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Property from a Prominent West Coast Collection

Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad

Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'RD 65' (lower right); signed, titled and dated again 'RECOLLECTIONS OF A VISIT TO LENINGRAD R. DIEBENKORN 1965' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
71 3⁄8 x 83 1⁄8 in. (181.3 x 211.1 cm.)
Painted in 1965.
Poindexter Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1969
“Venice 34,” Art Education, vol. 22, no. 1, January 1969, pp. 22 and 24 (illlustrated).
H. Kramer, “Diebenkorn’s Mastery,” New York Times, 12 June 1977, p. D25 (illustrated).
H. J. Seldis, “Diebenkorn’s Triumphant Retrospective, ” Los Angeles Times, 21 August 1977, p. 78.
E. Busche, “Richard Diebenkorn,” Das Kunstwerk, October 1977, p. 43.
C. Curtis, “Diebenkorn – Fields of Color,” Daily Californian, 11 November 1977, p. 16 (illustrated).
T. Albright, “Diebenkorn’s ‘Ocean Park’ – A New World,” San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, 20 November 1977, pp. 48-49 (illustrated).
Richard Diebenkorn: 38th Venice Biennial, exh. cat., New York, American Federation of Arts, 1978, p. 23.
J. Lipman and R. Marshall, Art about Art, New York, 1978, p. 105 (illustrated).
R. T. Buck Jr., “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Paintings,” Art International, vol. 2, no. 5, Summer 1978, p. 31.
H. Kramer, “Art: ‘About Art,’ Parodies, at Whitney,” New York Times, 21 July 1978, p. C17.
G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York 1987, pp. 131, 134 and 138.
The Drawings of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1988, p. 39, fig. 15 (illustrated).
J. Flam, Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park, New York, 1992, p. 14, fig. 3 (illustrated).
K. Baker, “The Big Picture on Diebenkorn,” San Francisco Chronicle, 19 November 1992, p. D1 (illustrated).
G. Glueck, “A Painter Unafraid to Change Styles,” New York Times, 10 October 1997, p. E33.
H. Kramer, “Hail, Richard Diebenkorn! So Heroic, So Underrated,“ New York Observer, 20 October 1997, p. 31.
F. Prose, “Diebenkorn’s Many-Layered Delights,” Wall Street Journal, 23 October 1997, p. A17.
R. Kimball, “Rightness Rising,” Times Literary Supplement, 23 January 1998, p. 19.
K. Baker, “A Window on a World of Shape and Color,” Smithsonian, March 1998, p. 80 (illustrated).
J. Loughery, “American Art: The Center and the Edge,” Hudson Review, vol. 51, no. 1, Spring 1998, p. 187.
L. J. O’Donovan, “Coming Home,” Washingtonian, May 1998, p. 62.
J. Dorsey, “Elegantly Balanced in the 20th Century: Richard Diebenkorn Found an Equilibrium between Abstraction and Representation, European and American Influences,” Baltimore Sun, 5 July 1998, p. 56.
V. Dalkey, “Richard Diebenkorn: Master of Color and Space,” Sacramento Bee, 8 November 1998, p. 187.
R. Kimball, Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity, Chicago, 2003, p. 242.
J. Arrouye, ed., Cézanne, d’un siécle à l’autre, Marseille, 2006, pp. 194-195 and 199.
B. Weidle, “Richard Diebenkorn,” Künstler: Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, vol. 73, no. 2, January-March 2006, pp. 9-10, fig. 11 (illustrated).
L. Garrard, Colourfield Painting: Minimal, Cool, Hard Edge, Serial and Post Painterly Abstract Art of the Sixties to the Present, Kent, 2007, p. 155.
Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015, pp. 50 and 60-61, fig. 25 (illustrated).
J. Livingston and A. Liguori, eds., Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné, Volume Three, Catalogue Entries 1535-3761, New Haven and London, 2016, pp. 657-659, no. 3642 (illustrated).
K. Houston, “To Follow and Extend: Matisse / Diebenkorn,” Bmore Art, 31 October 2016, digital (illustrated).
R. Kirkman, “Dance of Anxiety,” Baltimore City Paper, 11 January 2017, p. 23.
L. Guimarães, “Richard Diebenkorn, O Matisse Americano, ” O Estado de Sao Paulo, 22 January 2017, p. 81.
P. Kennicott, “Watching Diebenkorn Follow, Then Pass, Matisse,” Washington Post, 18 January 2017, p. C2.
C. Desmarais, “2 Masters Seen Side By Side,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 March 2017, p. E2.
J. H. Dobrzynski, “Masters Across the Decades,” Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2017, p. A13.
J. Couzens, “See Vividly How One Great Artist Inspired Another,” Sacramento Bee, 24 March 2017, p. 20.
A. Osterweil, “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” Artforum, vol. 55, no. 9, May 2017, p. 339.
K. Crim, “Into His Lap,” Threepenny Review, vol. 38, no. 2, Summer 2017, p. 25.
Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942-1955, exh. cat., Sacramento, Crocker Art Museum, 2017, p. 223.
S. Nicholas, Richard Diebenkorn: A Retrospective, New York, 2019, pp. 137, 157, 323 and 352 (illustrated).
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, One Hundred and Sixty-Third Annual Exhibition, January-March 1968, n.p., no. 72.
Venice, U.S. Pavilion; Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute, National Collection of Fine Arts and Lincoln, University of Nebraska, Sheldon Museum of Art, XXXIV Esposizione biennale internazionale d’arte di Venezia: La tradizione figurativa nell’arte americana recente, June 1968-April 1969, p. 151, no. 46.
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Cincinnati Art Museum; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Oakland Museum of California, Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1976, November 1976-November 1977, pp. 39 and 43, fig. 64, no. 57 (illustrated).
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Richard Diebenkorn, November 1992-January 1993.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Richard Diebenkorn, October 1997-January 1999, p. 185, no. 133 (illustrated).
San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and Palm Springs Art Museum, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953-1966, June 2013-February 2014, pp. 59 and 207, pl. 142 (illustrated).
Baltimore Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Matisse/Diebenkorn, October 2016-May 2017, pp. 15, 121 and 131, pl. 72 (illustrated on p. 131 and the front cover).

