When Paper and Scissors Rock

Matisse is no stranger to museum shows. His name appears on catalogues with a certain frequency, but there’s a reason for that: People love Matisse. Art hounds and laymen can both appreciate the colors and voluptuous figures that have become synonymous with his name. But this month, the Museum of Modern Art will present a rare collection of more than 130 works by the modern master. The likes of this show hasn’t been seen stateside since 1961.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, is the synchronous effort of MoMA’s senior curator of prints and drawings, Jodi Hauptman and her colleagues in conjunction with the curators at London’s Tate Modern. The cadre has culled a breathtaking selection from museums and private collections around the world and the exhibition debuted at Tate Modern this past spring, drawing huge crowds. But the New York show has something London didn’t—a singular work that hasn’t been seen in decades and was the genesis of the exhibition six years in the making.

In 2008, Hauptman and senior conservator Karl Buchberg started a major conservation project on Matisse’s The Swimming Pool and decided the 11 x 53-foot composition of starfish and abstracted figures in ultramarine floating gracefully on a white field deserved a show. Works on paper are fragile. Light fades and degrades them. They are stored in climate controlled dark boxes, taken out and put up for not more than three months at a time. A special studio had to be found for a cut-out of this magnitude. It will be unveiled, along with the rest of the vibrant, dancing abstractions, starting this month.

The Swimming Pool is really the geographic, philosophical and conceptual heart of the exhibition,” Hauptman said. “It’s the culmination of Matisse’s work up to that point (1952), and it points forward to what he’s going to do next…It’s a monument in Matisse’s career.”

Hauptman, who grew up on Long Island, studied at Princeton and has a Ph.D. from Yale, recalled trips to museums with her mother, an artist and art teacher. “We would look at things and she would solicit stories about what we were seeing,” she said. Hauptman’s been telling artists’ stories ever since.

In the cut-outs, she found many narratives. One of them is that Matisse always wanted to have a public commission and a mural scale. It didn’t happen. While he wanted his work to be monumental, he was forced to stay within the confines of his studio. So, he invented cut-outs to fit his vision as well as his limitations. In designing the exhibition, Hauptman emphasized this “sense of a shift in scale…where you go from something very intimate to something where you have to kind of back up it’s so big and so encompassing.”

The cut-outs, Hauptman explained, allowed Matisse to spread his work up, down and around walls, escaping the confines of the canvas.

Unlike collage, these pieces were never glued. They were movable and changeable. “The media is painted paper, the implement was scissors and then it was organized with pins. And that’s it,” Hauptman said. They’re major works themselves, but Matisse also used them to prepare for pieces like the stained glass for the Dominican Chapel in Vence. Many of the pieces, like Apollinaire, have multiple pinholes and show Matisse “composing and changing his mind,” Hauptman said. “You see the record of his labor.”

Matisse described the work of creating cut-outs as “carving into color.” He created lyrical shapes of figures, plants, birds and stars like in the wall-sized The Parakeet and the Mermaid on loan from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It’s an exuberant composition of swirling leafy shapes in magenta, orange and emerald with a cobalt figure and a parakeet anchoring the two sides. Matisse’s work explored depth and flatness, realism and abstraction, but in the end, always came down to composition, line and color. In the cut-outs, he literally cut away everything else.

These works, more than anything else he did, were his break with the past. “Creativity takes courage,” he once said. After working with paper, Matisse largely abandoned painting, his life’s work. It was a fearless move and Hauptman tries to bring that out in the exhibition. “How do you share the absolute risk the artist has taken in giving up something that has been done for hundreds of years? How do you return the visitor to that radical, transgressive moment?”

To see these works up close is to experience the radical newness, the scale and originality of them. Nuit de Noel, an enormous, radiant model for a stained-glass window, is a perfect example. It’s only spot-glued and the cut edges are left free. “You can see their sculptural qualities, the way that a form lays on another form, a kind of undulating flexibility to the paper,” Hauptman said. “You can see the relationship between colors that was crucial for Matisse.” Her enthusiasm for both her own work and Matisse’s broke through as she added with a smile, “they’re a knockout when you see them in person.”

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, over 130 complex, vibrant and stunning works of cut paper, drawings and stained glass by Henri Matisse that span three decades of his work and range in size from handheld to filling an entire room. Oct 12–Feb 8.