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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



"Matisse and American Art" (left to right: Frankenthaler, Matisse, Rothko). Photo by Peter Jacobs/Courtesy of Montclair Art Museum
Once again, you catch me in my Goldilocks mode: I recently had three differently-sized (and differently oriented) art experiences. The biggest (and least attractive) was a trip to MoMA; the smallest (and considerably more attractive) took place in an East Village theater; and the middle-sized (altogether excellent) involves the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey.

To be more specific: the first & biggest occasion required a quick skate through the Museum of Modern Art, including its elephantine-titled “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Directions” (closed March 19) and two floors’ worth of the permanent collection (or what MoMA currently chooses to show you of it).

The second & smallest meant an also-quick visit to the second exhibition of “Paintings by Cara London at TNC Art Gallery: Still Life, Landscape and Figure: Paintings and Monotypes” (closed April 1).

The third, middle-sized – and JUST RIGHT -- one was a day-long visit to the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ, where the modestly scaled but often immensely rewarding show is “Matisse and American Art” (through June 18).


I first met the art of Francis Picabia (French, 1859-1953) back in 1968, when William Rubin, that talented curator and scholar, staged “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage” for MoMA.

At that time, I knew from nothing about either movement, so it was all new and exciting to me. In that show (according to its catalog, which I have and still treasure), Picabia was represented by no fewer than ten works

The three whose images I remembered most vividly were two big and variously nut-colored abstractions, “Edtaonisl”(1914), and “I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie”(1914), as well as “M’Amenez-y” (1919-1920).

This last, whose title means “Take Me There,” is a dada-conceptual painting with a large but narrow black circle and a red battery-like shape in its middle. Writing runs around the edge of the circle, and the whole sits on a green and white field.

If you know enough colloquial French and French popular culture from this period, you may be able to make sense out of the writing—or you can take the short cut and read the info at the MoMA website, where it turns out all of this gibberish is vulgar puns. Must have been frightfully shocking in 1920.

Visually, these three paintings are pretty good, I decided upon re-viewing them in the current show at MoMA. I also liked “Ici Stieglitz” (1915), the drawing with collage elements that depicts the famous photographer as a camera himself (it looks familiar, and is pictured in the Rubin catalog though not included under Picabia’s name in its checklist).

A handful of other Picabia paintings and works on paper from this period between the Armory Show and about 1920 were also reasonably sprightly, but was this enough to justify a show of 125 paintings, plus about 45 works on paper, one film, printed matter, and sound recordings of selected poems and writings? Not by me.

Picabia, it seems, started out in the early part of the 20th century as a Johnny-come-lately impressionist…then in later years, he struggled with movies, dance, poetry, odd materials and odder subjects in photo-based pictures and then since World War II, in more abstraction.

Little of it struck me as in any way outstanding. And yet this show went on and on and on, gallery after gallery…..BORING.


Meanwhile, the fourth floor permanent-collection galleries of the museum, conceived originally to showcase art since World War II, were filled instead with “From the Collection: 1960-69” (closed March 12).

I would say this is fair enough, considering that a few years ago, this same space was devoted to the period between World War II and approximately 1960, thereby displaying lots of wonderful abstract expressionism—likewise from MoMA’s permanent collection.

I could have put up with all the pop, minimal and conceptual work, and all the noisy jiggling and jumping of the kinetic and installation art in this show if it had also included the color-field painting that was the real glory of the 60s.

But evidently the anti-Greenberg thought police had been at work, for not an inch of color-field glory was to be seen.

Meanwhile, on the fifth floor, into the amount of space normally devoted to showing the permanent collection from Cézanne & Van Gogh through the 1930s had been shoe-horned a few limited samples of work by the abstract expressionists as well – or those members of the school deemed worthy of exposure.

