Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 5, 2018
Montclair Art Museum Matisse and American Art Montclair, NJ: Montclair Art Museum, 2017.
Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey, February 5–June 18, 2017

Installation view, Matisse and American Art, Montclair Art Museum, February 5–June 18, 2017 (photograph © 2017, provided by Montclair Art Museum)

An exhibition devoted to tracing an artist’s cross-cultural influence often bears the risk of trying to do too much. Featuring sixty-five works, Matisse and American Art at the Montclair Art Museum juxtaposed nineteen paintings and works on paper by Matisse with a vast selection of objects by thirty-four American artists. With works by artists as diverse as Arthur Dove, Andy Warhol, and Faith Ringgold, exhibition organizers aimed to explore the French master’s impact on American modernism from 1905 to today—a tall order, to say the least.

Yet cocurators Gail Stavitsky and John Cauman ultimately succeeded in revealing the extraordinary breadth of Matisse’s significance for his trans-Atlantic progeny, only underscored by the hefty, richly illustrated catalogue and loosely organized exhibition layout. Skirting a clear-cut chronological or thematic approach, the show embraced a more free-form vision of Matisse’s impactful oeuvre to highlight the panoply of ways in which American artists responded to both his formal trademarks—flickering color, unflinchingly bold draftsmanship—and recurrent motifs including the female nude, the studio interior, or the pattern-enveloped still life.

The show’s first section probed the stylistic connections between a Fauvist Matisse and his American contemporaries, an important yet relatively underexamined period in the existing Matisse literature (one that refutes the canonical assertion that American modernism only became internationally relevant following World War II by re-inscribing pre-war American art with art-historical significance). Shown in both the first American exhibition of Matisse’s work at Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” gallery in 1908, and again in the 1913 Armory Show, Nude in a Wood (1906) greeted the viewer in the opening gallery. Its pulsating passages of peach, pink, and green floated unanchored on the canvas, forging a visual dialogue with Le Sentier (1908) by Alfred Maurer, who would have seen Fauvism’s heyday firsthand at the weekly salons organized by the Steins in Paris. The same dazzling palette reappeared in Arthur Dove’s The Lobster (1908) and H. Lyman Saÿen’s Still Life (1913–14), which seemed more indebted to the orphism of Robert Delaunay. Matisse’s reduced nude, in turn, found its counterpart in the clearly demarcated contours of Maurice Prendergast’s Four Nudes at the Seashore (1910–13).

The following section of the exhibition examined thematic tropes in Matisse’s inter- and postwar oeuvre and the ways in which disparate American artists adapted those same subjects. One such gallery focused on the parallels running through Matisse’s Interior at Nice (Room at the Beau Rivage) (1917–18) and works such as Stuart Davis’s Studio Interior (1917) and Richard Diebenkorn’s Blue Surround (1982). Where the French painter did arguably locate the window as a site of intersection between the artist’s inner world and that of external reality, Diebenkorn’s flat, pared-down compositions seem more informed by Matisse’s formal conflation of inside and outside, fore- and background space, or by his starkly architectonic compositional structure. Similar methods organized the next gallery, devoted to Matisse’s physically absent masterpiece, The Red Studio (1911). Davis’s Studio Interior would have proved a more apposite site of comparison here, as both Matisse and Davis employed a richly toned monochrome to undo the illusions of perspectival space and fill their empty studios with references to their respective artistic careers and geographical contexts. Instead, the curators reductively suggested that the use of the color red is what marks concrete proof of Matisse’s influence. Though Mark Rothko’s gossamer veils of luminous red tones in No. 44 (Two Darks in Red) (1955) or Helen Frankenthaler’s boundless red ground in Untitled (2002) do pay tribute to Matisse’s landmark canvas, there were more pointed comparative analyses to be made.

