Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 14, 2010 11:38 am 
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Matisse: Radical Invention and De Kooning's Woman paintings

This show, running Jul. 18–Oct. 11, 2010 at MoMA, New York, and initiated at the Art Institute of Chicago, was slightly overlapped by a bigger one, ending months later and occupying one whole floor, called "Abstract Expressionist New York" (Oct. 3, 2010–Apr. 25, 2011). The connection between these two shows is obvious, without any pedagogical contemporary museum wall captions to point it out. The other name for some Fifties New York painting is "Action Painting," and though there's hardly any clear link between Jackson Pollack, Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, and Ad Reinhardt and what Peter Schjeldahl in his New Yorker essay about the show calls "the long overrated Robert Motherwell and Adolf Gottlieb" -- one thing most of these artists have in common is the uncommon degree to which their paintings were gestural, improvisational, and developed without a fixed plan. (They also have in common painting on big canvases, thus trumping the world of newly sophisticated Fifties color reproduction: Schijldahl points that connection out too, and adds that the big-painting trend matched the coming of wide-screen movies, which were developed partly to better trump the small-screen competition of television.)

Matisse's nudes and De Kooning's 'Women'

Schjeldahl says De Kooning is the greatest of the group, "the all-time best of the American painters." That very American and macho declaration is art critic rather than artist stuff and doesn't seem very helpful or necessary. Why narrow down the world so much? But I'd agree at least that when I was a teenager it was De Kooning's paintings (and the process of making them as depicted in Art News) that most excited me. Pollack's just seemed like a Life Magazine-ready gimmick, though I can acknowledge Pollack's paintings' daring and magic now, even though I can't see myself ever wanting to make pictures by dripping paint on the floor -- when you can get wild with a brush, like this:

De Kooning: Woman (1949)

Action Painting. If ever there was such a thing, De Kooning's Woman was one. It meant the canvas was an arena in which the artist acted out a drama, the macho one of diving without a net, and in this case the war between men and women. Painting was a process whose outcome was uncertain. And open-ended: where do you stop and say the painting's done? My teacher Karl Metzler was to teach me that was one of the hardest things to know, and the most essential.

None of this is exactly new. Painting is always a process of fits and starts, erasures and overpainting. But here the sense of uncertainty is magnified, because so much is changed, and can be because there are so few rules. And that's my point: Matisse is, as the "Radical Invention" show demonstrated most clearly, the dramatic predecessor of those New York Fifties painters, especially De Kooning. De Kooning kept the figure in his "Woman" paintings. It was his violent, seemingly brutal, distortion of images of archetypal females that gave shock value to the De Kooning painting whose unfolding process of creation the Art News article that electrified me depicted. The article was one in a revealing series for a budding artist that was called "___________ Paints a Picture." Ivan Le Lorraine Albright was the subject of another article in the series whose process blew me away. The piece said Albright used an .001 brush plucked down to a single hair and that he completed one quarter of a square inch per day. (On a good day, I suppose.)

What was exciting about the De Kooning Woman was the radical transformations it went through along the way to completion. Needless to say, and we don't need a lot of fancy art research technology to explain that, as Schjeldahl points out in his "Matisse: Radical Invention" piece, the French painter was doing the same thing earlier in the century. There is a series of photographs of several dozen different stages of Matisse's Large Reclining Nude of 1935, which I also knew as a teenager, both the stages and the finished painting, from the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum, where I went to Saturday art classes with my sister for years. The MoMA show also included Matisse's equally radical and large 1907 Blue Nude

Matisse: Blue Nude (1907); Cone Collection, Baltimore)

- said to have "shocked" Picasso, also in the Cone Collection. Just like De Kooning, Matisse was radically distorting women in paintings that were an unpredictable, challenging process, an arena that took the artist to new places. Matisse's women were shocking too, though he was making love to them, and De Kooning was more on the attack.

Matisse: Large Reclining Nude (1935; Cone Collection, Baltimore)

The date of Large Reclining Nude, 1935, is much later than the Blue Nude time and the Radical Invention phase, following a period for Matisse of becoming more conservative again. The period of the Radical Invention show is 1913-1918, which encompasses the time of World War I, the "cause" of dadaism.

