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Unfinished business.

I greatly enjoyed reading Jeffrey Weiss's essay "State of the Art" in the March 2010 issue of Artforum. His response to the depth-probing, technological approach to about 125 Matisse works in the Art Institute of Chicago's recent exhibition "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917" is rightfully optimistic yet cautionary. As a consequence of his reflections, Matisse's most paradoxical attributes--his aversion to being labeled a theoretical, strategic painter instead of an intuitive, expressive one, and his contradictory albeit modernist habit of repeatedly and systematically painting certain subjects--were suddenly reconciled.

The photographic and X-radiographic evidence available now demonstrates that Matisse's paintings contain beneath their surfaces layers and layers of variations on the same composition, adding weight to the catalogue of repetitive subject matter evidenced by the numerous identically titled paintings in his oeuvre. While Weiss mentioned a few examples of these repeated works, he omitted the most chronologically, aesthetically, and emotionally distant pair, Matisse's Open Window, Coltioures of 1905 and of 1914. While he addresses the 1914 Open Window at the end of the essay, using the alternative, less familiar title for the painting, French Window at Collioure (which is the title favored by the exhibition's curators, Stephanie D'Alessandro and John Elderfield), he does not connect the work to Matisse's more visibly overworked canvas of the same subject from his earlier, brief Fauve period.

Perhaps Weiss overlooked Open Window, Collioure, 1905, which is admittedly an extremely different-looking work, because of this discrepancy in titles. Perhaps, also, the 1914 canvas's status as "incomplete" (according to information Weiss gleaned from the exhibition catalogue) disqualifies it from being considered on par with the celebrated 1905 work. However, as Weiss himself hints, this designation, in light of Matisse's laborious, fitful working method, which aimed at achieving an increasingly pure abstraction, may be irrelevant. Without some type of new evidence to support the painting's status as complete or incomplete, what is the motivation here to demarcate it from Matisse's body of "completed" work?

When the 1914 Window was first exhibited, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966, it was not officially labeled as incomplete by the show's curator, Lawrence Gowing. Instead, in the catalogue for "Henri Matisse: 64 Paintings," Gowing described the 1914 canvas as expressing "some of the disquiet that it had long been Matisse's purpose to exclude" and then as a work "which Matisse might hardly have thought complete."(1) The key word here is might.

Perhaps there is new proof that Matisse definitely considered the canvas incomplete. Did the X-radiography and infrared reflectography of the 1914 Window reveal just one, improbably final layer of paint? Or perhaps the curators took a cue from Gowing's opinion on the work and, before that, moma director Alfred H. Barr's initial omission of the work from his seemingly exhaustive 1951 book on the artist. Docs it matter? If we want to consider the role of repetition and reworking in Matisse's work, it does.

The mystery surrounding the 1914 Window and Matisse's consistent experimentation with black in the place of light is especially provocative considering the bleak time in which the painting was made. Matisse made the work during an unusual September visit to Collioure (a summer vacation spot for his family and friends since 1905} prompted by the German invasion of Paris at the onset of World War I.2 Matisse was unable to serve in the war despite volunteering, but his friend Andre Derain--another famous Fauve, whom Matisse was working with and influenced by when he painted the 1905 Window--was fighting on the front lines.(3) Regardless of any stylistic connections the 1914 painting does or does not have with other canvases made by the artist around this time, it is appropriate that Matisse replaced the extreme Fauve color and line variation found in the center of the 1905 Window with uniform black. Given this biographical context, his revisitation of the open window at Collioure could be seen as a tribute to the endangered Derain.

According to Barr in 1951, the artist's ability to sustain long hours of painting was affected by an anxiety brought on by the war, leading Matisse to spend more time playing the violin and making etchings instead. (4) This suggests that the 1914 Window is a rare and relatively rapid painting from a particularly anxious time--not necessarily incomplete.

Matisse's outwardly visible method of repetition, reinforced and expounded by the recent look below the surface of his works, is not entirely new territory. (Is new territory available on the well-worn map of Matisse?) As Gowing eloquently wrote in the 1966 moma catalogue:
  Deliberately basing painting on reactions to painting, [Matisse] was
  setting in motion the modern feed-back--the closed circuit within
  which the painter's intuition operates, continually intensifying
  qualities that are inherent. Whoever feels the radiance of -Matisse's
  last works is experiencing the intensity that came from isolating
  what was intrinsic not only to a personality bur to a whole
  tradition, and the communally conditioned reflex that it depends on.


Through his use of repetition, not to mention representation, as an expression of his most finely distilled intuition, both within and among each of his works, Matisse established first and foremost his dependence on difference.

-- Chelsea Spengemann New York


(1.) Lawrence Cowing, Henri Matisse: 64 Paintings, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 19.

(2.) Alfred Barf, Matisse: His Art and His Public, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951), 178.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Gowing, 15,

Jeffrey Weiss responds:

In replying to this thoughtful letter, I find myself partly in the awkward position of speaking for the exhibition's curators. I will represent their claims briefly, based on my reading of the catalogue text, which is now published, as well as respond to Chelsea Spengemann's other conjectures.

The catalogue entry for French Window at Collioure, 1914, composed by Stephanie D'Alessandro, tells us the following: Matisse left the canvas behind when he returned to Paris from Collioure on October 22, referring to it, in a letter to his wife from November 6, as "already begun." Thus, "given these circumstances and Matisse's own words, it seems clear that French Window at Collioure represents an interrupted evolution, even as its present state corresponds to other canvases we have seen." Regarding that state, recent technical analysis has revealed color changes and overpainted details (they are barely visible to the naked eye): Beneath the central black plane, "a decorative balcony railing and landscape beyond" can now be discerned. "The black center, then, represents a step in the thwarted process of this picture's evolution; it remains a rustine, as Matisse called it, a patch or palliative before he made his next move." Matisse never resumed work on the painting, which was neither published nor exhibited until 1966, when it appeared (posthumously) in a retrospective of the artist's work.

The determination that French Window at Collioure is unfinished strikes me as reasonable but not certain. The circumstantial evidence is convincing; but I resist applying the results of the technical analysis toward this conclusion because the changes it reveals are identical to the kinds of revisions Matisse made throughout this period on paintings that we call finished, as the catalogue is at pains to show; such changes are not, therefore, evidence of an unresolved work. Perhaps we need a third category according to which the painting is neither finished nor unfinished in the. conventional sense but, for the artist's purposes, usefully unfixed.

The difference between this picture and the painting of a similar subject from 1905--which is cited in the catalogue but was unmentioned by me--is surely striking. (One note: The Fauve Collioure painting is not "overworked"; it displays many exposed areas of primed canvas and contains no under painting or corrections.) But the two paintings do not qualify for the list of pairs and sequences of work that interest the curators of the exhibition (and myself): Those examples represent paintings produced in close succession to one another, which is why they can be identified as constituting a kind of "repetition." This certainly doesn't rule out a correspondence between the two Window paintings; to my mind, however, the complexity of the later painting's relation to other work of the same period thoroughly belies the notion of a single motivation.

Since there is a predominant darkening of Matisse's palette during the 1910s, it would be a mistake to treat the 1914 French Window at Collioure--"finished" or not--as a special case. The association of new quantities of black with the psychological climate of wartime France is a reflexive one observers have been making for some time. But if we are ascribing to black an overall sensation of melancholy during this phase of work, then (lest we resort to a schematic association between color and psyche) the key question must be: How does melancholy live within--and reflect on--the deep, conflicted formal and material experimentation that occupied Matisse's practice at that time?
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Title Annotation:LETTERS
Author:Spengemann, Chelsea
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:May 1, 2010
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