Matisse: The Cut-Outs


There may be reasons why I have an affinity for Rousseau; there are better reasons for me to have an affinity for Henri Matisse. More than one person has told me that my drawings remind them of Matisse; I find this flattering (as I should) but also mildly perplexing, because I knew virtually nothing about Matisse's work when I started the series of drawings you can see on my Website. Of course I was familiar with his most famous pieces, like his Blue Nudes, Dance, and Icarus. But not any more than that, really.

I came to my Matisse-like drawings by something of a back route; I was inspired to change my drawing style -- to attempt drawings in a totally different way than I used to -- by seeing The Mystery of Picasso at the Film Forum. Before that anything I tackled in terms of art was very serious: I approached it seriously, took my time, and only worked when absolutely sure I could do what I wanted to do. I planned. I thought over my plans, examining them from every angle. I considered. I weighed. When I saw Picasso on film, what I saw was that good old Pablo, he scribbled. He didn't think anything through. He just started in and followed wherever his drawing went. And when he painted, he re-painted, and re-painted, and wiped out, and started over -- he painted an entire painting for the film and, when any of us would have stopped, he went on and obliterated it with an entirely different painting on top of it.

Granted that Picasso created no masterpieces for that film. The results were beside the point, as far as I was concerned; sitting there, hypnotized by the flickering frames in the dark, blasted by the music, as Picasso's drawings and paintings came to life before me -- that was the point. The drawings Picasso created stand with the film, part of its fabric, and don't really stand on their own. Picasso and Henri-Georges Clouzot took me on a hallucinatory trip that day.

What I took from that was the value of scribbling, of drawing without planning, of taking what comes. Maybe I could start with a vague idea of where I was going, what I was trying to capture; but plans would be incidental. There are no mistakes, just happy accidents, I said to myself, as Bob Ross used to say on his TV show.

Determined to scribble more, then, I looked around at my life, which was a total train wreck at the time. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a vast field of rubble, surrounded by twisted metal and smoking concrete. It was just past September 11, 2001; and, too, I'd effectively destroyed my own life at almost the same time.

So I turned to the only thing I felt could mean something to me: The animal comfort of another warm body, of sex and love. It was a comfort I couldn't properly feel at the time because my marriage was part of what I'd destroyed, but somewhere from the tangled mess I felt I could pull out the pieces that meant something. I was determined to capture the small moments that make up the intimate times which stitch together a life with someone.

That's where my drawings came from. From somewhere very deep and personal, at the confluence of how I felt and where I wanted to go, artistically and in a larger sense as a person.

So it was quite a shock to go to the huge Matisse Picasso show at the Museum of Modern Art and find that when Matisse drew, his drawings looked like mine. Or mine looked like his. Whichever. Somehow I'd absorbed something of Matisse through his friend Picasso, long after they were both dead, and put it out on paper. As Brent Hallard commented on Ed Winkleman's blog, my images are "a mark making historically indebted." But they are so, oddly, without my knowing the history.

Also strangely, I don't find myself enjoying Matisse's work very much. It's okay. I find myself concentrating on the flaws I perceive more than the works as a whole: I'm critical of Matisse's ability as a draftsman. He seems hesitant and unsure in his lines. He doesn't trust his eye -- and I wouldn't if I were him, either, because I feel an inelegance in his drawing which itches and can't be scratched. I keep wanting his drawings to be tighter, more secure, better. More, I feel Matisse wanted this as well. Picasso's drawings are similar in quality and style but at no point do I feel Picasso wishes his drawings were anything other than what they are. Gauguin's paintings look like he meant them to be the way they are, flawed and ungainly. But Matisse, in his work I feel a yearning.

Maybe that's just me, though. Maybe I feel a yearning. Maybe I feel like Picasso and Gauguin were hopeless causes -- they could never be nudged to be excellent draftsmen. (Picasso, in particular, could be an excellent draftsman when he wanted to be.) But maybe I see in Matisse something closer to what I want. Which is silly: Who cares what I want? Obviously Matisse is sufficient unto himself, or he wouldn't be in the museums. Right?

Well: Some days I feel like a lot of what's in museums is there because at some point someone thought it should be, and now people think, you know, maybe this stuff shouldn't be in the museum, but, well, it's been here so long now, I guess we'll just leave it. The inertia of art: It's on the wall because it's been on the wall for a hundred years, which time makes it of historical interest even if, in and of itself, the object isn't all that interesting.

But then my cynical nature can be overwhelmed. And it was when I found, tucked away in a distant corner of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the permanent installation Matisse: The Cut-Outs.

Henri Matisse, The Cut-Outs at the National Gallery of Art, installation view What blew me away was not so much the works themselves, although they're pretty impressive. What really got to me was the realization that draftsmen before me -- that Matisse himself -- had been working on liberating the drawing from the paper. I knew this before, of course -- in the National Gallery there are several examples of Alexander Calder's drawing with wire -- but the scale of the cut-outs are astonishing. Especially considering Matisse was in a wheelchair when these were made; he must have had a small army of assistants. But unlike Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing #65 also at the National Gallery (and which should be retitled Yet Another Wall Drawing Attributed to Sol LeWitt for No Reason We Can Fathom Since He Never Touched It), Matisse's hand is evident everywhere.

The hand of the artist: So denigrated in our time, here elevated until it's nearly all that's left. These cut-outs are as direct as can be from Matisse's eye to his hand, from his hand to our eye. When I stand in front of a painting I remind myself, sometimes, that I'm standing exactly where the artist stood when they were working on it. I'm seeing the painting nearly exactly the way they saw it while they were painting. I find this version of time travel exciting. And Matisse's cut-outs are even more viscerally of him than any painting: Each piece of paper records a precise turn of his wrist. Standing in front of them, as they take up an entire wall before you, you can feel as if the paper is still warm from the artist's touch, as if he's actually in the room with you.

And to think, too, that we're working on a project together -- this project of releasing drawings into the wild, pulling them off the paper and sending them galloping -- that's pretty exciting. No, I'm no Henri Matisse. I count myself lucky that I can even see his work. But if I can, in some small way, contribute to the enterprise he dedicated himself to -- then I'd feel pretty good.

(In the installation photo, by the way, that is not me standing in front of the piece. I'm manning the camera. However, that is my wife Dawn sitting in the lower right corner.)


Hey,I am at ADT College in Year 7 and in art and design we are learning about Henri Matisse and about how he lived and his style of art.Will right again soon xxxx

Thank you for your words. I throughly enjoyed your expression here. You are right in so many ways.

Here's something fun - Matisse's goldfish painting has come to life - you can even feed them!

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