It's not every day that Matisse comes to town.
Work by the glorious French painter (1869-1954) is making a rare appearance in Tucson. Henri Matisse: The Pasiphaé Series and Other Works on Paper is at the Tucson Museum of Art, but only for a few more weeks.
Don't go expecting anything like the acclaimed show Matisse: In Search of True Painting, now at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The New York Times called that "one of the most thrillingly instructive exhibitions about this painter, or painting in general, that you may ever see."
New York has 49 lush paintings, while Tucson has a small—but handsome—exhibition of several dozen Matisse prints. Most of them are linocuts from the early 1940s, printed in monochromatic red or black. The simple images, drawn from Greek mythology, were cut with swift, sure strokes of Matisse's knife.
Matisse made them when he was illustrating Pasiphaé, Chants de Minos, a limited-edition book by Henry de Montherlant. The text recounts the erotic story of Pasiphaé, daughter of the sun god and wife of Minos. Cursed by Poseidon, god of the sea, Pasiphaé is seized with an overwhelming lust for a white bull.
This story naturally allowed Matisse some rich erotic imagery: a bull standing on its hind legs, its penis erect; and a nude young woman in the throes of sexual desire. Repeated again and again, these figures are deftly drawn with just a few lines. A simple circle stands for a breast. Two curves make a bull's horn. Presaging the Matisse cutouts of the late '40s and early '50s, these "knife drawings" are by no means realistic. The woman's arms are too big for the head; her thigh careens unexpectedly skyward. No matter: They're alluring motifs from Matisse World.
In their own way, they teach us about Matisse's process, just as the fancy New York show does. I haven't seen it, but critic Roberta Smith writes that the Met exhibition demonstrates how Matisse painted the same subject over and over and over, each time in completely different ways. His whole career, she notes, was a relentless search for a radical new art, for an exhilarating new way to see the world.
Matisse did the same thing here. He drew the bull, the woman and some ornamental page designs again and again, doggedly trying out different poses, different ways to convey the same thing. And it turns out the delectable linocuts here are outtakes from the book project—Matisse made so many, and had so many to choose from, that only a few were published in the book. These were printed and published posthumously.
Museumgoers who want an exhibition—like the Met's—that's about the nature of painting have to go no farther than the adjacent TMA gallery. The Shape of Things is an interesting collection of paintings that don't conform to tried-and-true ideas of what a painting should be—a flat two-dimensional image confined to a rectangular shape.
Not a single one of the show's 25 works meets that definition. Some of the artists simply defy the rectangle rule. Olivier Mosset's creamy "Untitled (Swiss Coffee)" is a giant backward "L." Robert Mangold's luminous "Painting, Yellow Orange + Within +" is in the shape of a cross, assembled from four small rectangular canvases clipped together.
Others take their canvases off the wall—and into space. Steven Parrino's big "Untitled" makes delicious use of the folds and drapes of fabric. He started the painting in the usual way, stretching canvas across a wooden backing, and then painting it in creamy white oils. But then he ripped the canvas from its stretchers and crumpled and twisted it into folds and crevices. Sticking out into the gallery airspace, it occupies the netherworld between flat and full, between 2-D and 3-D, between painting and sculpture.
Other artists don't even take painting-on-canvas as a point of departure. Miles Conrad's encaustic "Bioslice Blue," 8 inches square, ripples with a jungle's worth of waxy reeds sticking out into the air. It's colored a startling blue that veers toward purple—a blue, come to think of it, that Matisse often used.
Carlotta Boettcher's "13 Moons Doubled" hangs on the wall, but its base is a real car hood, extracted from a Citroën and painted in matte black lacquer. She's imposed a female angle on what she calls her examination of car culture. Raised spheres curving across the hood's surface conjure up the year's worth of moons that make up women's cycle, and the hood's V shape evokes primal genitalia.
Margaret Evangeline's "Los Lunas #33" started as two slabs of pristine stainless steel, one beneath the other. But using them as a metaphor for her grief after Sept. 11, she took a gun and shot 33 bullets into the mirrored surface. Some shots went through cleanly, leaving behind a tidy, tiny circle. Others blasted and shredded the metal, leaving ragged edges and large, gaping holes.
You can't look at this damage and not think of the young students and their teachers slaughtered in Connecticut. It's painful to look at, painful to contemplate—exactly what the artist intended.
But Matisse gives the grief-stricken a small, brief respite. Hanging near Evangeline's collateral damage is a small print on paper from a different Matisse book, 1947's Jazz. It's a beautiful "Icarus" in a starburst sky colored that inimitable Matisse blue.
Icarus is another figure from Greek myth, a young man who dared too much. When he flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melted, and he fell to his death in the sea.
Matisse has transformed this tragic death: His Icarus is not falling, but soaring, making his way among the stars to his glory in the heavens.