In the last six months, the Art Institute of Chicago has mounted three extraordinary exhibitions—“Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917”, “Henri-Cartier Bresson—The Modern Century” and the recently-opened “Gray Collection: Seven Centuries of Art.”
When writing on exhibitions, the focus, properly, is what’s on the walls. Yet, in this instance, I found the catalogues to the Matisse and Gray shows as impressive. Both are richly informative additions to our knowledge of two persons at the top of their game: one a major artist of the 20th Century (as protean as Picasso and productive of more personally satisfying creations) and the other a premier mid to late 20th Century art dealer and his wife whose private collection is on public view for the first time.
The Matisse and Gray shows have resulted in two visually striking catalogues published by Yale University Press. The Matisse exhibition was a five-year curatorial collaboration between the museum’s Stephanie D’Alessandro and the Museum of Modern Art’s John Elderfield, the reigning authority on Matisse’s work.
Matisse has become the new Monet, an artist whose name brings out the masses. Yet a mere 87 years ago, Matisse was burned in effigy by students at the School of the Art Institute when his work appeared in the infamous 1913 Armory Show. And, as late as mid-century, he was viewed as an accomplished colorist and decorative artist but not one worthy of admission to the pantheon of 20th century giants.
I found the show (which closes at MoMA next weekend) when it was shown in Chicago earlier this year to be a grand sweep of masterworks prior to 1913 followed by the more austere and radically reworked portraits and drawings from the World War I period.
The curators probably reasoned that just showing the severe black and white drawings of the transformative period would have been deadly. Thus, they chose to accent the contrast with pre-1913 works. They opened with paintings bursting with color and sculptures such as the busts of Jeannette and the initial “Back” studies in bronze.
I learned a great deal about Matisse’s methods and psychological frame of mind during this time but found the show’s heavy emphasis on new x-ray evidence to be more of a curators’ obsession and too didactic in pressing how radical a shift Matisse’s art underwent.
Just seeing “The Dance” and “The Moroccans” can often be enough to make us to marvel at the creative act that produced it. The one exception was “Bathers by the River” (fourth state) in which the curators opened my eyes and helped unravel its mystery for me.
Sometimes the catalogue can be more successful in making one’s case than a museum exhibition where the act of seeing and our more
instinctual appreciation usually takes precedence. If you are a fan of Matisse, as I am, and want to go inside his painstaking step-by-step artistic process, I urge you to buy the book and read its expert investigations.
Just last week, I viewed Richard Gray’s collection in the museum’s Richard and Mary Gray Galleries for prints and drawings (quite a stroke of symmetry). I can only describe my wanderings through the galleries as a sensual viewing delight as well as one of admiration for the keen eye that assembled this rich assemblage.
I cannot recommend seeing this superb collection too highly (on display through January 3, 2011). I think you will be enchanted and possibly transported by the virtuosity on display. And to marvel that such drawings were not collected as avidly until several decades ago.
I have known Richard Gray in passing over three decades and admired his strong taste in artists and, more recently, his and his wife’s philanthropic generosity to many Chicago institutions from the Smart Museum of Art, the Chicago Symphony, Chicago Humanities Festival and WFMT. It is testimony to his solid integrity as an art dealer (not generally the most ethical profession) that he was invited to the board of the Art Institute.
The catalogue to the show offers a greater appreciation of the over 100 works on display and gave me a glimpse into how the collection was formed. A great addition to the catalogue, besides analyses of the exhibit’s 115 drawings by over 50 international experts, is the interview with the Grays conducted by Lawrence Wechsler.
I was delighted to get to know Richard’s life story and to read that, as a dealer and collector, Gray has always trusted his eye and his gut, not as I assumed, some superior knowledge of art and artists.
Gray began collecting modern and contemporary artists, many of whom his gallery represented. Over time, with his wife’s art history expertise, he took his collecting addiction back in time so that the collection now spans seven centuries.
The book has been lovingly produced from the range and expertise of the contributors, the book’s renowned designer and its paper and reproductive quality. You will learn a lot about one man’s passion and how it led to the assembling of this museum-quality collection.
Since Gray started his collecting journey and moved backwards, it might be fun to start with two of his earliest acquisitions on pages 103 and 129. Then savor it, starting at page 170 all the way back to the arresting late 15th Century “Portrait of an Old Man” drawing that graces the front cover. It might be enough to start your own collecting juices racing.