Having broken attendance records at Tate Modern, the exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” is drawing huge crowds to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (where it’s on view through Feb. 8, 2015), and the artist’s works are even proving to be a sensation online at venues like Tumblr. On the occasion of an encyclopedic show of the artist’s work at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne, A.i.A. devoted its July/August 1975 issue to the master. In one article, eight contemporary artists shared observations on the artist; interviews with Roy Lichtenstein, Paul Sharits, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, conducted by French art historian Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, are reproduced here. —Eds. October 15, 2014
Though 21 years dead, Matisse refuses to become historical. An alertness to one or another aspect of his achievements still informs the works and attitudes of contemporary artists of many persuasions. Eight American artists comment.
INTERVIEWS BY JEAN-CLAUDE LEBENSZTEJN
Each of the artists interviewed had his own way of dealing with words, which the interviewer tried to respect. Sharits sent a written statement. Andre refused to use the tape-recorder, arguing, quite sensibly, that spoken language cannot be translated into written language; he gave written answers to written questions. The other artists, each in his own style, confided their words to the little Japanese monster which swallows words and keeps them on tiny ribbons for posterity’s sake, usefully. —J.-C. L.
So, do you want to start?
No, I’ll let you ask me something.
Why did you use Matisse’s Dance in one of your Studios?
When I started to do still-lifes, I looked at other artists’ still-lifes and I thought of Matisse. Then I started to do still-lifes that were much more directly based on Matisse. But I think maybe the contradiction in style is one of the things I’m interested in. Matisse was so interested in a certain kind of flavor that’s almost completely antithetical to my own—his interest in the color quality. I don’t really feel it’s different basically, but I feel that in style—his sense of touch and materials, his sense of line—he’s almost completely opposite.
Would you call your painting a derision of Matisse?
No, no. Not at all. I think if anything I might have been dealing with the popular image of Matisse in the way I did with the popularized version of Picasso. I don’t think I’m really dealing with a Matisse painting or with a Picasso painting when I use them. I realize there is a similarity, and people will recognize it’s a Matisse. But I don’t think that I was parodying a real Matisse.
You were more parodying a cheap reproduction of a Matisse?
Yes, that would be more like it. I’m making a painting of my particular image of Matisse.
But in your previous works based on other painters, there were the Ben Day dots which allude to the dots of a printed photograph.
Yes. And the hash marks, the parallel lines and things that are in my new paintings are supposed to do the same thing. It’s supposed to look like a fake, and it achieves that, I think.
Why were you interested in the commercial view on art?
Well, I think that was a way of casting the work, in the same way Matisse was able to put his work into the style, say, of Delacroix or the Moroccan sense or whatever it was, which was a sort of fantasy. Commercial art had all of the aspects that were needed to get across a new form of painting which just seemed to be interesting. It had the direct printing thing, it had the mass production, it wasn’t Cubistic, it had color within lines so that the print wouldn’t bleed out the sides. It had created images because of the convenience of the printing press—cartoons and things printed on the side of cardboard boxes, things that would be roughly, crudely printed. It just presented everything I needed.
A couple of years ago I started some paintings that had my own paintings in them, and which were similar to the Matisse studios. There was one difference that I think shows up mostly in the Look Mickey: When I reproduce one of my own paintings in my painting, it’s different from Matisse reproducing one of his paintings in his painting, because even though in both paintings the depicted painting is submerged for the good of the whole work, it’s much more so in Matisse. I wanted my paintings to read as individual paintings within the work, so that there would be some confusion. There’s no remove in my work, no modulation or subtlety of line, so the painting-of-a-painting looks exactly like the painting it’s of. This is not true, of course, of many early—including Renaissance—depictions of paintings on walls, where there’s always a remove indicated through modulation, or some other way of showing that the depicted painting is not pasted on the picture or something like that.
I like the combination of a very separate quality that each of my paintings has within the painting, and the fact that everything works as one painting too. That’s a big difference, I think, although Matisse might have been somewhat interested in the same thing because his were relatively blatant for his time. It’s just that looking at his now, they seem very bold and energetic and bright, but they don’t seem quite as—they don’t seem crass, which they probably seemed at the time they were done. Some have obviously taken on a very museum quality, but others still haven’t.
Even though we tend to think of Matisse as having every kind of painterly and European quality, he probably was trying to make as succinct and brash and forthright and direct a statement as he could make. In his own time, he must have been seen as a colorist. In a sense that meant eliminating light and shade, and related modulation. And the directness, which everybody looked at and saw in it, must have been just as shocking as our things when we think we’re being direct.
