Matisse in Long Beach


Los Angeles — A fine exhibition of Matisse drawings ends its five museum tour at the Long Beach Museum of Art, closing 3 September 2018. The exhibition was curated by the noted American artist, Ellsworth Kelly, for the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation Collection.

When Kelly chose the drawings for this show he says he chose “the ones that reveal him working, where you can follow his progress” and this sense of thinking through something, drawing as visual thought, shows.  The drawings in this exhibition freely exhibit one of the greatest artist minds of the last century at work, unencumbered by curatorial overreach or bombast. 

In a third room, the museum has hung a selection of Ellsworth Kelly’s own work: prints revealing a drawn line very much in keeping with Matisse’s work.

When asked about this resemblance, Kelly begged off, saying “My drawings are very American. Matisse evoked space … he would leave openings … but my drawings are about shapes, the forms are closed.”  It is a useful insight, well illustrated by the two bodies of work at hand.

Another aspect of Matisse’s thinking that Kelly’s discussion alludes to is the oft-cited paradox underlying Matisse’s great synthesis within his mature work between line and color. Traditionally, in pre-Modern Western painting, line and color more or less tended to work in contrary worlds: while an artist might chose to emphasize either a chromatic approach or a linear drawing-dominated approach, it was seen as an exclusionary decision as one approach tended to hamper development of the other. One of Matisse’s great achievements was his singular unification of both a strong use of line and a fabulous sense of color into a single cohesive personal style.

The exhibition is presented simply and cleanly in an understated manner, allowing the viewer to meander amongst the work as they please, free of any didactic imposition.  The pieces can be viewed in any order and all require a relatively intimate viewing distance, up close and personal. All framing and matting is as neutral as possible with no intervening labels or texts between the pieces. I suspect Matisse would have appreciated this presentation.

The museum provides the labels within a beautifully produced brochure with full-color thumbnails of each piece and all the relevant label information as well as a short interview of Ellsworth Kelly, the curator.

This exhibition is a pertinent example for the rest of the West Coast of what can be done in a small museum setting with limited staff and painfully finite curatorial resources through the use of well-conceived, high quality traveling exhibitions, especially ones generated from great collections and foundations. It is refreshing to see a smaller-scaled, more intimate solo exhibition of an artist well-worth seeing and studying.  It is also good to see a living artist with a deep, even if not direct, connection to the exhibited artist, as a curator.

The exhibition was organized by the American Federation of Arts [AFA] and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in collaboration with the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation and will be up at the Long Beach Museum of Art until 3 September 2018.