That a work of art should be an "armchair for a tired businessman" is Henri Matisse's "Let them eat cake," a sound bite that has made revisionists of many historians examining the enduring intelligence and power of his pictures. Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry describes the museum's new exhibition "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917," opening Sunday, as "a very focused look at a critical moment in Matisse's career. This exhibition is a window into Matisse's ability to, in a sense, radically reinvent painting for himself."
The period between Henri Matisse's return from Morocco in 1913 and his departure for Nice in 1917 is considered one of the most fertile of the artist's career. In over 30 years at the Museum of Modern Art, John Elderfield curated more than 20 exhibitions, including 1992's Henri Matisse retrospective. Elderfield retired from MoMA in 2008 but remains in the role of chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture. He co-organized the present exhibition with Stephanie D'Alessandro, curator of modern art at The Art Institute of Chicago, where it ran through June 20. At the opening reception on July 14, Bennett Marcus spoke with co-curator John Elderfield about the exhibition's conception and scope, his upcoming de Kooning exhibit, and his busy life since taking on the role as the museum's chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture.
BENNETT MARCUS: Why did you focus on this period of Matisse's work, 1913–1917?
JOHN ELDERFIELD: It may be the greatest period of his work, of his whole career, and it's never been really examined separately before-and, actually, it was first properly discovered by MoMA, by its first director, Alfred Barr, who was really the first person to pay real attention to it. Which is why MoMA's got the best collection of this period anywhere, and was a great basis for the exhibition. The Art Institute of Chicago has the big picture, Bathers By a River, which is at the end of the show, so it was natural symbiosis for the two institutions to do this together.
BATHERS BY A RIVER, 1909-10, 1913, 1916-17. THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO © 2010 SUCCESSION H. MATISSE/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
MARCUS: And the idea for this exhibit came about because you were trying to figure out when Bathers By a River was started?
ELDERFIELD: Yes. We knew that it had been conceived in 1909, but we didn't know whether he had actually put paint on the canvas. We knew he'd picked it up again in '13, but we didn't really know what had happened. So this became a great detective project, which is one of the nice things about art history, that you can do these sorts of things.
MARCUS: Did you find the answer?
ELDERFIELD: I think so. We know now definitely that he started working on the canvas in 1909, and we've pretty much identified six different stages in its production through to 1917. Even just for that [understanding of process, the show] was worth doing, but as we were working on it, we looked at other pictures from the period. And in the MoMA collection, there's a painting called The Moroccans which we know was started earlier. It was supposedly finished in '16, but we didn't really know when it was started, so we took that on as well.
We just kept adding works, and then, since we'd been persuading ourselves that what needed to be done was these paintings, the varnish had to be taken off, they had to be cleaned and so on. So we went to Philadelphia and said, "You've got a great painting from this period, would you consider getting the varnish off your picture so we can..." Copenhagen, all these places, you know, kind of went along with us.
MARCUS: How complete is this exhibition of Matisse's work during this period?
EDLERFIELD: Well, it's not everything he did. It's really all the important things he did, but there are other smaller works, and some kind of less-interesting works that he did. And we knew we needed to do a section before 1913, and that was actually the most complicated to figure out, because one could have done a whole exhibition of works dating 1907–13. So we had to really say we're not going to try to get all the greatest pictures before then because that would divert us from the real task.
MARCUS: How did you define an "important picture" in the context of this exhibition?
ELDERFIELD: We wanted the most radical pictures. We were interested in the extremeness of his work in that period.
MARCUS: Was there anything particularly difficult to attain for this exhibit?
ELDERFIELD: There was some tooth-pulling, but it wasn't so difficult. There was only one work we couldn't get, which was a portrait of Matisse's wife done in 1913 that had been lent to the Matisse/Picasso show here, five years ago. Its condition was deteriorating and it wasn't going to be lent again. And I believe that as much as you want pictures for shows, what you don't want to do is damage pictures by borrowing them,
MARCUS: You have a de Kooning exhibition opening in September, 2011, which is a broader retrospective. Can you say anything about that yet?
ELDERFIED: It's all of de Kooning, from the beginning It's going to take up the whole of [the 6th floor at MoMA.] That will have significantly more works. The earliest is from 1917, and the last one is from 1987. Admittedly, in 1917 he was 13. It's to show that actually he was pretty good when he was 13, but most of the works are going to be from the ‘40s and the ‘50s, where he was just an amazing—well, I think he was a great artist all the way through—and very different mid-century artist who is more comfortable with full abstraction. And yet, even his full abstract works are best on the figure, and the kind of invention through process that de Kooning does looks back a lot to this period of Matisse. So it's kind of nice to be turning from one to the next one.
MARCUS: You retired from MoMA full time and are now "chief curator emeritus for painting and sculpture." It doesn't seem like much of a retirement.
ELDERFIELD: I thought when I retired from full time my life was going to, like, change dramatically and I was going to have a lot of free time. So in addition to this and whatever, I took on some other projects as well as these, which was really a mistake, I think. But anyhow, I don't go to meetings and I don't raise money, so there are great things about it. But work is still hard, if not harder.
MATISSE: RADICAL INVENTION 1913–1917 IS ON VEW JULY 18–OCTOBER 11.
2012, aluminum, wood, sublimation print on polyester and concrete, 71 3/4 by 122 1/2 by 135 inches overall. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New Yor