Dealer Pierre Matisse, Henri’s Collector Son, Shown at Metropolitan

The late Pierre Matisse (1900-1989), the younger son of the French master Henri Matisse, was one of the most illustrious art dealers of his day. For the art public of my generation, his gallery in the Fuller Building at 41 East 57th Street was as much a fixture on the modern art scene in New York as the Modern, Guggenheim and Whitney museums, and its opening in 1931 actually preceded that of the Guggenheim by six years. For some 60 years, the Matisse Gallery remained one of the centers of contemporary art life in New York.

This is one reason why the current exhibition of the Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a significant event. Another is that the Met’s acquisition of the Matisse Collection is itself an important chapter in the history of the museum’s ongoing effort to accord the masterworks of modern art a status akin to that of its celebrated collections of the Old Masters. It should be remembered that in the early years of the Matisse Gallery, it was the policy of the Met-and, indeed, most of the older museums-not to acquire or exhibit the work of “untested” living artists.

If this policy now strikes us as bizarre, it should also be revealed that as late as 1950, when E.H. Gombrich published the first edition of his classic history, The Story of Art , the chapter devoted to the great flowering of modernist art in the first half of the 20th century was called “Experimental Art”-in other words, art that had not yet proven to be of permanent interest. That’s not the way we think about art today, of course, but I wonder if I’m alone in feeling a certain nostalgia for this discredited policy. It would certainly have saved us from having to wade through a lot of the fashionable trash that has glutted museums in recent years.

Fashionable trash was never of much interest to Pierre Matisse. His principal mission as a dealer was to bring the controversial achievements of the Paris avant-garde of his own generation to the attention of the American art public. His own favorites in that generation were Balthus, Dubuffet, Giacometti and Miró-especially Miró, to whose work the Matisse Gallery devoted an astounding 37 exhibitions.

The work of these artists are now blue-chip investments on the international art bourse, but some of them were a hard sell when they were first exhibited in New York-Balthus because of his concentration on erotic subjects, and Miró because his work was often found to be incomprehensible. (Often, to fully understand Miró, you have to have a sophisticated sense of humor.) In one of Miró’s letters to Pierre Matisse-I quote from memory-the painter thanked him for his support, adding that he sometimes thought it must require as much courage for the dealer to exhibit such paintings as it took him, the artist, to create them.

In some quarters, even the beloved Giacometti was controversial-but for an opposite reason. Hard-core Surrealists could never forgive Giacometti for abandoning the orthodoxies of their movement in favor of what they regarded as the more traditional style of his sculptural figures and still-life paintings. Oddly enough, it was the so-called “Art Brut” of Jean Dubuffet that was an instant hit with the Upper East Side collectors, who still favored the work of the School of Paris over anything produced by the burgeoning New York School of Abstract Expressionism.

And yet, the exhibitions that the Matisse Gallery devoted to Miró and Giacometti in the late 1940’s proved to be landmark events-but again, for opposite reasons. Miró exerted an enormous influence on the Abstract Expressionists, while Giacometti’s figurative sculpture, drawings and paintings were a source of inspiration and moral support for a younger generation of American painters determined to resist the temptations of abstractionism. For both of these opposing camps, the Matisse Gallery provided a standard of achievement.

The exhibition of the Matisse Collection at the Met is the first in a series of three consecutive shows over a yearlong period designed to bring us highlights of the collection. In addition to examples of the artists already mentioned, it also includes some excellent works by Matisse père that Pierre Matisse inherited from his father’s estate. Of lesser interest are paintings by René Magritte and Paul Delvaux and sculpture by two British artists, Raymond Mason and Reg Butler. Of great interest, however, are two powerful paintings by André Derain-a still life, The Table (1911), and a flamboyant full-length painting of a woman called The Black Feather Boa (1935). These two monumental pictures leave one yearning to see a full-scale Derain retrospective, but that’s probably too much to hope for-Derain is so utterly unfashionable today. Both for artistic and biographical reasons, Balthus’ portrait of Pierre Matisse (1938) is a must-see painting.

The next two shows will feature younger artists associated with the Matisse Gallery and works on paper, drawings and prints. This first installment remains on view at the Met through June 26, 2005. Everything in all three shows will, of course, become part of the Met’s permanent collection.