Here I mean Pollock, de Kooning, Still, Rothko, Barnett Newman, Norman Lewis and I think maybe Gorky, Krasner, Reinhardt & David Smith, but not Hofmann, Gottlieb or Motherwell – and even what was there looked kind of crowded and unhappy.

This was also true in the Matisse gallery, which for some time now has been jammed in behind the gallery celebrating Duchamp & his fellow dadas. If that isn’t getting the cart before the horse, I don’t know what is.

I still remember MoMA in its last reincarnation before the current monstrous building, where “La Danse” commanded the considerably more gracious space that Matisse was given, and had a bench in front of it, for all those tired businessmen who wanted a soft armchair to sink into…if there is a bench in the current Matisse gallery, it’s a long, long way away from “La Danse.”


Before heading out to the Garden State of New Jersey, I checked out the Garden State’s gift to Manhattan: Cara London’s latest exhibition in the same theater lobby where she exhibited a year and a half ago, in October 2015.

Of the 59 items on her checklist this time around, 8 were dated 2017 and 6 were dated 2016, so I limited myself to looking closely at those, and will comment on six of them.

Three incorporate lush hydrangeas into their composition, with very felicitous effects: No. 25, “Wine Bottle, Mug and Hydrangea” (acrylic on paper, 2016); No. 34, “Purple Hydrangeas in Basket’ (oil on wood, 2017) and No. 52, “Endless Summer” (oil on canvas, 2017). The less formal effect of working on paper, or in an unframed wood panel, is very effective, though I also welcomed that familiar ornate blond tablecloth in “Endless Summer.”

I also liked No. 7, “Nike I” (acrylic on canvas, 2017), based (I assume) on a copy or photograph of the Winged Victory of Samothrace; No. 18,“NJ Water Tower” (2016), a small monoprint with a surprisingly imposing subject; and No. 26, another flower painting, “Irises and Peonies” (acrylic on paper, 2016).


Finally, to the Montclair Art Museum and “Matisse and American Art,” as organized by Dr. Gail Stavitsky, the museum’s chief curator, with co-curator Dr. John Cauman and consultant Lisa Mintz Messinger.

This is not a large show, with only 19 works by Matisse. Nor are any of these 19 large, though many are dearly beloved friends among those lunatics like me who might be called Matissomaniacs.

I was particularly happy to re-acquaint myself with the tiny oil “Nude in a Wood” (1906), the small bronze “Reclining Nude I (Aurora)” (original model 1907), the signature oil “Interior at Nice” (1917-18), with its open window, and the colorful oil “Pianist and Checker Players” (1924), with its rich range of variously patterned reds—in the tablecloth, carpet and wallpaper. Yet even this mini-masterpiece measures only 29 x 36 3/8 inches!

Still, introducing Matisse is not the point of this show. Rather it is to see how his genius interacted with those myriads of American artists who have at one time or another expressed admiration for him.

And so the bulk of this ambitious and wide-ranging exhibition is 44 samples of work from 34 Americans. They begin with work from those artists who like Max Weber (1881-1961) actually studied with him in the early years of the 20th century.

And they go right up to Henri's great-granddaughter, Sophie Matisse (b. 1956), whose two modest works indicate that she is struggling to reconcile the dual and fundamentally opposed heritage from her overly-laden family tree (her step-grandfather was Marcel Duchamp, as her paternal grandmother, “Teeny,” was first married to Henri’s son Pierre, and then to Big Dada).

True, only a handful of the 44 works by latter-day artists are major pieces, either, but why should they be? They are all well-chosen and most are well worth our attention, either because of their innate beauty or because what they tell us about the men and women who created them.

The Montclair Art Museum isn’t a multimillion-dollar big city museum, which can afford guards by the dozen and hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance fees for visiting artworks, but it has something a whole lot better: a staff of people who genuinely love the finest in art, and whose care in arranging it and juxtaposing related items more than compensates for any financial shortcomings.

Unlike the tired and unhappy way that even Matisse looks at MoMA these days, everything in Montclair looked fresh and glad to be there.