In the painting by Matisse on which your Still-Life with the “Dance”seems to be based, Matisse used his first version of The Dance, the one that’s in New York; you picked up the second version, the one in Leningrad.
I did? Okay. I did it from a book, though.
But you combined then the actual Dance from a book, with Matisse’s composition that includes the Dance. You didn’t think of that?
I saw it and I knew that he did it, but I didn’t refer to that picture. I think there are a number of Matisse paintings that have The Dance in the background.
But one of his is very close in composition to yours.
Oh, really? I didn’t really look at those paintings. Well, it may have come from seeing a lot of Matisse’s paintings. Everyone is influenced by him to a certain extent. It’s an influence that everybody also tries to get rid of. I think the same is true of Picasso, it’s so pervasive it was necessary in the early ’60s to just rebel against that kind of painting. It goes without saying that Picasso and Matisse are different from one another in certain ways, but in a lot of ways they still represent European painting, a particular kind of touch or something that’s very much like painting. They define painting in a certain way. And because of that I think that a great effort is made to get away from them. The Abstract Expressionists were trying to get away from them. Actually, I think maybe they got closer, which we all seem to do in trying to get away. Whereas Mondrian went to the more abstract Cubist elements partly to get away from a sense of touch. But Mondrian and Malevich and various people were also connecting with technology and modern thinking in their minds.
Anyhow, I like to parody the idea of getting away from painting. I see the sort of silly thinking involved in being modern, or the benefits of technology, because all of it’s become a shambles by now. I still believe in technology in a kind of reactionary way, in that I think it will eventually solve the problems if it doesn’t kill us, but I’m not serious about the relationship between painting and many of these ideas, which are banal by now anyway. There are problems either way: there are petit-bourgeois aspects of Matisse’s painting which are a little annoying, but there are also the heavy-handed, almost Fascist aspects of abstract painting which might be read into it. So although I’m more sympathetic with painting as such than with strict abstract art, particularly when it’s connected with an ideology of some kind, of some political kind, that may be why I wind up parodying—although I’m not sure that’s the right word—both of them somewhat. But I don’t think that nihilism is the solution to anything, either.
The way that you seem to use Matisse and empty his work of its qualities seems somewhat nihilistic.
Yes, I want it to have its own qualities but I don’t want them to seem like qualities to anyone. I want it to seem as though I had divested it of quality. That’s true, I think, of all the painting I’ve done—I’ve tried to take away anything that was beguiling.
I’d rather use the term “dealing with” than “parody.” I’m sure there are certain aspects of irony, but I get really involved in making the paintings when I’m working on them, and I think just to make parodies or to be ironic about something in the past is much too much of a joke for that to carry your work as a work of art. I’m interested in all of the things you say—the divesting of the thing of qualities—but I’m still trying to maintain a set of other qualities which I’m giving it, but which I hope are not apparent. It’s a case of building something that looks completely without thought, or senseless, and then of course trying to make it work. I mean, that’s the hope . . .
Do you think the fact that Matisse was so interested in painting his studio, which he did a lot of times, has a kind of connection with your series of studio paintings?
No, because I think Matisse loved to look at things and paint them—flowers, girls or whatever. The model being over there, him over here, the work over here, and it would be just a wonderful day for him to sit there, and he reveled in the beauty of the things that he saw. And he also reveled in doing his own work and he loved the model. He was a sensuous person. I like the way nature looks, but to me the idea of drawing nature just has nothing to do with art. It doesn’t mean anything. I sometimes do it, but when I do I revert to a kind of expressionist drawing that I learned to do in art school. I’ve never done a portrait of Dorothy [Lichtenstein’s wife], I’ve never done a self-portrait. Almost always I draw something either that I think of or that I see in somebody else’s work.
And the studio paintings that I do, while having absolutely nothing to do with my real studio—which, as you can see, has nothing in it but white walls—is a way of making collage out of some works that I’ve done and some Matisse works, with a kind of feeling about Matisse that I’m trying to develop—not his feeling, but my feeling about his work. It just doesn’t have to do with his love of things.
