This new Matisse cut-outs show is odd, since you can see some of the greatest artworks of the 20th century and still leave feeling disappointed. Good curatorship, like good umpiring, is most obvious when it’s not there: John Elderfield helped set the bar impossibly high with the Museum of Modern Art’s 2011 Willem de Kooning retrospective, which remains, by a museum mile, the most extraordinary exhibition New York has seen in the last decade. But Elderfield has left MoMA, and we miss him.
The current show attempts a long-overdue examination of Matisse’s last and most beautiful works, which often get short shrift in comparison with his earlier paintings. It features around 100 cut-outs, including several monumental works and every great piece you’ve ever dreamed of seeing.
Unfortunately, there are two serious problems. Matisse, like de Kooning and most great artists, benefits from high-density displays. His works amplify one another. The feat performed so brilliantly in the de Kooning retrospective was the inspired juxtaposition of independent masterpieces: The result was an explosion of intensity on every single wall. I left the show in a happy daze, feeling as though I’d seen something so great as to be almost beyond comprehending.
The current show, however, raises our hopes high in the first room and then dashes them to the ground. There is too much empty space in subsequent rooms, and the pieces are largely prevented from energizing one another. In a bizarre bit of self-flagellation, the exhibit includes several small photographs showing how Matisse himself displayed his cut-outs—and the comparison should have MoMA blushing. In the black-and-white photographs of Matisse’s studio, you see surfaces chock-full and bursting with art. To hell with the boundaries of individual works, every square inch of the wall vibrates and pulsates, and the entire surface becomes a frenzied, chaotic masterpiece. Matisse’s walls were jungles, oceans, menageries.
Here, works are set apart from one another and bounded by an astonishing helter-skelter of frames, most of which are overstuffed with white matting. A child intuitively understands the relationship between volume and pressure, wreaking maximum destruction indoors, trying to escape outside where he can run around without bumping into anything. Matisse’s high-energy cut-outs similarly want to explode in every direction. That’s why it’s so disappointing to see their vivacity fizzling off into empty space. The right thing would be to yank every piece out of its frame and squeeze the whole show into a single room.
The second problem is fundamental: Matisse’s great cut-outs are dying. More precisely, they are fading away like old soldiers. The cut-outs are made from paper painted with gouache (opaque water-color) and then glued to paper or canvas backing. Matisse knew perfectly well that many of the pigments he was using—particularly the roses, reds, and the uniquely Matissian tangerine-orange—were fugitive and would gradually be destroyed by sunlight. He may or may not have known that other colors he used (especially his favorite, ultramarine blue) were susceptible to the acidity in paper, canvas, and glue. Some pieces are still in fine shape, through luck or careful preservation. Les Velours (1947) is so staggeringly beautiful that it would be worth moving to New York just to see it every day until the show closes.
Matisse also knew that the cut-outs’ inherent problems wouldn’t be visible for at least a few decades, by which time some clever young conservators would presumably have figured things out and could rescue the pieces for posterity. This challenge was taken up with relish by an expert MoMA team, which spent five years working on the show’s centerpiece, The Swimming Pool (1952), and failed spectacularly. And yet the failure is of such a character as to be totally invisible to most curators, conservators, or anyone else who approaches art academically rather than aesthetically.