MoMA | Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs


Bright and cheerful, Matisse’s Cut-Outs are always a welcome sight. As with so many art works that are reproduced endlessly on note cards, calendars, tote bags, and mouse pads, we assume we know them. But a closer look rewards: the sunny view and simple fun that these vibrant, organic shapes convey belies the thoughtful process behind their creation.


The Cut-Outs, which are now on view at MoMA, drew over half a million visitors earlier this year at the Tate Modern, becoming the most popular show in that museum’s history. Attendance at the New York show will likely meet or exceed that number, including as it does the added attraction of Matisse’s “Swimming Pool” frieze, on public view for the first time since 1993 after an extensive conservation effort.


The show is the largest exhibition of the Cut-Outs to date and includes works that were both familiar and totally new to me. First, some fast facts about Matisse’s Cut-Outs:

1. The Cut-Outs are Matisse’s late oeuvre, dating to the last decade of his life. When ill health prevented him from continuing to paint, he found another outlet for his creative drive and in the process created this new art form, which he called, “painting with color.”

2. The Cut-Outs are bespoke.
All of the paper used to create the Cut-Outs was hand painted by studio assistants under Matisse’s direction. Colors were meticulously mixed and applied to white paper for his review, and revised until he was satisfied. He was exacting: of 79 gouache painted paper samples, there are at least 17 different oranges.

Matisse-The-Parakeet-and-the Mermaid-1952

3. The Cut-Outs are constructions that capture movement. I hadn’t realized how integral motion was to the complete Cut-Out experience. Matisse, who certainly had the ability to cut a star or a leaf from a single piece of paper, chose instead to construct shapes with multiple pieces of paper. Placed by assistants and often secured by pin rather than glue, the individual pieces would have fluttered with even the slightest breeze. The wall-sized The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952, was created by Matisse to bring his beloved garden indoors to his bedroom; imagine each piece moving, bringing the “garden” alive as he drew near.


Reproductions lose this nuance, flattening the image and destroying any animation inherent in the work. Two Dancers, 1937, shows the piece-work construction that makes the Cut-Outs so dimensional in person.


4. The Cut-Outs always explore the relationship between line and color. The four Blue Nudes above show a progression of form development and the evolution of Matisse’s drawing and cutting skills. In the final Nude, on the right, Matisse has achieved line by simply cutting forms to create “troughs” of negative space that give the outline of a female figure.


5. The Cut-Outs are conceived as a whole. The artistic considerations for an individual Cut-Out – color balance, positive and negative space, relationships between shapes – hold true for a wall of Cut-Outs as well.  Matisse was always examining and rearranging individual shapes and works as part of a larger wall composition. For example, he might look at how a green leaf shape functioned within its own work, and then also at how that particular green and that particular shape related to the all the other shapes and greens hung on the same wall. This process could go on for months.


6. Matisse embraced the decorative. Not all fine arts painters celebrate the decorative but Matisse valued them equally. He always wanted to achieve a mural scale wall-sized work, and did so in Large Decoration with Masks, 1953, pictured above on the right.

While many of the Cut-Outs are familiar, three new-to-me projects stood out:


Stained Glass Window commissioned by Life Magazine

Both the maquette (model) and the finished design for Nuit de Noël, 1953 are on view in this exhibition. While the design is of course lovely, what struck me about the work is that it was, first, commissioned by a magazine and, second, commissioned for a Christmas display in the Time-Life building at Rockefeller Center in 1953. Both works were then donated to MoMA’s permanent collection. Could this even happen in today’s world? Of course commissions remain as critical to artists as ever, but the financials of the art (and publishing) worlds have changed so radically that such an exchange seems very unlikely. Read more about this work here.



Comprehensive design for the Chapelle de Rosaire de Vence

Matisse survived treatment for cancer in the early 1940’s but required nursing care during his convalescence. He built the Chapelle de Rosaire de Vence, 1948-1951 in honor of his nurse, Monique Bourgeois, who had entered the Dominican order in 1946. The chapel represents a complete artistic vision, and includes three sets of stained glass windows, a wall sized depiction of the fourteen stations of the cross in black outline on white tile, and a set of vestments that are still in use today. The movement of the vestments “activates the design of the space”; doesn’t that sound similar to the Cut-Outs coming alive with a breeze? Read more about the Chapelle de Rosaire de Vence here and watch this BBC Modern Masters video to view the interior.


