to see if our knitting theory would work. I pulled out the highly technical note pad I keep in my purse for such occasions and I made a highly technical drawing, complete with row counts.
When I got home, I knit what I had drawn.
Which, given a simple rotation, is obviously this:
The swatch is only about 8 inches wide, but I am quite smitten with this as an audition for a larger shawl. I can’t claim that this is an original design (although I am rather proud of myself for that running stitch of red) but rather, quite literally, a transcription of a work of art in a new medium, matching the color and proportion of the original. The twist is to see the painting as a map for knitting.
Canvas for canvas, the Matisse/Diebenkorn show demonstrates that when an artist looks at another artist, there’s an impulse to respond. Diebenkorn pursued Matisse because the older painter’s work unfailingly excited his own creativity, and drove him to become a better painter, culminating in a few of the Ocean Park series represented by a handful of those canvases in the final room. Brooke’s favorite, number 79, was the exclamation point at the end. It seems the logical consequence of all that had come before, and is the show’s summation statement. Standing in front of Ocean Park 79 in real life, I had a new appreciation for it. I liked it even more for a lot of new Matisse-inflected reasons. And the show’s overriding thesis made me feel quite comfortable—as an artist—with knitting my own response.
And so I did.