State of the Art: With the Art Institute of Chicago's Exhibition "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917" Poised to Open Later This Month, Art Historian Jeffrey Weiss Reflects on This Pivotal Period in the Artist's Career-Assessing Not Only the Show's Remarkable Discoveries about Matisse's Working Process but Also the Advanced Technologies and the Curatorial Approach That Made Such Insights Possible

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IN HIS 1957 ESSAY "NEW YORK PAINTING ONLY YESTERDAY," the critic Clement Greenberg observed that, during the 1930s, Henri Matisse's painting Bathers by a River, 1909-17, was on view for some time in the lobby of the Valentine Gallery on East Fifty-seventh Street. (1) He claims he saw it there so often he could have "'cop[ied] it by heart." The implication is that it was an object of close study for many painters as well. What Greenberg ascribes to Bathers (and to Matisse's work in general) is an anticipation of the "Abstract-Expressionist notion of the big picture," with specific reference to the pictorial surface as something "breathing and open." Yet while artists may have drawn pictorial lessons from Bathers, it would not have been because of anything like a breathing surface. This magisterial canvas shows an enormous amount of labor, evincing none of the ease of execution for which Matisse had, by the '30s, been celebrated in the critical and popular press. To paraphrase Jasper Johns (speaking of his own work), Bathers by a River is a massive sum of corrections.

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Such corrections are the chief preoccupation of "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917," a remarkable exhibition--accompanied by a catalogue jammed with art-historical discoveries and new information--opening this month at the Art Institute of Chicago (and traveling to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in July). Organized by Stephanie D''Alessandro, from the Art Institute, and John Elderfield, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at MOMA, the project is revelatory. The show was conceived five years ago as an exhibition devoted to Bathers, which was then being cleaned by conservators in Chicago--where it resides--in preparation for the reinstallation of the museum's permanent collection in a new annex. The results of the conservation analysis were far-reaching, and that motivated a larger show, one premised on a reexamination of Matisse's methods throughout the five-year phase from 1913 to 1917, with substantial consideration of relevant works as far back as 1909, when Bathers was begun. The exhibition now includes some 125 works in various media--painting, sculpture, and works on paper (including a body of monotypes little discussed in the literature on the artist). Nearly all of the paintings included have, for this occasion, also undergone fresh examination through X-radiography and infrared reflectography. As a methodology, applying the lessons from the conservation studio to those of the artist's studio is not new; indeed, over the past two decades or so, museums and scholars have instigated a heightened, examination-heavy wave of art-historical study made possible by the application of technology to the analysis of painting and sculpture. But "Radical Invention" marks an apogee for the approach: The results will surely alter our understanding of this artist's work, even as they raise questions about the complexities of beholding in the age of the forensic eye.

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NOT SURPRISINGLY, given the focus on technical analysis, the most significant claims being made by the curators concern process--the way in which both the pictorial and the material nature of the paintings in particular can be directly accounted for by the groundbreaking methods used to produce them. The 1910s have long been characterized as a period of experimentation for Matisse. For most authors, this specifically refers to the artist's investigation of Cubism in paintings of quasi-architectonic construction often executed in a highly restricted palette, dominated by gray, ocher, blue, and black (some of the paintings even verge on the monochromatic). …

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