Morgan Library and Museum/ Pennsylvania State University Press, 272 pp., $65.00
The search for patterns, root causes, and overarching forces is universal, shaping thought about the visual arts as it does every other field of inquiry. But there are times when this search, admirable and essential as it is, can blind us to the powerful part that less predictable forces play in artistic creation: vagrant thoughts, backward or sideways glances, accidents, coincidences, escapades, obsessions, misreadings, even outright mistakes. Of all the modern masters, Matisse was the one whose art and life were most complexly shaped by the dynamic interaction between large patterns and unpredictable particulars. The arguments about what made Matisse the artist he was—what made Matisse Matisse—began more than a century ago with his emergence as the king of the Fauves, by some measure the most adventurous colorist in the history of art, and have never really been resolved. Sometimes he himself seemed unsure of who or what he was.
The publication of Matisse in the Barnes Foundation—a three-volume catalog of one of the greatest collections of his work, produced under the supervision of Yve-Alain Bois, a prominent figure among art historians—provides a fine occasion to return to these questions. This considerable achievement ought not be viewed in isolation, for Matisse is almost always in the public eye. Less than a year after the immense exhibition of his cutouts closed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in February 2015, the Morgan Library and Museum mounted an important show, “Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts,” focusing on an essential and too often overlooked aspect of his achievement.
Every decade brings fresh approaches to Matisse, a notable book of recent years being Henri Matisse: Modernist Against the Grain, by Catherine Bock-Weiss.1 And if we are to take the measure of Yve-Alain Bois’s views of modern art, it helps to look not only at his earlier work on Matisse, particularly the essay “Matisse and ‘Arche-drawing’” in his 1990 book Painting as Model, but also at the first volume of the catalogue raisonné of Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings, reliefs, and sculptures, which appeared last fall. Kelly, who died in December at the age of ninety-two, is often viewed as the inheritor of Matisse’s coloristic gifts, and for the catalogue raisonné Bois has written an extensive series of commentaries on the work Kelly did in France, where he lived between 1948 and 1954.
Among the works in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia are more than fifty paintings by Matisse, including major achievements from nearly every…
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