Retrospective

Matisse as ‘The Apostle of the Ugly,’ and ‘Good American Paintings Are Like the Stock Market’

And other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago

January 23, 1915

January 23, 1915.

100 Years Ago

“Matisse at Montross’ ”

[T]he work and ideas of Matisse calls for special attention and study and even if one cannot admire his too evident love of the ugly in form and feature, his frequent vulgarity of subject and treatment in all the mediums, one cannot but marvel at his versatility and be impressed, above all, by his draughtsmanship. For the man, despite his glaring faults is unquestionably able and capable of higher flghts [sic] than he has yet made. He is a paradox—for with at times his evident love of the beautiful as shown by his grace of line and infrequently his composition and color, he seems to prefer to render the ugly in an ugly way. In fact he may be called “The Apostle of the Ugly.” . . . These works violate the essential canons of art and it is difficult to see how they can have any educational or art value.

January 13, 1940

January 13, 1940

75 Years Ago

“The Whitney Annual: U.S. Barometer,” by James W. Lane

Good American paintings are like the stock market. Berated though they may be, both are a sensitive barometer of conditions in our commonwealth, discounting the effects of those conditions well in advance in ways both subtle and sophisticated. People with reputations as thinkers, even on the ultra-pessimistic side, tell you today that we are entering on a new Dark Age, although it will of course be lit with electric light. It is a Dark Age of which we have witnessed only the prologue and the first act. Yet ten years ago, before we knew that the Depression was deepening into the Dark Age, American painters knew it and were beginning to show it in their canvases, panels, and papers. Today their works are the sensitive index of the future, and judging from them there is not much balm in Gilead.

When I say “good American paintings,” I really mean those that are slanted towards genre, the American scene, sociology, social justice, or whatever phrase you choose, to show their interest in contemporary life. The Whitney Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art—one of the very best since the start of the Biennials in 1932—proves beyond cavil that a hundred of the paintings alone, which means three quarters of the present display of paintings, are taken up with the facts or the implications of the American Scene. Just how much of a hair-trigger constitution our painters have for contemporaneity shows itself in the gradual dying out, in this Annual, of abstraction and pure fantasy. Irony and the results of the financial catastrophe of 1929 and the later agricultural catastrophes, like Alexandre Hogue’s, everywhere abound.

January 1965

January 1965

50 Years Ago

“Katz: Collage, Cutout, Cut-up,”
by Edwin Denby

When [Alex Katz] asked me to pose last winter he made a full figure 6 inches high. When I went to pose again, he had fourteen cutouts of me, each painted in the free style of the first, and all fourteen identical. He had begun to paste one or several, either whole or lopped off, on identical backgrounds painted dark purple. At the second sitting he made a small half-figure. A week later it had multiplied into identical copies. Looking at it I saw not a flattering likeness, but the very person I catch without warning in a mirror. It was disconcerting. “If you don’t like yourself,” Alex shouted across the studio, “I won’t give your name, I’ll just give you a number.”

January 1990

January 1990

25 Years Ago

“Caught in the Crossfire: Art and the NEA,” by Sylvia Hochfield

The recent face-off between John E. Frohnmayer, the newly appointed head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Artists Space in New York, a long-established and respected alternative gallery, brought to a climax the controversy that began when congressional conservatives led by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina condemned the Endowment for funding the art that they considered obscene or blasphemous. Spurred by anger at the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, which included homoerotic and sadomasochistic images, and a photograph called Piss Christ by Andres Serrano of a plastic crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine, they legislated new guidelines that limit the Endowment’s grant-making policies.

A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 96.

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