Frieze for Dining Room

The site-specific Swimming Pool, 1952 frieze was made for Matisse’s own dining room in the Hôtel Régina in Nice. The story goes that on a very hot summer day, he visited a local swimming pool in Cannes. Done in by the heat, he declared that he would make his own pool. The result is a 54-foot long frieze that depicts moving creatures, swimmers of every kind. The colors, of course evoke water and summer all at once.


Swimming Pool has not been on view publicly since 1993 due to degraded condition. Twenty years is a long time to be off view and the result is that many visitors, myself included, are now encountering this famous work for the first time. Installed in a dedicated gallery that replicates the architecture of Matisse’s dining room, the effect of this immersive experience is a delight. The color and motion of the frieze makes for a carefree mood and, hung just above eye-level on three walls, Swimming Pool really does create the impression of being in the water, sometime just above and sometimes just below the surface. Restoration of this delicate work was painstaking: removing the original burlap backing took 2,000 hours and often involved removing fibers, by hand, one at a time. This short video explains all that went into making Swimming Pool ready for public display once again:

The Visitor Experience

MoMA is always too crowded, and the lobby is maddening to navigate. Bypass all of that by buying tickets online in advance (they are required for non-members). Pick up the audio guide on your way upstairs. It is excellent and eliminates the need to cram in with the crowd to read labels. When I visited most visitors used the audio guide, which helped keep a steady pace through the show. Finally, this is a show where the works read just as well from a distance as they do up close – take a minute to stand in the center of each gallery and take in the beautiful panoramas of color that Matisse created.

If you are not able to make it in person, or would like to learn more about the show before you visit, I recommend visiting the dedicated site MoMA has created for the show. It’s filled with information on the art, the studio process, and Matisse himself, and is easy to navigate with some fun interactive elements along the way.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on view at MoMA now through February 8, 2015. Don’t miss it.


Photo credits: all photos, with exception of “wall of Cut-Outs”, with permission of MoMA. “Wall of Cut-Outs” courtesy of Tate Modern.


China Institute | A Girl Army Marches on Manhattan

Prune Nourry’s girl army, The Terracotta Daughters, has arrived in New York City. This army highlights the impact of gender selection, standing in for all the girls erased by the legacy of China’s stringent one-child policy.


Here are some fast facts on the project:

1) The Terracotta Daughters are a riff on the famous Terracotta Warriors. The nearly 8,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers dating from 209 BCE were discovered in Xi’an, China, in 1974 by farmers. The Terracotta Warriors project is a remarkable work of art, and is considered a national treasure by the Chinese.


2) Nourry’s work addresses how humans – people – are selected and defined. Terracotta Daughters is a follow on to her Holy Daughters project in India. Together China and India represent 1/3 of the world’s population, yet in both places women are woefully under-represented in favor of men.


3)  The girl army was crafted by hand in Xi’an, in a factory that fabricates modern reproductions of the Terracotta Warriors. The same clay and construction techniques were used to create the Terracotta Daughters. Wen Xian Feng, the lead craftsman, was skeptical of the project at first, saying, “in the Army it is impossible to see girls.”


4)   The Terracotta Daughters are based on 8 Chinese orphan girls who Nourry met in 2012 through The Children of Madaifu organization. The first 8 clay Terracotta Daughters, representing these girls, were sold to raise funds for their education and completion of the larger project.


5)  Like the Terracotta Warriors, no two Terracotta Daughters are alike. Each of the 108 life-sized figures is individually crafted and is unique. Among the variations I noticed were face, hairstyle, hair ornaments, collar, hand placement, sleeve detail, and footwear. As Wen Xian Feng sculpted each girl, working from Nourry’s original 8, he “gradually, bit by bit, came to like the project.”

6) The closer you are to the Daughters, the more real they feel. The more individualized detail you take in, the spookier their presences become.

