During her visit to the museum’s blockbuster exhibition, art critic Deborah Solomon tweeted “‘Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ at the @MuseumModernArt more than cuts it; it practically makes criticism gratuitous.” The popular show drew more than 500,000 visitors to the Tate Modern this past summer, and timed tickets are required for entry in New York to stagger crowds eager to view Matisse’s graphic works.
I booked my ticket a week in advance, counting on long lines that doubled back on themselves in front of the MoMA ticket counter. I walked at a clip up the escalators, only to find another line to join in front of the gallery. Scores of others shared my palpable excitement.
The wait is worth it. Look up, look down, swipe left, swipe right—there’s a lot to see in Matisse: The Cut-Outs. The big, bright paper shapes are perennial favorites, evidence of Matisse’s innovative approach to “painting” later in his life. Roughly in chronological order of fabrication, viewers can observe the work on walls and on interactive display screens. A comprehensive tour-de-force with all the hits and a look behind-the-scenes, visitors will have to look hard to find something they won’t like. So will the critics. In fact, many of the big guns have already sounded off, and the noise is remarkably positive.
So what’s there to say that hasn’t already been said? Is the work as near-flawless as expected, and, as Solomon infers, above a close critical reading? A particular strength of this work is its mass appeal, but also because it commands attention: bold, abstract shapes arranged to create absorbing juxtapositions.
Peter Schjeldahl writes in The New Yorker that the artist “will give you as much aesthetic pleasure as you can stand and then some,” while New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz offers that “with The Cut-Outs, all we see is the work; only process is present; process and something as close to pure beauty in all of Western art.” He includes his endorsement up front; the title of his review is “Do Not Miss MoMA’s Overwhelming Henri Matisse Exhibition.” (The absence of the contraction communicates a certain urgency.)
Attention is paid throughout the exhibition to the meticulous process of creating each piece. Assistants painted sheets of paper with gouache in assorted colors that Matisse then cut into organic shapes. The shapes were pinned, removed, and re-pinned to the backgrounds until an optimal composition was achieved. Footage of the artist in his studio and sample swatches laid out in display cases next to finished works to underline the process of how Matisse did what he did.
The show is also a vehicle to display the newly restored “The Swimming Pool” (1952), Matisse’s first site-specific installation for his home in Nice, now part of the museum’s permanent collection. Karl Buchberg, MoMA’s senior conservator, led the efforts to put this work on display, and, with the help of senior curator Jodi Hauptman and assistant curator Samantha Friedman, re-staged the artist’s complete dining room. In the New York Times, Holland Cotter writes that “the piece is back, looking as good as new in the show, though under continuing observation.”