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Matisse Drawings Curated by Ellsworth Kelly at Katonah Museum of Art

Henri Matisse, Aragon, 1943, Ink on paper, 20 ⅞ x 15 15/16 in., © 2016 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy American Federation of Arts 

Matisse Drawings 

Curated by Ellsworth Kelly from The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation Collection, Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York

Organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in collaboration with The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, South Hadley, Massachusetts, traveling to the Audain Art Museum, Whistler, British Columbia and the University of Michigan Art Museum, Ann Arbor, Michigan


“Remember, a line cannot exist alone; it always brings a companion along.”

  - Henri Matisse 1908 

At the beginning, in 1948, I branched off him, really. I loved his drawings. I didn’t really get to Matisse until I was in France.”

 - Ellsworth Kelly interviewed by John R. Stomberg, Spencertown, New York, July 18, 2014

All the better for us if that the companion is none other than the late  Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923, d.2015), one of America’s preeminent abstract artists of the 20th century. Matisse Drawings has been selected by Kelly from the collection of the artist’s son and daughter-in-law, Pierre and Tana Matisse’s Foundation Collection. Many have never been exhibited before. The 45 works on view at the Katonah Museum of Art range in date from 1900 – 1950. They present a large selection of the French modern master, Henri Matisse’s (b.1869, d.1954) contour line drawings along with three charcoals and two ink brush drawings The exhibition takes place in the two main gallery spaces and includes a third smaller gallery -built especially for this exhibition- with a selection of Kelly’s own Suite of Plant Lithographs (1964-66) The third gallery has the feel of a side chapel or confessional box. It allows Kelly to stay very much in the background. Kelly’s inclusion of a group of his lithographs gives the viewer a chance to weigh each artists approach to drawing and specifically, line drawing.  

Kelly was involved in every aspect of this exhibition from selecting each drawing to arranging the order in which the works are seen and even the design of the frames. The exhibition is meticulously installed with impeccable placement and spacing between the works with occasional tremors created by the punctuation marks of the denser, dark, charcoals or boldly brushed inks. It’s not a big statement show.  On the contrary, it’s a focused look at a limited portion of Matisse’s output. It’s quiet and humble, much like some of Kelly’s own best work. Kelly presents a narrow path to an individual’s influence on his development during his formative years (Kelly served in Europe during WWII and lived in Paris from 1948 – 1954) and how that fountain of truth continued to provide him inspiration throughout his career. 

Installation view, Matisse Drawings, Curated by Ellsworth Kelly from The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation Collection, Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York, photo by Margaret Fox

The show opens with two Matisse’s contour line portraits of the novelist, poet and essayist, Louis Aragon (1943). The date suggests the twin portraits could have been made on the same day in occupied France. Perhaps Matisse turned a dinner guest into a model? While the Forties proved to be a very productive period of book illustration for Matisse, it would take nearly 30 years for Aragon to turn the tip of the quill pen around towards Matisse, with the publication in 1971 of his novel, Henri Matisse. 

As we move through the first gallery, we notice Matisse’s penchant for drawing active fingers and hands. For Matisse, drawing was the most direct expression of the artist’s thoughts. How he held the drawing implement and how much pressure he applied to it, or with it, is as important as the marks themselves. In Woman in a Chair (1935), the sitter leans forward grasping her right elbow while the fingers of her other hand splay open like a fan brushing across her arm. The sitter’s entire being seems to quiver with a curvy, lightness of touch. Matisse’s lines are not taught, but slack, leaving room for us to reach around and under them, allowing the space to expand his forms in our imagination.  

Henri Matisse, Woman in a chair, n.d., Pencil on paper, 9 13/16 x 12 13/16 in., © 2016 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy American Federation of Arts

In Woman, fingers on lips (n.d.), a pencil drawing on paper, Matisse’s model claws at her own lips with sharpened fingertips as if they were the same implement used to make it. The drawing is cropped through the center of the sitter’s eyes which Matisse has monogrammed with cursive “M’s” in the irises. In doing so, Matisse uses self-reflection to claim his possession of the drawing. In Study, hands and bracelets (n.d.), three left arms rhythmically cascade down with a different bracelet design to interrupt each forearm. We get a sense of Matisse’s rehearsed spontaneity through the repetition of the arms and his search for clarity of expression.  

For the charcoal Head of a woman (1947), Matisse uses his finger tips to smooth the charcoal into the paper surface creating a bed of subtle tonal forms which he tucks in with his solid black contour lines. Matisse’s lines are drawn as if they were creases in fabric more than soft folds. In the ink drawing, Veiled woman (1942), a blissful wiggle of a ropey fingers desperately tries to lasso its meaning, and other hand, as the model drapes her right arm over her head in search of its left.

Henri Matisse, Head of a woman, 1947, Charcoal on paper, 18 ⅞x 12 ⅜ in., © 2016 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy American Federation of Arts

As we move to the second gallery, we see Matisse explore the female nude in repose with a series of bust length contour drawings. In Nude and Woman leaning, both from 1935, the figures appear from the upper right as if Matisse had pulled them down like a window shade. In both of these drawings, Matisse’s volumes swim in the wake of his lines. In the remarkable Study, eyes and lips, (n.d.), a pair of eyes and four sets of lips morph into ancient Greek dolphins and a flock of seagulls. The forms appear to be suspended on the page like his goldfish in a bowl.

Oddly with Matisse’s love of flexible dexterity, as I came upon, The leper tree, Banyan (1930), I realized that this drawing encapsulates the exhibition and the fundamental difference between the two artists. In the adjacent side gallery, where the group of Kelly’s lithographs is hung, we see his, Tangerine (1964-1965). In it a single, circular, piece of fruit is caressed by three leaves like fingers that surround, capture and contain the shape. Matisse, on the other hand, presents his The leper tree, Banyan, as if it too were a hand, but an open hand with its stunted branches, like damaged fingers, reaching up to the sun. There is a freedom in his open forms; the mapping and spacing that allows Matisse to release his imagination on the viewer like a flock of scattering birds. And who better to prune those open branches of Matisse’s tree to encourage a growth of new companions than Ellsworth Kelly? WM


David Ambrose

David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.

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