I’m very interested in color and involved in it, which no one else thinks I am. I don’t think I’m as removed from earlier artists as some people think. I don’t think that what I do is that much different. I realize there’s a difference in style and so forth, but first of all, I think there isn’t that big a difference between Romantic and Classical artists. There is obviously a difference in emphasis, and I would be more of a Classical artist than a Romantic, I suppose, but then the kind of unity that holds a painting together is really the same whether it’s done by Rembrandt or David or Picasso or Oldenburg. There’s really not that much difference, there never was. But new things always seem much more startling than they seem 20 years later when they have sunk into the history of art. It takes art historians to realize that there are thousands of differences between every generation of artists. To the layman everything in the past looks like an old master. There’s only one category, old master.
I can see the differences, but I also see great similarities. Because I think that there’s something more basic.
Which is an idea of “art?”
Yes. The way man would naturally perform in order to do art. I think there’s obviously a tremendous cultural impingement upon our actions which makes each generation look a lot different. But we have a certain understanding of African art or Oriental art now, or other things that used to be “difficult.” They communicate to us now, despite the fact that we’re not familiar with their cultures.
Perhaps because of Modern art?
That introduced it; but modern art is even more foreign to us. I think people think of a Kandinsky, say, as being much more mysterious than a Hokusai or a Benin bronze.
There are certain basic things—sense of position, sense of contrast, the right amount of color—a certain basic physiological, psychological thing there. I don’t know what it is, but I think that you know when you’re right, or you think you do. And that’s really more fundamental than what the art is about in one particular moment. While that is interesting and relevant, too, the more fundamental thing is the sense—it’s just like a sense of time and rhythm in music. I mean one culture’s art can seem to be vastly different from another culture’s, but then you catch on rather quickly, and there is still a sense of rightness about it.
I’ve always been interested in Matisse but maybe a little more interested in Picasso. But they are both overwhelming influences on everyone, really. Whether one tries to be like them or tries not to be like them, they’re always there as presences that have to be dealt with. They’re just too formidable to have no interest. I think that somebody who pretends he’s not interested is not interested in art.
What about your relationship to Matisse in the early ’60s?
I never thought of being related to Matisse, I never thought that what I did had any relationship to him.
Why do you think you are using him now? For a particular reason?
No, no particular reason. I just got into it through the still-lifes. I think also he was doing what would be a modern form of still-life in that his would look—when they were first done—very unconventional or like a new approach to still-life. Even funny, not that he meant them to be funny but that they would be peculiar to the observer who would be used to 19th-century still-lifes. It should be just as peculiar as my treatment of still-lifes. I don’t know, maybe not. It’s very hard to judge how people see work.
Dear Mr. Lebensztejn,
My immediate reaction to the idea of contributing a statement regarding my work’s relationships to the work of Matisse was apprehension. Because my work has occasionally been simplistically interpreted as “painting in motion” or a transposition of painting’s pictorial principles into film’s temporal frame, I am naturally shy of possibly adding fuel to that fire. Also, when I began to think of the painters whose works I have deeply admired and who thereby may have had an influence on some aspect or another of my work in film, my mental list expanded quickly and broadly. Many names came to mind—and among them, yes, of course, Matisse. Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that Matisse has had perhaps a stronger than usual effect on my own thinking, perhaps more about art in general than any specific color and/or form sense. If I can say, as a preface, that my films are not extensions of painting or sculpture, although I studied both for about five years (during which time I was also independently making short black and white “imagistic” films), and that my present work issues primarily from concerns of classical cinema, essentialized to the point where questions of distinction between film and painting and sculpture are forced, then I can make the following remarks.
Your suggestion that there is a relationship between my recent film Color Sound Frames and Matisse’s statement of how colors vary contextually is well taken: “The mutual influence of colors is quite essential for the colorist, and the most beautiful, most fixed, most immaterial colors are obtained without being materially expressed. Example: pure white becomes lilac, ibis pink, Veronese green or angelica blue by the vicinity of their opposites only.” The delicate shifting of hue inflection and identity, so characteristic of Matisse’s work, which gives his paintings a sense of being alive and “moving” and which is accomplished by the proximity of color areas, can be even more directly actualized in temporal sequentiality. Very rapidly altering frames of different colors in a film can produce an apparent infinity of iridescent color “chords,” shimmering time-color fields. Sequential tensions and balances of these chords and solid units of a color characterize my so-called “flicker” works. Color Sound Framesis a film of/about “flicker” footage; it is an analytical rephotographing of a “flicker” film which at slow speeds of film strip passage reveals the infra-structure of “flicker” and at high speeds approximates the “flicker” effect. One can see, as if in slow motion, the ways in which colors affect, blur and/or merge into each other in sequential time, generating new and uniquely temporal color states.
