The explanatory text on the wall at the beginning of MoMA’s blockbuster of around one hundred of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs notes that these well-known works attempted to resolve the “eternal conflict of drawing and color.” Epic though that reconciliation may have been, it feels faraway and quaint these days. Despite his immense popularity, Matisse’s emphasis on formal innovation and aesthetic pleasure may make him the modern master most alien to the dry, over-intellectualized “conceptual” maneuvers that fill so many New York galleries. Thus, this rather glorious exhibition feels tonic.
Matisse first took scissors to paper in the 1930s to work out figural compositions for murals and theater curtains, representing dancers with schematic forms alternately sinuous and angular, and counterintuitively achieving a remarkable feeling of movement and gravity with ostensibly unwieldy materials. During World War II, he used the technique to create the great artist book Jazz (1947). The book’s circus theme, bright hues, and delightfully recognizable flat shapes evoke picture books for children, masking its suggestions of wartime violence: Starbursts in red and yellow on and around bodies evoke open wounds and exploding shells. The 20 maquettes, all of which are on view, appear wonderfully handmade compared to the final stenciled pages, a fact noted by the artist himself, which led him to consider the possibilities of the cut-outs as independent works of art.
During the decade before his death at 84 in 1954, ill health and immobility left Matisse unable to paint. But with the help of assistants he expanded upon the cut-outs’ initial developments, increasing their size, complexity and versatility. Two large white-on-tan panels, Oceania, the Sea and Oceania, the Sky (both 1946), inspired by a 1930 trip to Tahiti, bear isolated motifs—birds, fish and various leaf and seaweed shapes—scattered evenly across their surfaces. Nearly monochrome, restrained, tasteful, they have an overall decorative effect that recalls high-end patterned wallpaper. In contrast, The Thousand and One Nights (1950) features a horizontal row of colored rectangles that strings together genies’ lamps, leaves, arabesques, sharp electric zig-zags and the bull’s-eye of a rising sun; more fronds, valentine hearts, and a line of text from the book of the title busily ornament the margins. The whole dynamically conjures an episodic narrative structure.
Large-scale stand-alone compositions with abstracted figures seem like obvious substitutes for the paintings Matisse could no longer produce. Almost eight feet tall, standing between a pair of tables, Zulma (1950) resembles an academic nude, despite the fact that a bright band of orange runs down the middle of her faceless blue body, from head to ankles. Creole Dancer (1950), reportedly based on the American choreographer Katherine Dunham, reduces the human body to simple geometric shapes assembled with rhythmic verve. Green skin tones, however, and a two-piece costume with blue-stripes that looks like a pair of blooming flowers make her seem somewhat less a performer than a leggy houseplant.
Matisse also used colored paper to plan his great religious commission, the ambitious decorative scheme for the interior of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, in the South of France, designing everything from the priests’ chasubles to the stained glass windows in the apse. One quite abstract maquette for the windows, Celestial Jerusalem (1948), constitutes a pair of vertical stacks of overlapping blocks of color, predominantly yellow, red and blue. Although slightly faded, it seems to glow more than a sample of the final window’s illuminated glass, hung nearby. It owes something to Piet Mondrian’s rectilinear Neo-Plasticism, but it anticipates the later paintings of Hans Hoffman even more, with their “push and pull” of colored areas.
Indeed, Abstract Expressionism haunts this exhibition, an unseen presence that inflects our understanding of Matisse’s last works. During his final years, he competed, consciously or not, with this very latest development in painting, filling vast surfaces with iconic forms and radiant color. The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952), for example, confronts us with its 25-foot-wide expanse, an immense allover field of idyllic tropical fronds and fruits every bit as immersive and vivid as canvases by his younger American contemporaries. The even more abstract cut and torn blocks of The Snail (1953), a nine-foot-square work, suggest the titular subject only through the centrifugal composition, giving the viewer an exhilarating experience of nonrepresentational color and form. Yet remarkably for their postwar moment, and what we might call an “old-age style,” Matisse’s late works express none of the Americans’ sense of existential angst; instead they emanate a kind of exuberant joy.—Joseph R. Wolin