On October 12, the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs—the largest presentation of this final chapter of Matisse’s work ever mounted— will open at MoMA. Much of the anticipation surrounding this show stems from the fact that this visually vibrant and conceptually radical body of work has not been seen on this scale in New York in over 50 years. That last New York showing, in 1961, was also at MoMA, in an exhibition called The Last Works of Henri Matisse: Large Cut Gouaches, organized by Monroe Wheeler. In his catalogue essay, he writes: “These final brilliantly painted and cutout gouaches epitomize Matisse’s art in his most exuberant and felicitous vein.”
Wheeler also notes that his exhibition “might be called a sequel to the large Matisse retrospective presented in 1951–52,” curated by MoMA founding director and Matisse biographer Alfred H. Barr, Jr. “Matisse had already produced a number of his important cut-and-pasted gouache compositions,” Wheeler points out, “which were exhibited at that time.”
Memorably, a number of cut-outs were also on view in John Elderfield’s 1992–93 retrospective, enabling audiences to consider a selection of this late work in the context of Matisse’s long and varied career. In the accompanying catalogue, Elderfield characterizes the last four years of the artist’s life as “a virtual outpouring” of works which “comprised organic signs set in modular compartments or floated across brilliantly illuminated white grounds.”
It’s interesting to think about what these works might have meant to MoMA audiences at these three moments: in 1951, when they were utterly new, and when Matisse was still actively experimenting with the possibilities of cutting painted paper; in 1961, when art history, poised for Pop art, was just far enough ahead to look back and take stock; and in 1992, when a wave of site-specific installation art might have caused viewers to consider the environmental quality of the cut-outs in a new light. This begs the question, of course: What will the cut-outs mean to MoMA audiences in 2014?