Matisse was probably more useful to me in a way larger than his being a brilliant colorist. One recalls Moreau’s famous remark to his student Matisse: “You are going to simplify painting.” The bold forcefulness, the all-at-once presence of many of Matisse’s paintings, challenges more detailed but less unified work. Film is physically serial and, for my tastes, most films are not unified enough to hold up across serial spans to create a sense of presence. Matisse’s achievement impressed me and I have tried in various ways to achieve a similar sort of all-at-once quality within the time frame.
During the shooting of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, I had up several reproductions of Matisse’s work, not to transpose them somehow into the terms of film-making but to just have them there as lucid, crisp, non-rhetorical statements which would inform and refresh me.
My idea is that you have three levels of involvement with Matisse: first, the actual use of his works collaged in your paint; second, the theme of the nude and the way you use it; and third, color and surface. How would you relate the three?
That’s a big question, and I’d like to take it backwards. In terms of color, obviously there’s a relationship. I didn’t feel I got that much about color from him, but of course I did in terms of the saturation of the image. First of all, I use color very naively, from my own experiences. My radio is brown, so all my radios had to be brown. But I came to my color through the Abstract Expressionists, because I had a program to carry out with color, and that was to try to keep the image off the canvas, in front of the eye, and always advancing. I got that quite deliberately from de Kooning and those people.
The situation of the nude in Matisse—well, I don’t know. I didn’t feel that direct a relationship between my nudes and Matisse’s any more than I did between mine and Modigliani’s or anybody else’s. I wasn’t that aware of the sophistication of how nudes were handled by different people in the space and how they were cropped and so on. I certainly saw them, though, so I must have been influenced by them but I wasn’t conscious of it, silly as that may sound.
What about the paintings where the nude is reserved, or has an outline within the shape?
Oh, yeah, well, there were devices. For instance, the thick red outline in this 1961 pastel nude I got from Nicholas Marsicano, who paints nudes and who was my teacher at the time. When I did a thin, sharper line within the collaged shape, that was just my attempt to come to grips with some kind of erotic, sensuous outline. At the time I was very involved with sex in my life, so I was just trying to put nudes down in a way that could make a painting out of them. I didn’t get very much into—I’d better take care of that tea.
The problem with this interview, so far, is that I can’t talk about Matisse without talking about myself. So, I’ll get back to the first part of your question, the use of all Matisse paintings in my own. First of all, in gathering collage elements for my work (my work again!), I went around town getting everything I could get my hands on. His reproductions were eminently available and also were the most attractive, so they just found their way into my works. But the selecting, in going through reproductions of different painters, if I wanted to put a painting on the wall of somebody else’s work, I would have maybe 20 or 30 to go through—Matisses, Modiglianis, Cézannes—and I would go through these in terms of the image I was developing, and whichever one just sort of felt right went in. It wasn’t just because it was Matisse or any idea like that.
Did you use these works because of their discrepancy with the environment, such as putting a Mondrian in a kitchen?
No, never. Never any kind of literary connotation of any sort. If I was ever aware of one, I would try to squelch it or do something about it. Purely a visual choice on my part. Once I used a Modigliani head on one of my typical faceless nudes. In a sense I was aware the Modigliani head could complete the face I was missing.
Isn’t there something of Matisse’s concept of color-and-surface in your paintings?
Well, surface I don’t think at all. Color, there’s certainly some similarity, but to me, there’s no point in the comparison, because I have different ideas about color. In most of Matisse’s paintings he plays his colors down; I mean he plays them up—but then he plays them down. That didn’t interest me. I preferred just to play them up, I kept my colors cleaner than he did. I didn’t want any poetry at all in my colors. I just wanted them simple; in my earlier work, especially, the yellow was just bright yellow. Now I’m working with very dirty colors. It’s still so high-keyed that it doesn’t come across as dirty. But they’re all enormously dirty compared to what I used to do.
