by Janet Bishop
Still Life with Orange Peel: The One that Dropped from the Sky
In developing the checklist for the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition, my co-curator Katy Rothkopf of The Baltimore Museum of Art and I were eager to include Richard Diebenkorn’s Still Life with Orange Peel (1955). It is one of the first paintings Diebenkorn made when, taking cues from his close friends and fellow artists David Park and Elmer Bischoff, he turned his attention from the Abstract Expressionism of his Berkeley series to subject matter from the world around him. To our minds, it perfectly captured how attuned Diebenkorn was to art history as he forged his own distinctive vocabulary as a painter.
The vibrant picture features objects from the artist’s studio as well as fruit, which Henri Matisse (and Paul Cézanne before him) loved to paint. But in keeping with the American artist’s un-fussy sensibility, Diebenkorn’s loosely painted arrangement is much less composed, almost haphazard. And Diebenkorn almost comically includes not just an orange, but an orange peel, as well as a brown, rotten lemon (both elements he liked so much that he would paint them again). We also loved the quirky view from above and the way that the gorgeous aqua-green and white of the striped fabric—a portion of one of Diebenkorn’s childhood bedspreads—enlivens the painting as textiles do in so many of Matisse’s canvases.
We wrote to the painting’s San Francisco–based owner to request the piece for the show in the fall of 2014, a couple of years before it was scheduled to open in Baltimore. After several months went by without an answer, Andrea Liguori, the managing director of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, informed us that the owner, Barbara Foster, had passed away at the age of ninety-seven. We had just begun the process of seeking out her heirs to see if there might still be a possibility of including the painting in our exhibition, when Dana Pace, a colleague in SFMOMA’s Development Department, received a letter from a trustee representing Mrs. Foster’s estate. As it turns out, she had left the piece to SFMOMA. The work was thus not only available for Matisse/Diebenkorn; it was here to stay.
We have since learned that Mrs. Foster, a longtime Bay Area resident, was an artist herself who studied at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from around 1957 to 1960. In the fall of 1959, she took a painting class with none other than Richard Diebenkorn, who, after both studying and teaching at the school in the late 1940s, had just re-joined the faculty that semester. Her fellow students in the Tuesday/Thursday afternoon class included Joan Brown, who was already exhibiting her juicy canvases; artist/editor Fran Herndon; and photographer Elaine Mayes.
As her daughter recalls, studying with Diebenkorn was formative for Foster. She mentioned him frequently over the years, corresponded with him on occasion, and even commented on his affinity for Matisse when she saw the French painter’s Mediterranean view called The Bay of Nice (1918) in the New York presentation of The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde (2012). Foster’s personal connection with Diebenkorn made it especially meaningful for her to own Still Life with Orange Peel, which she purchased from San Francisco’s John Berggruen Gallery in 1993, the year Diebenkorn passed away.
SFMOMA holds more than a dozen paintings in its collection by Diebenkorn. The works span several decades of his career, from 1946, when he was a CSFA undergraduate, to 1980, when he was fully immersed in his Ocean Park abstractions. Barbara Foster’s bequest marks the first Diebenkorn still life painting to enter SFMOMA’s holdings. We are delighted to share this painting with our audiences in Matisse/Diebenkorn, and look forward to presenting it in many future contexts.