7) After a stop in Mexico at the Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli, the army will be buried in Xi’an in 2015. It is projected that Chinese men will have hardest time finding wives in 2030, the year the impact of the gender imbalance in China’s population will peak. That same year the Terracotta Daughters will be excavated, a ghostly reminder of the Chinese girls and women missing from our world.


8) Nourry has created 8 miniature (tabletop size) Terracotta Daughters. Available for purchase individually or as a set, the proceeds fund this continuing project.

Don’t delay – the Terracotta Daughters are only on view until October 4, 2014. See them at the China Institute’s new downtown location, 104 Washington Street, in New York City.

Credit:  all photos by me.

Miscellany | Favorites No. 3

“Why does everything you wear look like it’s bearing a grudge, darling?”

– Eddy to Saffy, AbFab


Fashion Week is underway in New York City. Curious about how Vogue’s giant September issue comes together? Watch and learn – while The September Issue documentary debuted in 2009, the same cast of characters is running the show today.

Speaking of which, watch Anna Wintour and her bob take the A.L.S. Ice Bucket Challenge here.

Can Fashion Week exist without make-up? Certainly not. Here’s a fascinating read on cosmetics pioneer Max Factor, who was personal cosmetician (& hostage) to the Czar’s court before escaping to America.


Maiyet is a luxury fashion brand that is designed in New York and fabricated by specialized craftspeople around the world. This socially conscious label creates customized training programs to promote fine craft skills in local communities, ensuring a production consistency in the Maiyet clothing line while promoting economic growth and stability for its artisan partners. Learn more about the philosophy driving this company forward in The Luxurious Goodness of Maiyet.

Faber-Castell-Color-Pencil-Polychromos-wood-case-of-120You might be surprised to know that pencils are going strong in this digital age. Fashion studios are one place where I suspect they remain ubiquitous. Faber-Castell, the oldest and largest pencil manufacturer worldwide, has it covered: Hands-On Bavarian Count Presides Over a Pencil-Making Empire.


I can’t imagine New York without seeing Bill Cunningham, whose style photos appear each week in the New York Times, out and about on his Schwinn bicycle snapping pictures of city scenes. In the 2011 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, he shares the story of how his career developed and his many adventures along the way.


Finally, we’re all aware of the high costs of disposable fashion, but have we lost the skills needed to maintain quality clothing over time and through trends? Make Do & Mend can help: The rise of mending: how Britain learned to repair clothes again.


Guggenheim Museum | Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today


Gabriel Orozco, Piñanona 1, 2013

I was surprised to learn the first Latin American Art Departments in US museums were not established until 1988 and 1992, by the Huntington Art Gallery* and the Phoenix Art Museum, respectively. This relatively recent appearance speaks not only to the history of collecting in the United States, but also to the changing demographics of the country. Today, in all but seven states, Spanish is the most spoken language after English.

And here are the most spoken languages after English and Spanish. (Click here to see the most commonly spoken Scandinavian, Indo-Aryan, African, and Native American languages too.)


The point is that Americans all come from somewhere else, though it may be many generations ago that our families first arrived in the United States. Further, the modern world is global: today we regularly interact across oceans and continents in our professional and personal lives. So of course museums should mount exhibitions that represent domestic populations as well as open a window into regions and cultures less familiar – but not unknown – to us.


Amalia Pica, AnBnC, 2013. During Pica’s childhood in 1970’s Argentina the “military junta forbade Venn diagrams and the related concept of intersection from being taught in elementary schools, viewing it as potentially subversive.”

This past spring Latin American art was a hot topic in Manhattan– there were numerous exhibitions around the city as well as a symposium, and the theme tied in nicely with the World Cup, played locally in Brazil but viewed worldwide. Thanks to the spotlight on this topic, I now know that there is a feeling in art and academic circles that Latin American art has been shortchanged in this country.


Alfred Jaar, A Logo for America, 1987. This work “challenges the ethnocentrism of the United States, which habitually claims the identity of the entire American continent as its own.”