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Richard Diebenkorn’s Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad is a groundbreaking painting that celebrates his admiration for the work of Henri Matisse and the profound effect the French master’s paintings had on his own career. Previously only encountered through books, in the 1960s Diebenkorn made a rare trip to the Soviet Union where he saw dozens of Matisse’s paintings in person. This momentous encounter began Diebenkorn’s move towards the new abstracted planes of rich and vibrant color that would result in his iconic Ocean Park canvases. Not only is this particular painting an homage to Matisse, it also documents the tectonic shifts that were taking place in the wider art world at the time, as the influence of abstraction was beginning to wain with the emergence of Pop Art. Seeing the work of Matisse firsthand encouraged Diebenkorn to challenge the existing hegemony and pursue the emergence of his new artistic vocabulary. Widely published (including on the cover of the 2016 exhibition catalogue for Matisse/Diebenkorn at the Baltimore Museum of Art), and extensively exhibited around the world, this sumptuous canvas becomes a painting about painting, and celebrates two of the twentieth century’s most avant-garde artists.

Across the surface of this monumental canvas evidence emerges of the new direction which Matisse’s influence had prompted in Diebenkorn’s work. Gone is the dynamic brushwork that the American artist had employed to manipulate the fields of organic color in his Sausalito, Albuquerque, Urbana, and Berkeley paintings of the 1950s. Also absent are the figures that he had introduced into his work in the late 1950s and early 1960s, replaced instead by bold geometric planes of jewel-like color. Depth and perspective are still present, but in a much diminished form. Bisected by a series of strong vertical lines, the composition of the present work appears to be a highly abstracted view of a landscape as viewed through a window. In the distance, blocks of verdant green, warm cream, and azure blue evoke a lawn, beach and deep ocean respectively, while a highly abstracted floral pattern is carefully rendered in the upper left quadrant.