Alex Katz once said he liked his paintings to look like they just came out of the box—brand new. I like that point of view. That had more meaning to me than anything about Matisse’s color. And at the same time I was interested in getting my own paintings harder and cleaner. It all came together in terms of wanting the colors to be bright and clean. That seemed to have nothing to do with Matisse, in my head. Matisse was just so incredibly good, though. He is the painter I have most idolized, and still do. He’s the most breathtaking painter there is—to me. So the fact that I’m saying he didn’t affect me maybe seems not true. I don’t know to what degree I was affected. What I’m saying is what I was aware of consciously. I idolized him as I idolized de Kooning, but I was also determined no to fall into his realm, so what I learned from him I tried to avoid, to a great extent. He would do these succulent colors, undercolor with a color over it so you could sense that undercolor. I’d never do that, I don’t get involved with surface that way; I never get involved with texture. People used to say that I was involved with texture. I hate texture. Prissy or something. I don’t like it.
Is it important to you that Matisse is figurative?
Oh yeah . . . well, it was at the time. I had to find a way of making figurative work exciting, or not paint. It was life or death for me. And I certainly got an assist, a morale boost, from his presence. He did it. I didn’t want to do it on his terms, though.
Do you think you concern with Matisse has changed—the way you see him?
Well, now I have nothing to do with him at all, really. We don’t see each other ever. I am simply left with a tremendous respect for his work. Whatever bearing he may have on me is residual in the early foundation that he contributed to, a rather firm foundation that was very cerebral at one time. It’s still there, but now it’s completely uncerebral.
When you use a specific painting, say the Roumanian Blouse or the Lady in Blue in your own paintings, do you select it for a particular reason?
No, I go through the things I’ve got. I’ve got the image developing. I know I want somebody’s painting, and I go through my own stock of reproductions. But it could be a hamburger as well as a Matisse, except that in this case it was paintings. And the paintings were because I was interested in doing collages. In the beginning I didn’t paint very much. I painted as little as possible, and everything that went into that painting was going to be collage—hamburgers, ice cream sodas, paintings, whatever.
Still, a painting within a painting has a special status, because of the self-referential aspects.
Of course, of course. But I don’t deduce anything else from it—in my own head. At the time, I would need a picture of a hamburger; I didn’t care if it was a photographic hamburger or somebody else’s art work. When it came to choosing a painting to put into a painting, it was always a visual response—as far as I was aware. I was very selective. You know, I wanted to have Mondrian, but it never worked. Finally I got a painting where it did work. Sometimes I kept trying to make a particular reproduction work, to find an excuse to use it because I liked it so much.
Is the fact that used Matisse a kind of statement about his being so important to you?
No, no. Not at all. But I remember one painting of mine he saved—he really bailed me out. A painting I couldn’t resolve, until I got the right Matisse. We don’t need this for the interview, but I’ll just show you—that was a pretty good painting, finally, because of Matisse.
Matisse and modern (especially American) art: do they (and how do they) transform each other?
From my own experience it would seem that Matisse offered to American painters an alternative to Picasso & hence a sense of the possibility of an alternative to Cubism. I think the sculpture of Matisse is valued only because of his painting. Picasso even as a painter was always a sculptor.
What alternative to Cubism did Matisse offer?
The history of the New York School of painting is not my study. However I have read of the problem these painters had in “sweating out Cubism.” Perhaps it was a matter of American painters freeing themselves from the dominance of the School of Paris. This was not a problem in sculpture because after 1920 there is no strong Cubist sculpture with the possible exception of Picasso.
“Cutting directly into color reminds me of a sculptor’s cutting into stone.” Matisse, 1947.
In the paper cutouts Matisse employed the methods of sculpture. I remember when they were shown in New York in the late 1950s at the Museum of Modern Art, certain artists became very excited about the possibility of divorcing color from gesture in painting. Matisse’s true sculptures are the paper cuttings of his last years.
Painting or sculpting—the process of painting or sculpting: the five heads of Jeannette, or (within the same work) Notre-Dame II, 1914.
The Matisse landscapes of 1914 are brilliant but the sculpture of Matisse has never moved me. The sculptures seem always to be lumpy & inert which is the opposite of my impression of Matisse’s painting. Matisse’s sculpture only looks good when it is included in a painting such as The Red Studio.
Matisse’s art has been viewed both as more traditional than Picasso’s, and, more recently, as of a greater concern to modern art. What about Matisse’s responsibility for these two views?
When we remove from the School of Paris the foreign painters we are left with Matisse, Braque & Léger. The others are not French or not interesting. Braque & Léger can be seen in the line of Cézanne as Cubists. I place Matisse however closer to early Vuillard who added impressionism of space to impressionism of color-Vuillard painted to interlock spaces on the plane of the canvas; so did Matisse.
“I think that one day easel painting will no longer exist.” Matisse, 1952.
