In the spring of 1968, I took the last course ever taught by the art historian Meyer Schapiro. I was, at the time, a junior at Columbia College, and it was a thrill to be studying with someone who could be so enthusiastic about the experience of looking closely at objects, ranging from Romanesque portals to Cézanne watercolors. Schapiro’s intended retirement had been announced, and we all realized that this “Survey of Abstract Painting” would be the final opportunity anyone would have to study with him.
Then Columbia University was shut down by student protests. Schapiro met with us to explain that the classes could not continue, and he would not be able to give a final exam as he intended. Therefore, he told us, our entire grade for the course would be based on a term paper, some 15 pages long, about a single work of art.
The piece had to be one we could see in the flesh; it would not do to base our essay on a reproduction. His instructions were explicit: “No research. Nothing about artistic movements. For God’s sake, no ‘isms.’ Nothing about the socioeconomic background, or on who influenced the artist. I do not want the usual devices of art history: I want your experience of looking and seeing.”
I cannot claim that this is what Schapiro said verbatim, but it was the essence. Just as so many “old-fashioned” ideas were being overthrown during that period of revolution, so was the traditional practice of art history. He would simply need to approve our subject, and then we’d be on our own.
It was a shaky time for all of us. At age 20, I and most of my friends were wondering what the value of art could be when issues of human rights and the Vietnam War subsumed everything else. If we were going to be able to perform Schapiro’s assigned task, the subject would have to be of sufficient magnitude to inspire us.
I chose Mimosa (1949–51), a Matisse rug. My parents owned number 124 from the edition of 500, and it had been hanging in the front hall of their house since I was four years old. When I was in elementary school, my friends used to make fun of it; it was a far cry from the paintings of red barns so popular during the Eisenhower years. But I enjoyed the way our family had a very different style and felt that the Matisse was in its way similar to my mother driving imported sports cars while other mothers drove wood-paneled station wagons: a sign that we had more fun and were connected to a world beyond the boundaries of West Hartford, Connecticut.
I recently dug out my essay for Schapiro because I was again writing about Mimosa, this time for an exhibition catalogue for the Musée Matisse in the artist’s hometown, Le Cateau-Cambrésis. I had saved the paper, because the great man’s endorsement of it meant so much to me, and because his insistence on looking and seeing was life-changing for me. I was dismayed by my adolescent dead-earnestness and repetitiveness, as well as by my invented words—although I like “interlapped,” since the forms in the rug do rather justify this combination of “overlapped” and “interwoven”—but some of what I wrote when I was 19, nearly half a century ago, is, I think, worth repeating:
Ever since I was little, the Matisse, being near the entrance of my house, has been one of the first things I noticed on returning home. It casts its spirit toward the front door, the livingroom, and the stairs. No one could have picked a better work to represent a home lush in its aura of warmth and happiness. For the young boy who did not even know the name of the man who designed the rug, much less the weight of that name, who had no grasp of the intellectual values of abstraction or the motives for the design, the work was always a successful symbol of exuberance. It still has a redolent kindness.
When I was growing up, it offered pure diversion. I had a particular position of stretching out on the sofa in the living room, so that if I lifted my head from the book in front of me, I was staring at the Matisse. What a temptation it always was to turn from my task of reading to those simple shapes and vibrant colors, where happiness seemed to be on the surface rather than locked within words printed in black ink. I never analyzed the rug; I simply always knew that it would be exuberant and warm, that it would consistently show its joy.
On the back, there is a label which states the title, artist, and process, and also has on it one of the solid, leafy shapes of which there are so many on the rug itself. This single form is what the work is all about.
Alone, removed from the context of the rug, from its active relationship with other forms and its conquest of the background, the form is a smooth series of brittle motions. It seems to grow of its own accord; it is like a bubble that never bursts, one in which air just circulates perpetually, having carved out a many-legged path from which it cannot escape. But it is not the space enclosed by these contours that gives it its force; it is the form itself. Matisse has created, in a combination of diagonal lines and curves, of sharp angles and circles, a perfect inscription for pure energy. Rather than go in a direction which would give it a beginning and an end, the motion is ongoing. Things caught in circular or elliptical routes, such as the earth or the moon, are locked in their paths for eternity; so is Matisse’s infinite, dynamic curve.
The shape is bold and simple. Matisse developed it as a paper cutout; with scissors rather than a brush, he was able to give a hearty, massive sculptural quality and a clean edge to a two-dimensional surface. Because of its tremendous beauty and originality, the simple pleasure of its twists and turns, the viewer is invariably happy to see it, and absorbs its energy.
Forty-five years later, I found myself reading a rather unusual source for an art historian. It was FloorBiz—an online magazine described as “the world’s largest flooring news portal.” There I found an article about the donation in 2009 of an exemplar of Mimosa to “The Carpet and Rug Institute” in Dalton, Georgia.
The tapestry is reproduced on its side, horizontally, but the text contains the information that the commission came about when Matisse, in 1951, was visiting the United States and was approached by representatives of the Alexander Smith & Sons Carpet Company in Yonkers, New York. FloorBiz also provides a fascinating statement made by the 81-year-old Matisse when he was designing Mimosa—concurrent with his work on the chapel in Vence: “At the time of its creation, Matisse said of the rug, ‘I want to recapture the freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth, when all the world is new.’ ”
Nicholas Fox Weber is director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. His most recent book is The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism (Yale University Press).
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 50 under the title “The Figure in the Carpet.”