Visual ArtsMay 23, 2017


Matisse and American Art at Montclair Arts MuseumOne is the sketchbook of a pioneering American artist from 1907. Another is an abstract piece from the late 1950s by a New York City painter — who happens to be Robert DeNiro’s father.

Around the corner is a silkscreen by Andy Warhol from 1985. And nearby is a quilt from 1991 created by an artist from New Jersey.

Each piece of art is quite different, but they have one thing in common: All of them were inspired by Henri Matisse.

Such is the goal of the exhibit “Matisse and American Art” at the Montclair Art Museum through June 18—examining the widespread influence that the famed French artist has had on modern art in the U.S. over the last century, from 1907 to today.

In all, there are 65 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and collages on display that support that thesis — 19 by Matisse and 44 by American artists from various eras.

“He was incredibly influential,” explains Gail Stavitsky, the museum’s chief curator. “As influential as Picasso. He appeals to a broad spectrum.”

You could actually describe Matisse, who was born in 1869 and died in 1954, as the art world’s version of The Beatles. Like the Fab Four, he caused his colleagues to pay attention and craft new work inspired by his creations. Then, he served as a touchtone for many artists that popped up in the decades after he was active.

“I think it was because his work was both accessible but very multifaceted,” Stavitsky says. “Whether you were looking for vibrant color, bold outlines or perhaps looking at his traditional subjects, his work has appealed to artists in such a variety of approaches. He’s kind of easy to appropriate and also to look at on a deeper level. He offers a lot to everybody.”

Matisse and American Art at Montclair Arts Museum

Stavitsky says the art world is actually “having a Matisse moment,” with exhibits on his work having been on display recently in Baltimore and Boston.

But the Montclair show, she stresses, is the “first and only” exhibit that examines his influence dating back to the early days of the 20th century all the way through the early days of the 21st.

A few previous shows, Stavitsky says, have gone back to the 1940s. But, she adds, this exhibit examines how “American art didn’t just start with Jackson Pollock and the New York school.”

“I feel like this exhibit really shows how original early 20th century American artists were,” says Stavitsky. “They weren’t copying Matisse. Rather, they were adapting his work.”

The first part of the exhibit looks at American artists who studied directly under Matisse in Paris from 1907 to 1914.

Walk into the show and you’ll see a glass case with a sketchbook that Maurice Brazil Prendergast — an early American modernist — made around 1907. The pages are opened to a sketch he made of the Matisse painting “Le Luxe 1,” which he saw at a gallery on a trip to Paris.

Matisse and American Art at Montclair Arts Museum

“He was one of the first to appreciate Matisse’s work,” Stavitsky says of Prendergast.

There is also “The Apollo in Matisse’s Studio,” a 1908 painting by Max Weber, one of Matisse’s students in Paris. It depicts a statue of the Greek god standing inside of Matisse’s workspace, captured in bold, unusual colors

“The students had to learn the basics before experimenting,” Stavisky explains. “Here, Weber is doing both.”

A few of Matisse’s works from the era are displayed nearby. One is “Nude in a Wood” from 1906 — an oil painting that depicts nude men sitting in a bright green and burnt orange wood. It was his first painting exhibited in the U.S., at the famed 291 Gallery in New York City.

A few years later, the piece was displayed at the noted Armory Show of 1913 in New York — the first major show of modern art in America and the first time a large array of people could see Matisse’s work. Some critics at the time were confounded by his use of color and form, calling it ugly or simplistic.

Matisse and American Art at Montclair Art MuseumOn a nearby wall at the Montclair exhibit is “Matisse’s Model,” a quilt from 1991 in which artist Faith Ringgold, an Englewood native who is now 87, imagines herself as a young artist using one of Matisse’s themes.

There’s also “Portrait of Mrs. Z,” a piece from 1959 by Robert DeNiro Sr., who made a name for himself as a modernist painter before his son became a legendary actor.

“He had a longtime love of Matisse’s work,” says Stavitsky.

You will also find work by Matisse’s offspring. “The Conversation” is a 2001 painting featuring a bright royal blue room with a window looking out at a green garden — painted by Sophie Matisse, the artist’s great-granddaughter.

There are pieces by well-known pop artists, as well. “Woman in Blue” is a silkscreen by Andy Warhol from 1985, based on a 1937 Matisse painting of a woman in a blue dress on a red and yellow chair.

Nearby, the 2013 collage “Matisse’s Blue Dress” by Janet Taylor Pickett — who once lived in Montclair and taught at the museum — is based on the same painting.

Matisse and American Art at Montclair Art MuseumThere are also a pair of pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, including 1997’s “Bellagion Hotel Mural,” which interprets the Matisse sculpture “Reclining Nude.” Right behind it on display is the original 1930 sculpture — a black figure made of bronze laying down sans clothes.

The Lichentenstein piece was inspired by Matisse’s last major innovation: cutouts.

In the final chapter of his career, Matisse made artwork, often with the help of assistants, using scissors to cut up pieces of paper that he would then arrange into collages.

“He called it drawing with scissors,” explains Stavitsky. “He would create all of his wonderful forms — flowers and plants. The assistants would sometimes move around pieces of paper and he would point with a pointer: ‘Put it there. Move it there.’”

One Matisse cutout on display is 1951’s “Madame de Pompadour.

Nearby is Stuart Davis’s “Letter and His Ecol” from 1962, featuring abstract shapes painted with bright colors.

Around the corner is an untitled 2002 painting by Helen Frakenthaler. It’s a swath of deep red acrylic paint on paper — similar to Matisse’s famed “Red Studio” painting of 1911.

Matisse and American Art at Montclair Arts Museum

Next to it is another red-themed piece: Matisse’s “Pianist and Checker Players” from 1924, which shows a family entertaining themselves in a red living room in the artist’s apartment in Nice.

“Really throughout all periods of his work, Matisse developed his own distinctive sense of color, form, and composition, usually with the goal of achieving harmony,” Stavitsky says. “His work looks so effortless and joyful, but that’s deceptive. It’s really very complex and multifaceted. And he was an innovator in all different phases of his career.”

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Brent Johnson
Brent Johnson

Brent Johnson is a pop-culture-obsessed writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He's currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark. Before that, he was a longtime entertainment and music columnist for The Trenton Times. His work has also been published by Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated On Campus and Night & Day Magazine. His favorite musical artists: Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Dave Matthews Band, The Beatles, Blur, Squeeze, The Kinks. When he's not writing, Brent is the lead singer in alt-rock band The Clydes.

  • Jennifer Nelson

    Nice write-up of a museum exhibit. Thanks for sharing this.