Radical simplification, the road to Minimalism

Matisse was not simply radically altering paintings as he went along during this 1913-1918 period (as he did the 1935 Large Reclining Nude, whose phases were also recorded in photographs at the Baltimore Museum).


He was radically simplifying them, and making them more angular, more geometrical, more abstract -- though the Large Reclining Nude showed radical simplification could keep the iconic curves of the female body.

A key example of what Matisse did during his radical phase is The Piano Lesson, a portrait of his son Pierre, then fifteen, which Schjeldahl declares to be his "favorite" modern painting. That's another (in a way, in this "serious" essay) self-indulgent remark never fully justified by argument. But then, your favorite needs no justification. Except he's the New Yorker art critic, not a high school student. He is secure in his position, and has adopted some of the self-absorption of the abstract expressionism critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the pair who enjoyed duking it out, making and breaking reputations, and generally being pompous and arbitrary. The scene is different now, but the sense of white male entitlement somehow remains. As perhaps it should -- while it lasts.

Matisse: The Piano Lesson (1916)

Anyway, what distinguishes this painting is the way Matisse has eliminated masses of detail around and behind his son, especially a lot of green plants. He has painted everything out with neutral gray, which makes the bright green, pink, and orange sing, independent of representational logic.

A dramatic figure in the MoMA show is this portrait of Yvonne Landsberg:

Matisse: Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg (1914)

She could as well be standing as seated, except that some of the rhythmic swirling lines around her form a chair. Such simultaneity, a natural outcome of "action painting," which makes its "pentimenti" into part of the finished work, reaches a high point in Duchamp's famous Nude Descending a Staircase from the 1916 Armory Show. The multiplying of overlapping images, like Muybridge's photographs of motion, simplifies the figure in the sense of making it closer to all figures.

My own "favorie" of the more striking and large paintings in the Matisse: Radical Invention show is the biggest one, of four Bathers by a River, which is satisfying because of its rhythms, and the warm solidity of its figures -- a little like Picasso's sculptural nudes on the beach from the 1920's, but more austere and hieratic, like Nijinsky's original choreography for Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, another example of key early modernist radical invention. And this painting illustrates what Bernard Berenson meant by pointing to "the ineloquent in art" as a positive value:

Matisse: Bathers by a River (1917)

The four different background colors underline a sense of varying depth of space, flowing in and out of the picture plane. Again obviously a lot has been eliminated, though a big patch of greenery has been allowed to stand on the left, unlike the portrait of Pierre.

But another painting, one of a series of corners of a room with window and fish tank, from the Centre Pompidou, is really more of a favorite, largely because it is modest in size and more recognizably, cozily human in what it represents, yet this too made it into the "Radical Invention" show:

Matisse: Interior with Red Fish (1914)

There are versions with cats

Those delicate, luminous blues! "Radical Invention" didn't take Matisse away from the simple pleasures of life, a comfortable room, a beautiful woman, a floral balcony, a handsome plaza seen through a window -- or the simple pleasures of art, rhythm, color, harmony, balance, line. The harmonies of this painting, the rhythms of its shapes and colors, are the more satisfying because they are anchored in appealingly modest and human-scale objects and spaces. What the Abstract Expressionists were doing, as represented by De Kooning's bursting and shredded Women, comes from a different sensibility. But ask yourself if anything was more "radical" than early modernism represented in the art of the World War I period, or more successfully synthesized than in Matisse's rigorously pared-down yet lovely nudes and interiors. There have always been pentimenti, but the modernists made them a part of the finished work. Themes and subjects were submitted to radical surgery, and the patient was changed forever but became more alive. Matisse invented Action Painting, it seems. And De Kooning alone among the Abstract Expressionists, kept (sometimes) the human figure in the painting as Matisse and Picasso did, thus maintaining a continuity that the gesture painters like Kline or minimalists like Ad Reinhardt chose to lose. But after all, what is Minimalism, but merely an extension of the radical method of painting that we see in Matisse's Large Reclining Nude and his portrait of his son at the piano?

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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