“Easel painting, to my view, is not condemned.” Matisse, 1951.
I believe that when I stop contradicting myself I will have started to tell lies. The same was doubtless true of Matisse. About the mortality of painting I can only say I have never thought it to be dead, only hard to do.
Matisse, Andre, the boundaries of art, the space of art, and politics.
Our art, like ourselves, is a partial sum of the whole culture. No work of art is the complete image of the society in which it is produced. But on the other hand nothing is possible in a work of art which does not originate in its culture. The experience & condition of an artist in his culture determines the limits of his art but not necessarily its substance.
Matisse spoke about the spectator having to continue the painting beyond itself. Is this related to: a) Andre’s work as a railroad brakeman (as connected to his art); b) the photos of piles of diverse things in N.Y. (again as connected to “art”)?
Certainly every work of art must be completed by the spectator. The relation between an artists & his art is not reciprocal; that is, everything in the history of an artist contributes to some degree to the works of art he makes, but we cannot take a work of art & derive the history of the artist from it.
Do the concrete limits of a work of art and its place (e.g., in a gallery, a museum—or in a staircase, as was originally the case with Music and Dance) have a political sense? Can this sense be made explicit?
First, every work is located somewhere. Only reproductions of works of art (slides, photographs) can be said to be nowhere. Each work of art may be said to be a set containing itself & everything else. Art is political in the same sense that agriculture is political. No reading of Das Kapital will make wheat grow in barren sand.
The last answer implies that there is something autonomous and something heteronomous in a work of art. Can the limit between the two be traced?
Human life, including art, is determined but not preordained. We are not soils impinged upon by external forces like ping-pong balls balanced on water jets. Rather we are like that nexus of streams of water & fire in the fountain by Yves Klein: you cannot make water & fire out of steam but you can steam out of water & fire. The life produces the art but cannot be recovered from it.
“The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in a few individuals, and correlatively, its stifling in the great majority of people, is a consequence of the division of labor . . . In a communistic society, there are no painters, only people who, among other things, make paintings.” Marx and Engels, 1846.
The difference between the artist & the non-artist is not talent but desire. Children before they are taught to read seem to apply themselves with about equal gift & enthusiasm to art making. Not until a false consciousness of hierarchy of art talent arises do children begin to suppress their art making. In a communistic society I do not think there would be any more or any less artists, there would simply be no more rich & poor artists.
Though it’s not that far back, I don’t tend to think of Matisse in terms of what I might think about my own work. It never occurred to me to use something out of his thinking or work. On the other hand, as with all first-rate work, it shows you what can be done. And I’ve thought for a long time that Matisse was probably, before Pollock anyway, the best artist in the 20th century. I’m much more interested in Matisse than in Picasso; I’ve never been very interested in him. And the only thing that worries me about a statement like that is Mondrian. I’d hate to get into the business of comparing Mondrian and Matisse. That’s a little painful.
They’re very different in terms of scale. That’s what bothers me. Naturally my general bias is towards completely unrepresentational work, so that makes me want to prefer Mondrian. The only thing is that Matisse has scale, and I think he has greater variety in what he’s doing-in all ways he just has the edge as an artist.
You said that the difference between Matisse and Mondrian was a difference in scale.
It’s obvious that in Matisse it’s greater scale and they’re bigger. Greater internal scale. But size is something too—perhaps if Mondrian had had more money and lived a while longer, maybe he might have made larger paintings. It sounds a little silly for that to matter so much, but it does matter. And it makes Mondrian seem like a generation earlier than Matisse. It seems like Mondrian belongs to Malevich’s generation, while Matisse would be almost a generation after that, though actually, I suppose, Mondrian and Matisse must have been about the same age.
When you get to the cut-outs and some of those big late Matisses, they have a larger internal scale that’s more like the work that was done here after World War II. I don’t think Picasso ever did it with kind of internal scale. He did Guernica, and Guernica’s a big painting, but it doesn’t have the scale of those cut-outs of Matisse’s.
What do you think makes Matisse’s scale impressive?
Well, it’s not only Matisse—scale is important to almost all the art made since the ’40s. As a general statement, I think it has to do with making the main aspects of art more important: color becomes more important, shapes become more important, space becomes more important—everything about it is developed beyond what had been possible before. In an old painting of Matisse’s, say in the ’20s or something—and they’re nice paintings, too—what was buried in all the figurative elements becomes in the cut-outs very separate and large and important.
