It was to be expected that, when the Morgan Library got around to mounting its first exhibitions of 20th-century art, they would be nothing less than a connoisseur’s delight. After all, a high and unhurried standard of connoisseurship has long been one of the hallmarks of the Morgan’s exhibition and acquisitions programs, and this is the kind of standard that can only be applied to past achievement. It followed, then, that throughout the hurly-burly chronicle of modernist audacities, and the trends and counter-trends those audacities set in motion in the last century, it was left to other institutions to bring us news of the latest developments. It was only when 20th-century modernism had itself become historical that it was thought to qualify for the Morgan’s special approach to the study of art–an approach firmly anchored in a sense of history as well as a deep comprehension of aesthetic achievement.
The results so far have certainly vindicated this unusual policy. Three years ago, in the very last year of the 20th century, the Morgan gave us its first exhibition to be devoted entirely to modern drawings and watercolors in New York Collects: 1900-1950 –and a marvelous exhibition it was. Now, with the exhibition of Pierre Matisse and His Artists , the Morgan has surpassed even that high point with a selection of 20th-century paintings, sculpture and drawings that is, beyond doubt, the best show in town. If only for its prime examples of the work of Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró and Balthus, this is a show that is not to be missed.
In keeping with the Morgan’s interest in history, moreover, Pierre Matisse and His Artists also has an important story to tell–not only that of Matisse and his gallery, but the bigger story of the impact of modern European art on American cultural and intellectual life in the last century. In that history, Pierre Matisse played one of the key roles, and he began to do so years before so many other European dealers, as well as artists, collectors, critics and scholars, fled to New York as a refuge from the Nazi conquests in World War II. When that historic migration occurred in the early 1940′s, the Pierre Matisse Gallery became one of the nerve centers of the international avant-garde.
Matisse (1900-1989), the second son of the illustrious Henri Matisse, came to New York in 1924. When his early ambition to become a painter himself ended in failure, he quickly found his true vocation as a dealer. He first exhibited work by the European painters of his father’s generation, among them Rouault, Derain and Picasso as well as the work of Matisse père , and then concentrated his attention on the younger generation (as it then was) of Balthus, Calder, Giacometti and Miró, whose art he introduced to the American public.
It is worth recalling that when Matisse opened his own gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street in 1931, one of the worst years of the Depression, both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum were still fledgling institutions, and the Guggenheim Museum did not yet exist. Modernist painting was still widely suspect, money was scarce, and the patronage of a radical, unknown artist like Miró, for example, even scarcer–as the artist himself clearly understood. “I am well aware,” Miró wrote to Matisse in 1934, “that it is not easy to handle my paintings. It calls for almost as much courage as it does for me to paint them.” Yet Matisse not only exhibited the work on a regular basis, but provided Miró with a monthly stipend of 2,000 French francs. Insofar as art dealers can be considered visionaries, Pierre Matisse can certainly be numbered among them.
When you enter the exhibition of Pierre Matisse and His Artists at the Morgan Library, the first work you see is Giacometti’s The Chariot (1950), which, no matter how many times you may have seen this sculpture before, suddenly looks as if it had always been meant to occupy this beautiful space. Then, to the left, is the stunning Portrait of Pierre Matisse , which Balthus painted in 1938. This is, I believe, the first time this painting has been exhibited anywhere, and it too looks very much at home at the Morgan–so much so, in fact, that any doubts one may have entertained about the Morgan’s debut in exhibiting modern paintings and sculpture are instantly laid to rest. And one hasn’t yet even seen the many wonders to come.
Pierre Matisse was Balthus’ dealer for more than half a century, and it was never an easy relationship. Balthus was famously difficult about everything, including Matisse’s response to this portrait. Yet Matisse somehow persisted in overcoming every obstacle that Balthus’ touchiness and endless machinations put in his way. I have a particularly vivid memory of the gallery’s last Balthus exhibition in 1977. Day after day, the gallery was crowded with young artists and art students, many of whom remained for hours, sitting on the floor with their sketchbooks, making drawings based on the paintings. They had already been waiting in line before the gallery opened in the morning and were reluctant to leave when it was closing for the night. “What can I do?” Pierre said to me on one of the days I visited the show. “They sometimes bring their lunch and stay all day. I can’t throw them out, but it’s impossible to do any work here.” By then, of course, the gallery had long been established as a New York institution.
It was a lucky day for New York when Pierre Matisse came here to live and work, and it was another lucky day when Pierre’s heirs decided to make a gift of his archives to the Morgan Library–the gift that led to the organization of this beautiful exhibition. And now that the Morgan has made this commitment to the study and exhibition of 20th-century art, it is to be hoped that we can look forward to many more such exhibitions. Who knows? It might even serve to provide some of our other museums with a reminder of what it can mean to bring true connoisseurship to this field of artistic endeavor, where it has lately been so conspicuously lacking.
Pierre Matisse and His Artists remains on view at the Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through May 19, and it is accompanied by an excellent catalog.