Matisse is one of my greatest art heroes. The huge retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in the winter of 1992-3 coincided with my final year in grad school at Pratt, and came little more than a year after I moved to New York City. That exhibition has been a touchstone for me ever since. I somehow managed to visit that epic show three separate times, and the catalog is almost always lying open in my studio somewhere. Today, more than twenty years after that knockout exhibition, when my responsibilities and obligations are so much more complicated, I see a fraction of the shows and art that I did back then. I missed the big de Kooning show a couple years ago, and I still regret it. I could not afford to miss Matisse, because the fragile nature of the cut-outs prohibits a repeat of a show like this any time soon, if ever.
I admire Matisse so much because of certain qualities that are always present to me when I’m looking at his work, whether it’s a painting or cut-out, or print, drawing, or sculpture. There is always generosity, intelligence, struggle, variety. The lush generosity in Matisse is part of an absolutely fierce visual intelligence that stretches the work to a profound tautness. That famous push and pull. There are no lazy corners in Matisse paintings. There may be weird corners, but they work. Also, of course, and belying that famous “armchair” quotation, there is always a hard-fought aspect to a Matisse work, the intuited sense that what you are looking at was arrived at only after a long and arduous, uphill climb. There is also the tireless variety of his approaches, techniques, forms, and abutments, and a restless and wild energy that often seems to be barely contained. No matter the size, a Matisse occupies its space with such authority that it seems bigger than it is.
So, the cut-outs at the Modern? A splendid show, staggering in its variety, its quantity, its invention, and of course its beauty. Go see it. It doesn't get any better. A few thoughts:
· The move from the early, smaller work, to the later, humongous work. The early work is small, concentrated, compact, saturated, and full of incident. The later work is huge, expansive, majestic, oftentimes daring in its simplicity and reduction. Whereas in the early work the colors butt right up against each other, creating tighter compositions and electric contrasts at the edges of forms, as the pieces get bigger, the white ground becomes more prominent, and reminds me of the white grounds in the early pointillist and fauve paintings from fifty years before. The white ground gives the brilliant color more room to breathe, and even expand. I actually wish this show could have used more galleries, not because the biggest pieces need more room (they don’t), but because the smaller pieces do. I’d love to see the pieces from Jazz spread out so they can breathe, and not jammed so close together, but parceled out across three rooms or so. (Surely they could have found another place to put the so-so contemporary painting survey; they don’t stand a chance on the same floor as the cut-outs.) One of my favorite pieces in the show is a small piece from a private NY collection, called Black Boxer, not more than twelve inches tall, mounted in a big, dark, wooden frame, and consisting of only green, black, and red. It is a piece that is bigger than it is.
· Sometimes a single piece reads more as a sequence of images, rather than as a single, coherent image. There’s the Thousand and One Nights piece, for example, but even more striking was a long piece called Composition (the Velvets) that they hung high on the opposite wall, which almost seems like it could be a zoetrope image.
· The stained glass in person. Damn. And the giant maquettes for the chapel at Vence. Oh Holy of Holies.
· The Swimming Pool. Wow. It may be that it took me completely by surprise because I haven’t seen it in twenty years. It was on continual display when I came to New York in 1991 (and when I made my first visit the year before), but after the 1992-3 retrospective it was kept in storage because of its fragility. Or it may be the painstaking and beautiful restoration which included replacing the acidic, brittle, and darkened burlap with fresher material (still burlap, though). Or it may be that the installation is better now that the Swimming Pool has a room to itself with only one doorway, making it more like the room in which is was originally installed. Probably it’s all of those reasons, as I’m sure you’ve guessed I’d say. At any rate, I was not prepared for the reaction I had to seeing this piece again. I had not remembered it being so goddamned beautiful. And lively. Delightful, and rich and complicated despite its using only three colors (counting the burlap).
One of the best things I’ve read about the show, comes from Phillip Taaffe, writing about the cut-outs when they were at the Tate in London. Altoon Sultan has also written a really fine piece on the show, here at Studio and Garden, her excellent blog. She is a writer and artist of discerning clarity, and always a pleasure to read.
The cut-outs were born of necessity, as he struggled with illness, and they were put to different purposes, from graphics and book design to textiles to painting to murals and stained glass. The variety of purpose and approach, invention and solution, is awe-inspiring, the product of a wildly restless and intense intelligence. The cut-outs are some badass shit. I’d love to see the show again, but I doubt I’ll be able to make the time. However, my heart and brain are still buzzing from this show, and I do not doubt that it will stay with me for a long time.
PS: Maybe hope is not lost for seeing it again – the Modern has extended the show through 2/20/15. Go see it.