But through its exploration of both stylistic and thematic points of comparison, Matisse and American Art made an important historical argument: that Matisse’s artistic independence and willingness to formally experiment influenced overseas artists at some of the most key moments in the history of American modernism. In his detailed catalogue essay, John Cauman carefully traced the complex trans-Atlantic network of early twentieth-century dealers, collectors, and gallery owners who first brought Matisse’s Fauvism to US soil. Even more importantly, he called attention to the small colony of American painters who knew and even studied with Matisse in France during the first decades of the twentieth century. Matisse’s influence reemerged in the immediate postwar period. The show’s curators situated him as a critical bridge between French modernism and American Abstract Expressionism, an artist who worked in the liminal space between abstraction and figuration before the likes of Willem DeKooning. Grace Hartigan, in her aptly titled Homage to Matisse (1955), took up the Matissean tenet of structuring a composition via animated strokes of color, which frame or cup vestiges of the French painter’s original still life—lemons, a teapot, the token bowl of fruit. Or consider Ellsworth Kelly’s White Cross (1959), which seems to have transposed Matisse’s late career cutouts into the clean-edged geometric forms of American postwar color-field painting. Kelly had only returned from France in 1954, where he would have surely seen Matisse’s Jazz portfolio cutouts (1947) firsthand.

Within the catalogue, Stavitsky located the third period of art-historical convergence in the return “to the delectation of Matisse after the pared down aesthetic of Minimalism” (79). Matisse’s oft repeated pictorial tropes—playful goldfish, buxom Orientalizing nudes, and richly stylized surface patterns— were ripe fodder for appropriation artists of the 1970s and have continued to serve as such through the present. Andy Warhol’s Woman in Blue (After Matisse) (1985) reinterpreted a 1937 Matisse original in the flat, poster-like aesthetic of the silkscreen. And John Baldessari’s Eight Soups (2012) coyly referenced Matisse’s influence on the American artist before his move into conceptual art. Here, art-historical imagery became an archive to mine, where the French painter’s goldfish and visible brushwork joined with the seriality of Warhol’s Soup Cans.

The curators broached a fourth, underexplored moment of historical conjunction in the realm of postwar identity politics in the final section of the exhibition. Objects in the exhibition by Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, and Janet Taylor Pickett not only engaged with issues of gender and race but, perhaps more critically, asked if Matisse’s master status was one predicated on his being a white male. Ultimately, however, the discussion here remained somewhat superficial. Bearden’s Dream (1970), a colored-paper collage, obviously looked to Matisse’s cutouts, but the analysis that ended there missed the larger point. Bearden’s portrayal of a blocky, schematically rendered, black female nude functioned as a site for exploring the racial bias of so-called modern masters. Where Matisse’s white nudes oozed sexuality through their distorted, undulating curves, the inspiration for those same exaggerated forms hailed from primitivist, African sculptures—depictions of black bodies. Though the catalogue included a sensitively written essay by Ellen McBreen on Matisse’s co-option of African visual culture, the exhibition itself remained reticent. References to race were pushed to the margins—literally, in the form of a supplemental exhibition featuring Pickett’s Matisse Series in the museum’s subsequent galleries. While mentioned nowhere in the catalogue, the Pickett exhibition incorporated the same “Matisse” exhibition logo and delved into questions of influence and identity in a more tangible way than some of the more superficial connections drawn in the main gallery.

At times, Matisse and American Art fell short in articulating its curatorial choices. Where the catalogue detailed the visual and historical connections between chosen works of art and clarified the themes through which Matisse’s influence was examined, the exhibition’s paltry wall text, and comparison by way of clustering disparate works nonchronologically, offered confusion on occasion. For example, Ringgold’s quilt Matisse’s Model (1991) hung in the same gallery devoted to American adaptations of Matisse’s early Fauvist paintings. Though deepening the conversation on artistic influence with its overt references to the French painter and providing a visual transition between the early Fauvist period and Matisse’s penchant for surface pattern (a thread explored later in the exhibition), Ringgold’s presence might have bewildered visitors who were less well-versed in terms of art history. This reviewer, for example, overheard fellow visitors assessing Matisse’s talent as a quilt maker. 

Shortfalls aside, Matisse and American Art provided an eye-opening look at Matisse’s vast impact on the development of American modernism. Though sometimes aiming to do too much or sewing relational threads where none belonged, the sheer variety of objects, artists, and movements included in this exhibition revealed a rich cross-cultural dialogue that opened the history of American art to new perspectives. Ultimately, Matisse and American Art seemed to suggest that what American artists of all breeds received from Matisse was the will to openly experiment—constantly pushing the bounds of what painting can and should be.

Rachel Boate
PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

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