Years After Death, Ms. Matthíasdóttir Surfacing at Last

Reading through the selected bibliography in the catalog for Louisa Matthíasdóttir: A Retrospective, an exhibition at Scandinavia House, I’m reminded that I’ve been writing reviews of this remarkable painter’s work since 1959—nearly half a century. During this long period, other critics have also favorably reviewed her work, among them Jed Perl, John Ashbery, Harry Rand, Deborah Rosenthal, Martica Sawin, John Russell, Grace Glueck, Michael Kimmelman and Mark Strand. Meanwhile, several high-profile galleries—among them Robert Schoelkopf in the 1960’s and 70’s, and Salander-O’Reilly more recently—have mounted important exhibitions of her work. In addition, Matthíasdóttir, who died four years ago at the age of 83, has for several decades enjoyed a significant following among artists and art students. Yet in all this time, not a single New York art museum has thought it appropriate to devote a large solo exhibition to the achievements of Matthíasdóttir, who was surely one of the most accomplished painters of her generation anywhere in the world.

This is itself a scandal, and all the more so when you think of some of the really wretched exhibitions of 20th-century art (and, on occasion, non-art) that we’ve been subjected to in New York museums over the same period of time. If one didn’t know better, one would be tempted to suspect the existence of a curatorial conspiracy—but that would suggest that the museums have been minimally aware of Matthíasdóttir’s existence. What’s more likely is that her work has been ignored by institutional opinion simply because it didn’t conform to prevailing notions of artistic importance. Hers was neither a famous name nor one associated with so-called cutting-edge innovation, the two criteria that nowadays so often serve as a substitute for aesthetic judgment in the art bureaucracies.

All the more praise then for the staff of Scandinavia House for organizing this marvelous retrospective, which numbers no less than 100 works (paintings, works on paper and a single sculpture) and is accompanied by a first-rate catalog. One could hardly ask for a better exhibition of Matthíasdóttir’s work. All of her principal pictorial interests are represented: majestic landscapes and intimate interiors, portraits and self-portraits and group portraits, many large-scale paintings and a delightful group of miniature paintings, plus watercolorsandan amusing series of gouaches and drawings devoted to children.

The chronological range of the exhibition is also impressive. The early paintings, some of which have never before been exhibited, date from the 1940’s and early 50’s. One of the last self-portraits—pastel on paper—is dated circa 1990, and the most glorious of her late landscape paintings date from 1991. Matthíasdóttir was a copious producer, and the last paintings are her most powerful.

So who was this extraordinary artist? Louisa Matthíasdóttir was an Icelandic émigré who studied in Copenhagen and Paris before settling in New York in the early 1940’s. In New York, she promptly joined the Jane Street Gallery, one of the earliest artist cooperatives, and married Leland Bell, himself a highly accomplished artist and one of the most passionate and articulate lecturers on paintings I have ever encountered. There was a period when I saw a good deal of them, for I was then living in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street and was frequently invited to dinner, which was always more like a seminar in modern painting than a social occasion, with Lee doing most of the talking and Louisa telling him when to stop.

One of Bell’s greatest enthusiasms at the time was the French painter André Derain, an artist now very much underrated, and it has long been my impression that as a result of Bell’s robust advocacy, Matthíasdóttir was significantly influenced by Derain. This would certainly account for the powerful structural element in all of Matthíasdóttir’s work, with its virtuosic command of color and light.

From an art-historical perspective, however, Matthíasdóttir may be described as belonging to the mainstream of modernist painting that originates with Courbet and Manet and descends to Matisse, Derain, Braque and other masters of the School of Paris. Is this one of the reasons why her work has been rejected by museums? Perhaps. Matthíasdóttir has always been too modern to satisfy academic taste, and too traditional to satisfy avant-garde taste. One can only hope that the current retrospective will bring some change in this stubborn refusal to acknowledge her achievement, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Louisa Matthíasdóttir: A Retrospective remains on view at the Scandinavian House, 58 Park Avenue at 38th Street, through Nov. 13.