Address Unknown: Yve-Alain Bois on the Sculpture of Henri Matisse

By Bois, Yve-Alain | Artforum International, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Address Unknown: Yve-Alain Bois on the Sculpture of Henri Matisse


Bois, Yve-Alain, Artforum International


WHAT IS IT ABOUT MATISSE the sculptor that he should be forever haunted by the specter of Matisse the painter? Matisse is, to my mind, one of the most important (and modern) sculptors of the first half of the past century. Yet he has never been thought so--in part, perhaps, because he was not exactly boastful about this side of his production. Accordingly, the two major American exhibitions that have during the past twenty-five years concerned themselves with his sculpture have not quite seemed content to let it stand on its own, instead framing it in relation to his work in two dimensions. This is immediately evident even in their titles. The first, "Henri Matisse: Sculptor/Painter," was curated by Michael P. Mezzatesta at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth in 1984; the second, "Matisse: Painter as Sculptor," a major traveling exhibition, opens next month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, following its two-part premiere this spring at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center. Co-organized by Dorothy Kosinski of the DMA, Jay McKean Fisher of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Steven Nash of the Nasher, the current show gathers some forty-five works--more than half the artist's sculptures--along with their apparently obligatory backdrop of paintings. I have never been keen on this principle of mutual inclusion. Matisse's canvases can be so lush and mesmerizing, and his sculptures so tough, that I always fear presenting the two together will inevitably make the latter, as Ad Reinhardt supposedly quipped, "something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting." Yet the sculptures' tether to the paintings inevitably persists, and the current exhibition allows us the opportunity to further explore the conceptual affinities and discontinuities between them.

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I did not see the Kimbell show, but its catalogue suggests a near-absolute disconnect between the selection of its eighteen paintings and forty sculptures. Most of the canvases included in that 1984 exhibition seem to have been picked at random, and there was no attempt whatsoever to suggest a rapport between them and the sculptures. (This must have been the meaning of the slash in the title: a comparison based not on similarity but on disjunction, a wall between the two practices.) The three exceptions were Standing Model (Nude Study in Blue), 1899-1900, which relates to the sculpture Madeleine I, 1901, through the pose of the model; Still Life with Plaster Figure, 1906, in which Matisse depicts the plaster cast of his Standing Nude of the same year; and The Yellow Dress, 1929-31, in which the central figure's overall configuration and eerie aloofness resemble that of Venus in a Shell I, 1930. These canvases suggest two types of links between Matisse's painting and sculptures--similarity of pose or of general configuration and sculpture as an object depicted within a painting--which are, for the most part, operable in the current show, where the trio makes an encore appearance, along with twelve additional paintings and eighty or so drawings. For example, the juxtaposition of The Italian Woman and Portrait of Sarah Stein, both 1916, with the five bronzes of the "Jeannette" series (1910-13) is not as purely arbitrary as it might first seem: There is something in common between the dislodged shoulder of the Italian and the utter enucleation of Jeannette V, just as similarities can be found between the dead gaze and goiter of Sarah Stein (whose faceted facial features surge toward the viewer like a genie escaping its bottle) and the sinister "in your face" presence of the "Jeannette" series as a whole.

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Through such morphological connections, the current show, in short, takes Matisse at his word, as its very title declares. For I understand the phrase "painter as sculptor" not simply to mean "painter as well as sculptor" (that we already knew), but to reflect two famous sayings by the artist.

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