At the beginning of the show are two early nudes on paper by Matisse whose muscular bodies depart radically from late 19th century Salon canons of feminine beauty, as dictated by the likes of William-Adolphe Bouguereau

These drawings remind us that it was really Matisse who challenged early 20th century notions of the beautiful and the suitable for art more than any other artist in the original Armory Show.

Every good pomonian today thinks of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” as the most controversial painting there, but if you look back from my (modernist) vantage point, you may agree with me that the reaction to it was essentially treating it as one huge joke – which, in fact, it was.

And, although Picasso & Braque were represented in the Armory Show with even more radical (and infinitely lovelier) Analytic Cubism, this was so far out that it soared clear over everybody’s heads.

Not so Matisse.He was the one who was dealing with familiar subject matter in a style that outraged those artists dealing with similar subjects in more conventional ways.

So it wasn’t surprising – in retrospect – that art students in Chicago burned three of his paintings in effigy, and that a fashionable New York-based muralist, Robert W. Chanler, caricatured him as an ape conducting an art class.

The first part of “Matisse and American Art” deals with the way in which more sympathetic American artists up to World War II responded to Matisse---both those who had studied with him and those who had merely seen and responded to his works (for example, in the collections of the Stein family).

There are not too many surprises here, except for the high quality of the art, and the clarifications afforded by the hanging of it. I dearly loved the lines and colors of “The Lobster” (1908), a luscious still life by Arthur G. Dove, and felt it a worthy prelude to his distinguished career as an abstractionist.

I also responded to the juxtaposition of “Four Nudes at the Seashore” (ca. 1910-1913), a small but airy oil by Maurice Prendergast, with a little pencil “Study after Dance (I)” (ca. 1909), by Matisse – summoning up the image of that great painting without deep-sixing the Prendergast by comparison.

Among other works from this period that I found immensely likeable was a nifty little oil on canvas showing two Adam-and-Eve-like nudes but entitled “Spring in Central Park” (1914). This was by William Zorach (better known as a sculptor).

Also delectable was “The Connoisseur” (1910), a zippy little portrait of a seated man in a very formal black suit by Marguerite Thompson Zorach (who would become William’s wife); also, a radiant “Still Life” (ca. 1912) by H. Lyman Saÿen, showing a vase or carafe.

Another still life called ”Étude d’Après Matisse” (ca. 1909-11) is by Morgan Russell, who would later become the co-creator of “Synchromism.” It’s a good picture, and I was glad to see it here, particularly as I knew that Russell had studied with Matisse, but I am disposed to quibble with the label, which says that Matisse was Russell’s greatest influence.

To me, his mature work was Synchromism, and that owes more to the “Orphism” of Robert Delaunay than it does to Matisse.

In the main I very much enjoyed this earlier part of the show. It’s with the second half that I was inclined to consider some of these confections a wee bit problematic, specifically those who in the spirit of jest merely quoted well-known Matissean imagery without really capturing his venturesome spirit or passionate essence.

Here I am thinking of works like “Goldfish Bowl II” (1978), a patinated and painted bronze by Roy Lichtenstein; “Woman in Blue (After Matisse)” (1985), a painting made with paint and silkscreen inks by Andy Warhol; and especially the large, luridly colored and screechily outlined “Sunset Nude with Matisse Self-Portrait” (2004) by Tom Wesselman.

All these works were made in their later years by artists who had first established themselves in the 1960s with postmodernist imagery from pop culture, so I was reminded of a saying often attributed to David Smith, “All artists get to choose their own ancestors.”

It is as though these artists were trying to establish a claim to legitimate descent from a modernist master, as well as a postmodernist one, but appropriations are one thing and assimilation is another.

I suppose these appropriationists need to be included in this show for the sake of completeness, but I am so glad that the assimilationists are also – and well – represented here.