The concern is that the entire region has been lumped together under one name and identity, and that the artistic and cultural nuances of this extremely diverse part of the world have not been adequately examined and represented in cultural institutions. Scholars and collectors alike support more regional definition, and are starting to achieve this through exhibitions and endowed curatorial chairs with a Latin American focus. Private foundations like Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and online study resources also promote a more diverse view of the region. This would all seem to argue for exhibitions that focus more specifically on individual countries, and distinct art historical periods (for example, modernism in Argentina) rather than the surveys we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

Given this, I’m not sure how well the Guggenheim Museum’s current show, Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today, addresses the issue as it is a survey show of contemporary Latin American art drawn from 15 countries. But what it does succeed at is giving a sense of not only the diversity within the region despite a shared history of colonial occupations and military dictatorships, but also a collective frustration that Latin America is still more defined by its past than its present, hindering its engagement with the larger world. The artists in this show never stray far from the relationship between perception and reality in their works.


Wilson Diaz, Movement of the Liberation of the Cocoa Plant, 2012. This work “represents the search for an alternative to the violent nexus of narcotraffic and insurgency that has shaped life in contemporary Colombia.”

The show is divided into five themes: “Conceptualism and its Legacies,” “Tropicologies,” “Political Activism,” “Modernism and its Failures,” and “Participation/Emancipation.”


Luis Camnitzer, Art History Lesson no. 6, 2000. The empty projectors “point to the fact that art history is written by those in power, and tends to exclude certain accounts (including Latin America’s) from the canon around which the discipline organizes itself.”

It will be exciting to see how the presentation of Latin American art changes over the next few years; I’ll be keeping watch. Between this show, the contemporary Arab art show Here and Elsewhere now at the New Museum, last year’s Iran Modern and Ink Art shows, and the upcoming After Midnight show on Indian Modernism at the Queen’s Museum, I think I may finally be developing a real interest in contemporary art thanks to its role as a reflection of contemporary histories and cultures worldwide. Stay tuned.


Rivane Neuenschwander, Mapa-Múndi/BR (Postal), 2007. One of a series of images that “document the artist’s travels throughout Brazil while reflecting the desire of local communities to identify with an increasingly globalized culture.”

Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City through October 1, 2014.


* Now the Blanton Museum of Art at University of Texas, Austin.
Credits: all photos and caption quotes are from the Guggenheim Museum website.

Market | A. M. Ideas & the Craft of Rush Grass Weaving

I’m always interested in products made using traditional craft skills, and recently learned about a small line of handwoven rush grass accessories through my friend Kathy’s blog, Tricky Taipei. The women who weave these products are in their 60’s; I wonder if their children or grandchildren have also acquired these skills or will this be a craft tradition that fades away with the “Grandma” generation?

Fortunately for us, the design firm A.M. Ideas is showing how traditional craft can be paired with products designed for the modern world. Thanks to Kathy Cheng for allowing me to share her original post below.


The Taiwanese Craft of Rush Grass Weaving

My friends Helen Chen and Wanshan Lin run a Taipei-based design studio, A.M. Ideas. In addition to taking freelance product design projects for local clients, they produce a small line of lifestyle products that incorporate the traditional craft of rush grass weaving.

Being an ignoramus, I didn’t know about rush grass weaving until I learned about it from them. It’s an interesting part of Taiwanese craft culture that’s in danger of extinction, so it’s admirable that Helen and Wanshan are shining the spotlight on rush grass weaving through their products. Let’s learn about rush grass weaving, shall we…


What’s rush grass weaving?

The artisanal craft of rush grass weaving was first recorded in Taiwan 300 years ago. It experienced its heyday in the 1930s, during which rush grass products were the third most exported item (after rice and sugar). Most rush grass products were exported to Japan.

Who’s still doing it today?

The lovely little town of Yuan Li (苑里), in the middle of Taiwan, is where the grass is grown and woven. This cultural heritage has been passed down from mothers to daughters through the generations.

Currently there are no machines capable of replicating the sophisticated gestures of a skilled artisan. Today it is processed and woven purely by hand using simple tools — by highly skilled grandmothers — just as it’s always been for 300 years.


What products can be made from rush grass?

Helen and Wanshan’s products use rush grass in clean, modern applications — bringing this old craft into the modern era and introducing it to a new generation. Their line focuses on lifestyle and fashion accessories, plus homewares. You can visit their online store here.


Photo Credit: A.M. Ideas