No one who loves color and beautiful paintings will want to miss "After Matisse," an exhibition of 42 works by 37 American artists that opens today at the Phillips Collection. But it's a curious grab bag of a show.
This is perhaps predictable. Matisse's influence is pervasive. He explored the myriad expressive possibilities of color with a resourcefulness no other 20th-century painter has equaled, so that every painter in the western world after, say, 1910 has had somehow to deal with his brilliant shadow (even to the point of rejecting it). This makes selecting a show, after Matisse, automatically problematic: Where does it start? Where does it end?
It starts, here, with Hans Hofmann's "Still Life -- Yellow Table on Green," a 1936 painting whose superb composition, fiery brushwork and ravishing beauty solidifies this European expatriate's claim to being the first painter in the United States to learn something important from Matisse.
No. 2 on the chronological list is Milton Avery's "Three Friends," a 1944 painting of figures relaxing in an interior that is somehow cozy and spacious at the same time. Like most of Avery's figurative works, this one is rather awkward, but its presence establishes what could have been a leitmotif: the contrast between Matisse's influence as a regal colorist and as a painter in the domestic, figurative mode. The failure to follow up on this lead is one of the minor disappointments of the show, which concentrates heavily upon abstraction.
I have no quarrel with the basic curatorial premise here -- that Matisse's primary influence in American art was upon abstract painting in New York after World War II. It is indisputable that the sonorous colors of Matisse's pre-World War I period (the time of "The Red Studio," for instance) and the clarity of his post-World War II cutouts found fertile soil in New York.
The one opened the way for great American romantics such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, for whom Matisse's color was the crucial key to the sublime content they sought in abstract painting. And the other helped pave the way for other abstractionists, most notably Robert Motherwell and Lee Krasner, who were able to combine color with taut construction, and for the remarkable Frank Stella, who for 25 years has been pushing color to extravagant sculptural and decorative extremes.
But the figurative selections in this show are, by and large, weak. Instead of Fairfield Porter, who better than any American painter understood the lessons of the quiet Matisse (the one we saw so splendidly in the National Gallery exhibition of "Matisse in Nice") and who translated these lessons into an American idiom, we get pop artist Tom Wesselmann, whose drawing "Study for Great American Nude" is a fine tribute but an isolated instance of Matissean influence in his work.
Instead of Stephen Pace, whose wonderful figurative paintings capture something essential of Matisse's sunny world, we get Gary Bower, whose earnest though clumsy "After Matisse's Nasturtiums and the Dance" simply reminds us that one takes on a great master at considerable risk. Or we get Michael Mazur, whose monotype-drypoint print ("Dancer on the Dance II") is a spiritless technical tour de force. And we certainly could do without Sherrie Levine's insipid little one-note jokes -- copies after Matisse in a different medium and a different scale. (Guards at the Phillips could lighten their hours by presenting a ribbon to any visitor who says, aloud, "So?")
Disappointing, too, although somewhat less so, are the artists -- Kim MacConnel, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner and Robert Zakanitch -- who took off on a the decorative aspects of Matisse's work and whose paintings, while pretty, are also fairly insubstantial when compared to the source. Then there are the major figures represented here by relatively minor works -- Rothko, Stella, Motherwell.
Even so, this leaves a good deal for provocative delectation and delight -- the qualities one would expect from such an exhibition. There are really stunning canvases here by such acknowledged greats as Hofmann, Newman, Krasner and Richard Diebenkorn, and by such lesser-known artists as Sean Scully, Marianne Stikas, John Walker and Adja Yunkers.
The Yunkers painting, "Homage to the Monks of Saigon" (1965-67), is a particular favorite of mine. In it two forms, somber yet full of color, come together in a stilled moment of great tension and beauty. It's the kind of moment one goes to museums for, and the fact that it is not alone at the Phillips redeems this show of all of its faults.
The exhibition, organized by Independent Curators Inc. of New York, curated by Tiffany Bell and supported by a grant from the Ford Motor Co., continues through Aug. 16. The Phillips Collection, incidentally, has closed down its north wing for long-awaited construction. If you go looking for "The Boating Party," it's in the Music Room for the summer, after which it will depart, with about 70 other masterpieces from the collection, on yet another fund-raising tour.