Chief among them – of course – is Hofmann, who not only had studied in Paris in the early years of the century, when Matisse was just becoming famous, but conducted a school in New York in the 1930s and gave lectures that brought Matissean color to the nascent abstract expressionists.

He is represented by “Pink Cupboard” (1939), a multi-colored representational painting from this period of his greatest influence.

Motherwell is represented by two works, a collage from 1977, and a mellow “Interior with Pink Nude” (1951), done in pink, black and ocher with humanoid forms.

This painting is hung right next to a 1935-36 Matisse aquatint based on a maquette for the mural of dancing nudes made for that famous if somewhat eccentric collector, Albert C. Barnes, and endowed with a very similar palette: black, gray, rose and blue.

On the other side of it hangs a third fine (and totally abstract) “Peinture/Nature Morte” (1925-1928), done by Patrick Henry Bruce again with a similar palette: pink, black, blue and a fresh gray. This is inspired hanging.

Another inspirational example of hanging is devoted to Matissean red, and is illustrated by the image that accompanies this review.

In the center of this grouping is Matisse’s red-oriented “Pianist and Checker Players” that I described above.

On one side of it hangs a good-sized, terrific vintage all-red Rothko, “No. 44 (Two Darks on Red)” (1955). Its label reproduces Matisse’s far better-known “The Red Studio,” and tells how Rothko immersed himself in this picture at MoMA.

On the other side of the Matisse hangs an all-red, untitled acrylic on paper by Helen Frankenthaler. Done in 2002, far off from this artist’s peak, it nonetheless is a heart-warming color & looks trenchantly appropriate here.

The same might be said of a painting hung elsewhere: “Flares: Homage to Matisse” (1991), by that master colorist, Kenneth Noland--even if this painting includes only three vertical strokes of color. The label suggests that it was inspired by the palette of “Moroccan Landscape” (1912), featured in the 1990 “Matisse and Morocco” exhibition.

I never thought of Romare Bearden in connection with Matisse. He is best known for his renditions of African American life, but he was in Paris in the 1950s and learned about the Western European tradition there.

“The Dream” (1970), a collage of a dark-skinned reclining woman, draws on the Ingresque & Matissean tradition of the odalisque while combining it with the Afro-Cubist collage technique that Bearden first exhibited in the 1960s and that may also owe something to Matisse’s late cut-outs (there was a show of them at MoMA in 1961).

Another African-American tradition – that of the quilt—is invoked by Faith Ringgold, in “Matisse’s Model” (1991). This stitched work is part of a series following a fictional character, Willa Marie Simone, in her quest to become an artist and showing her posed as another odalisque in front of Matisse’s “La Danse II” (1910--the version acquired by the Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin and now in the Hermitage).

Nor can I let my readers go without mentioning a choice bit of ephemera in the Montclair show – a 1973 Matisse catalog from Acquavella loaned by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and featuring an essay by Clement Greenberg.

It argues that “for a while now, Matisse has been a more relevant and fertile source for ambitious new painting [in America] than any other single master before or after him.”

Among other artists whose work appealed to me were Stuart Davis, Walter Pach, Morton Livingston Schamberg, Arthur B. Carles, & Milton Avery. But you may also find other discoveries once you get there.

There is so much to see in this show that I can’t tell you all about it. I can only recommend that you too go see it—and don’t forget to breeze through the accompanying exhibition of “Inspired by Matisse: Selected Works from the Collection.”

It includes more work by Hofmann, Motherwell and Noland as well as a painting by Friedel Dzubas and a certain amount of recent work that (one likes to think) would have given Matisse a good laugh (also through June 18).

It’s very easy to get to the Montclair Art Museum from Manhattan. You take a Decamp bus line -- be sure it's Route #33 -- from the Port Authority bus terminal at 41st Street.

You can look up departure and arrival times online. And if you tell the driver that you want to go to the museum; he’ll let you out right across the street from it.

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