Diebenkorn had already explored the idea of interior versus exterior space in a number of paintings dating from the late 1950s. In works such as Coffee (1959, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Woman on a Porch (1956, New Orleans Museum of Art), the artist began to merge figurative and abstract elements into one composition by tempering the traditional use of linear perspective. In the present work however, he goes a step further and uses his bold fields of color to the extreme, flattening the composition to a greater extent. In this matter, he was using references that Matisse had employed in the early part of the twentieth century in Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (1914, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) and Tangiers: Landscape seen through a Window (1912, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), taking them to their ultimate compositional conclusion. In the latter example, Matisse’s strong framework of black lines against a brushy blue ground has clear parallels in Diebenkorn’s later Ocean Park paintings that were the direct of result of Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad.

The highly decorative floral curlicues that populate the upper left quadrant of the present work can be read as a direct reference to one of most famous of the Matisse’s paintings, and a canvas which Diebenkorn saw firsthand during his visit to Leningrad. Red Room (Harmony in Red) (1908) is one of the French artist’s most radical paintings, and—like the present work—it is a striking essay on treatment of interior and exterior space. Like Diebenkorn, Matisse’s conflation of interior and exterior space results in a striking composition in which subsequent compositional elements are pushed forward, almost out through the picture plane. In Matisse’s painting this is enhanced by his audacious use of red pigment, while for Diebenkorn his blocks of rich colors are overlaid with a trellis of curvaceous serpentine forms. The American artist elevates Matisse’s motif by tracing a much more capricious route, with pronounced twists and turns. Diebenkorn also introduces more distinct tendrils, some of which end with flowers that resemble bursts of color, resulting in a highly pattered, almost Nabis-like, density of decoration.
The artist’s 1964 visit to the Soviet Union was made at the invitation of the U.S. State Department as part of a cultural exchange initiated by President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev. As abstraction was something of an anathema to Russian artists raised on a state approved diet of Socialist Realism, Diebenkorn was a natural choice due the well-regarded figurative works that he was engaged with at the time. He was officially a guest of the Soviet Artists’ Union and spent much of his time visiting various art schools and meeting with fellow artists. However, he also took the opportunity to visit some of the greatest collections of his favorite artist, Henri Matisse, particularly those of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

Both museums contained works that had once belonged to the famed collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, before the paintings were seized by the state in 1917. Subsequently, they were divided up between the two institutions and are now regarded as being two of the finest collections of Matisse’s work in existence. Diebenkorn had seen Matisse’s work reproduced in books, and in limited quantities in U.S. museums, but it was his visit to Leningrad (now known as Saint Petersburg) that arguably had the greatest effect on him. He was given a private tour through the Hermitage galleries and was also allowed to examine many works that weren’t on public display. His state department companion recalled at the time that the artist “lingered [over] and pondered longest, the Matisse paintings” (W. Luers quoted by K. Rothkopf, in J. Bishop and K. Rothkopf, Matisse/Diebenkorn, exh. cat. Baltimore Museum of Art, 2016, p. 120). Diebenkorn later recalled that this experience was “the highpoint of going through the Soviet Union” (R. Diebenkorn, ibid.); the visit clearly had a major impact on the artist as it directly inspired Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad painted just a few months later.
Although separated by over half a century, there are common threads that run through the careers of both Richard Diebenkorn and Henri Matisse. They were both artists who constantly sought to reinvent themselves, and both possessed what has been described as “a strong commitment to exploration and shrugging off expectation” (K. Rothkopf, “Richard Diebenkorn and Matisse, from Russia to Ocean Park,” in J. Bishop and K. Rothkopf, Matisse/Diebenkorn, exh. cat. Baltimore Museum of Art, 2016, p. 117). The pair also shared a love—and consummate understanding of—color and structure, along with an interest in technique, particularly the layering, scrapping away adding paint to achieve the architectural qualities that infuse many of their compositions.

