BY ALBERT CHEN
In a groundbreaking Christie’s auction on November 9, 2023, Richard Diebenkorn’s seminal artwork, “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” achieved a record-setting price of $46,410,000 US. Painted in 1965, this monumental canvas, measuring 181.3 x 211.1 cm, stands as a testament to Diebenkorn’s transformative encounter with the works of Henri Matisse during a rare trip to the Soviet Union in the 1960s.
Diebenkorn’s journey to the Soviet Union was part of a cultural exchange initiated by President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev. During his visit, the artist immersed himself in Matisse’s masterpieces, particularly those housed in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). This experience had a profound impact on Diebenkorn, inspiring a shift in his artistic approach towards abstracted planes of rich and vibrant color.
Richard Diebenkorn, born on April 22, 1922, a celebrated figure for his influential contributions to the art world, left an enduring mark on abstract expressionism and the Bay Area Figurative Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. In the late 1960s, Diebenkorn entered a prolific phase marked by the creation of his iconic series of geometric, lyrical abstract paintings, famously known as the Ocean Park paintings. These masterpieces played a pivotal role in propelling Diebenkorn to international acclaim, establishing him as a luminary in the art community.
“Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad” serves as both an homage to Matisse and a documentation of the evolving art world in the 1960s. Departing from his earlier dynamic brushwork and figurative elements, Diebenkorn embraced bold geometric planes of jewel-like color. The composition, bisected by strong vertical lines, offers a highly abstracted view of a landscape, reminiscent of looking through a window. The painting captures the essence of Diebenkorn’s exploration of interior versus exterior space, a theme he had been delving into since the late 1950s.
The upper left quadrant of the canvas features highly decorative floral curlicues, a direct reference to Matisse’s revolutionary work, “Red Room (Harmony in Red)” (1908). Diebenkorn’s interpretation, however, takes a more capricious route with pronounced twists and turns, creating a densely patterned and Nabis-like decoration.
Diebenkorn’s artistic evolution was characterized by a continual reinvention of his style. As a critical founding member of Bay Area Figuration, he introduced human forms into his abstractions in the mid-1950s. Following his visit to the Soviet Union, he transitioned to the abstract Ocean Park series, lauded by critics as one of the most majestic achievements of the second half of the century.
The painting, showcased in significant retrospectives, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s “Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1976,” occupies a pivotal place in Diebenkorn’s oeuvre and postwar art. The exceptional provenance, with the current owner acquiring the painting in 1969, adds to its significance. “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad” remains a masterpiece that signifies a crucial moment in Diebenkorn’s career and the broader trajectory of postwar art, seamlessly blending influences from European modernism with distinctly American elements.
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