What about the relationship between color, surface and scale?
I guess you could say that you can’t have one without the others. Shape and color, and obviously surface, can’t be developed without scale. It’s a desire to have all these things strong that produces a larger scale.
Matisse took shapes he’d been using all his life and cut them loose, made them independent things, which makes a lot of sense. Those are shapes that he’d been using since 1910 or something. You can trace the shapes back—he certainly modified them—they become simplified, but they’re the same kind of shapes. He really likes a certain kind of shape and he’s stressed it until it’s become almost the only thing, which makes perfect sense to me. While Picasso stayed with a sort of modification of shapes and colors and all that stuff which has to do with representation.
You think Matisse was more interested in the abstract use of the shapes than in representation?
What do you think, then, he retained representation?
For one think, in order not to be representational, it’s almost unavoidable that use a geometric scheme; the only way to be so-called abstract so far as I know is to use completely geometric means. I can see, given the kind of shapes Matisse was interested in, that abstraction wasn’t really possible for him. In order to continue to be interested in the kind of shapes he was interested in, they still had to have some kind of representational appearance, because they’re strange, irregular shapes.
What about in early Kandinsky?
I don’t think they’re very abstract. Usually they’re painted in a kind of descriptive way, and there are a lot of things that appear that are a little bit descriptive. Pollock’s abstract, though, he’s an exception. He’s an abstract painter who isn’t geometric.
Is he the only exception?
I wouldn’t say so. I was very reluctant to get into completely geometric work. I felt it was pretty strange. I came by it in a very difficult way, so it’s always been an important thing to me. To me it’s very important not to be in any way representational. I have no use for it.
But at the same time you had some kind of reluctance about geometry?
I was reluctant to get myself completely into only using straight lines. And rectangular surfaces. There were other shapes I was interested in, I guess. Maybe it was the same problem with Matisse except he didn’t give up those shapes. But you know, I felt eventually that I wasn’t interested in shapes. I think there’s an important philosophical difference. I’m in no way interested in any kind of representation. I think I would share that with Mondrian. I couldn’t see any reason to suggest a piece of a leg or anything like that. But the way those late collages of Matisse’s work, in terms of color—the importance of color and surface and scale and all that—they’re abstract paintings. Loose use—abstract’s a sloppy word; but compared to everybody else, they’re abstract paintings. All the descriptive parts are not immediately descriptive the way most representational art is, but they’re just sort of residual description. It’s as if he’d done this knee 50 times until it’s just Chinese writing, just the image.
Matisse’s impact in this country seems to be fairly recent. Stella seems to have started thinking about him only in the late ’60s. His earlier concern seems to have been with Abstract Expressionism.
You’d probably find it true of almost all the people you talk to here. Though I was interested in Matisse before I was ever interested in any American. Still, the real force and kick and example is Pollock and Newman and Rothko and so forth. It’s the immediate situation that provides the force, but then of course you go back—after a while, again—you go outside of your own circumstances and start looking at earlier work or work from other kinds of societies.
Rothko once said that he had learned the most about structure from Matisse, because Matisse was the first painter who produced surface paintings.
I didn’t know that. That sounds very accurate and interesting. Surface is very important, obviously, and it’s all pretty much on the surface, it’s in a very shallow space.
On the other hand, Carl Andre the other day wrote in his interview that what he found interesting in Matisse was an interlocking of spaces on the surface, which he called impressions of space.
I remember sending him a Matisse cut-out, one with a garden or something, with columns—I can’t quite remember. It’s very big.
Oh, very big—Decoration with Masks? [Interviewer’s note: This is a strange example. Large Decoration with Masks is fairly flat. A better example of a spatially ambiguous work might be another cut-out, Parakeet and Mermaid.]
It has a generally flat surface, but then certain things—the head or the mask, whatever, occur, and there’s a sudden recession. The perspective which is not normally used at all is suddenly used, an you get a hole dropping back there, for a few feet or something, so you get this strange contradiction on a flat surface. Shapes are side by side, then you have that sudden hole. It’s pretty distant from the changes that occur in easel painting.
A friend once asked Andy Warhol what he really wanted out of life, and he replied, “I want to be Matisse.”
(Quoted from Calvin Tomkins, “Raggedy Andy,” in John Coplans’ Andy Warhol, New York, New York Graphic, 1971.)
Warhol: “What can we say about Matisse, Fred? Couple of lines . . . “