While often discussed as a member of the West Coast branch of Abstract Expressionism, especially in relation to his Sausalito, Albuquerque, Urbana, and Berkeley paintings which he began in the late 1940s, Diebenkorn was also a critical founding member of the movement that would become known as Bay Area Figuration. Along with his colleagues David Park and Elmer Bischoff, the artist started introducing human forms into his abstractions beginning in 1955. “As soon as I started using the figure my whole idea of painting changed”, said Diebenkorn. “Maybe not in the most obvious structural sense, but these figures distorted my sense of interior or environment, or the painting itself—in a way that I welcomed ... In abstract painting one can’t deal with ... an object or person, a concentration of psychology which a person is as opposed to where the figure isn’t in the painting ... And that’s the one thing that’s always missing for me in abstract painting, that I don’t have this kind of dialogue between elements that can be ... in extreme conflict” (R. Diebenkorn, tape-recorded interview with S. Larsen, May 1, 1985, transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 3).

"One of the most interesting polarities in art is between representation at one end of the stick, and abstraction at the other end, and I’ve found myself all over that stick."
Richard Diebenkorn

Throughout his career, Diebenkorn shifted approaches: he moved from his abstract paintings to figurative scenes in 1955, and then—following his visit to the Soviet Union—transitioned again in the mid-1960s to the abstract Ocean Park series. Unbeholden to any strict movement or school, he was a boldly independent artist, constantly evaluating and re-evaluating his own work in order to evolve. “If you don’t assume a rigid historical mission,” he reflected, “you have infinitely more freedom. One of the most interesting polarities in art is between representation at one end of the stick, and abstraction at the other end, and I’ve found myself all over that stick” (R. Diebenkorn quoted in S. Bancroft, Richard Diebenkorn: A Riotous Calm, exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London 2015, p. 17).

The resulting Ocean Park paintings would become the pinnacle of his career. In one memorable review, John Russell—art critic of the New York Times—remarked that Diebenkorn’s paintings were “one of the most majestic pictorial achievements of the second half the century, in this country or anywhere else” (J. Russell in S. C. Bancroft, Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, exh. cat., Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, 2012, p.233). Beginning in 1968 and continuing for the next 18 years, Diebenkorn would produce no fewer than 145 paintings in this series. His paintings from the early 1970s (including those which trace their lineage to his Leningrad visit and the present work) are regarded as some of his most considered, and several other Ocean Park paintings from this period are contained in major museum collections including Ocean Park #45 (1971) in the Art Institute of Chicago and Ocean Park #79 (1972) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The present work is an important painting within Diebenkorn’s oeuvre and has been widely exhibited in a number of important retrospectives of the artist’s work, including the seminal Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1976 organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, and which later traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The work was also illustrated on the cover of the catalogue for the Baltimore Museum of Art’s critically acclaimed Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition in 2016, which traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The painting also comes with exceptional provenance; the present owner acquired the painting in 1969, becoming its first and only owner. It has been on view at the Crocker Museum in California for a number of years, where it was the centerpiece of their celebrated postwar American art collection.

Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad marks a pivotal point in the artist’s career, and that of postwar art in general. Through his encounters with the work of Paul Cezanne, Piet Mondrian, Pierre Bonnard and ultimately Henri Matisse, Diebenkorn witnessed the march towards abstraction—from Cezanne’s collapsing and juxtaposing foreground and background, to Matisse's organization of space within geometric scaffolds. However, Diebenkorn tempered the influence of European modernism with the early 20th-century American master Edward Hopper as well as his fellow countrymen’s Abstract Expressionist zeal. He was especially inspired by Abstract Expressionism’s rhetoric about the process of creation, nonetheless from the beginning of his career Diebenkorn's work was always unquestionably his own—and, as can be seen in the present work, his masterful painterly touch and unrivalled use of color distinguishes him from peers and predecessors alike.

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