Though some might call it a justification of his program, in my opinion this is a magnificent essay, one which clarifiesthe character of Matisse's art as well as its relation to contemporary painting. The last two paragraphs are as pertinent today as they were throughout the last century. Greenberg was one of the great champions of Matisse and his support helped put his art over in the museums and the art world (I doubt that private collectors needed to be convinced.) The essay originally appeared in a 1973 exhibition at Acquavella Galleries in New York in support of Lennox Hill Hospital. A PDF file of the original catalogue, complete with illustrations, is available at the Acquavella Galleries web site.
THE WORD 'DECORATIVE' is no longer used as freely as it once was in finding fault with works of pictorial art. Too much of the best art of our time was criticized, when first seen, for being too "decorative". Matisse's art in particular was criticized for that and it continued to be criticized for that. But if the word is now largely a discredited word, at least in its pejorative sense, it's Matisse's doing more than anyone else's.
That's but one of the ways in which Matisse upset received ideas or received attitudes. No doubt every great artist has done that, more or less, and especially the great artists of the last hundred-odd years. But Matisse's art, peculiarly, has done so by again and again escaping from the place or places assigned to it by critical opinion.
Thirty years ago and less he was supposed to be beside the point as far s ambitious new art was concerned. The excitement was with Picasso, Miró, Mondrian, Klee. Things have changed since then. I would say that, for a while now, Matisse has been a more relevant and fertile source for ambitious new painting than any other single master before or after him. But even at the time I'm speaking of, 30 years ago, things were already beginning to change, in a gradual way. Milton Avery had long been painting under Matisse's influence and Hans Hofmann, having begun to paint again some years before, was carrying that influence over into abstract art. And in his teaching, Hofmann was insisting on Matisse's exemplary virtues as he insisted on little else. At the same time there were as a few very serious young artists in New York who were learning about Matisse for themselves, sometimes in a more unconscious than conscious way. You found your path to Matisse not because you were told he was a great painter -- often, back then, you were told he wasn't -- but because the more you came to ask of painting as sheer painting the more you were stopped and held by him.
By the later 1940's I dare say Matisse was being looked at harder and longer by younger painters in New York than by younger painters elsewhere. That shows in their art. For I would also say that Matisse's influence, whether direct or indirect, accounts for some of the features that distinguish abstract painting in this country since the 1940's from most abstract painting elsewhere, and particularly in France. It's as though American art, in its handling of paint and of the color of paint, has maintained French tradition more faithfully than French art itself has since that time. If this is so, it's thanks to Matisse's assimilation by Americans more than to anything else.
What was assimilated was not only Matisse's color, but also his touch. That touch, Matisse's way of putting paint to canvas, hasn't been celebrated enough -- not nearly enough. That touch was a great acquisition and not only for Matisse himself, but for other, younger painters, particularly American ones. What should be noticed is how Matisse laid on and stroked varying thinnesses of paint so that the white ground breathed as well as showed through. But even when he laid his paint on evenly or more densely, or when he used a palette knife -- which was seldom -- the paint surface would still manage to breathe. The paint surface, even when the picture as a whole failed, would maintain its liveness. (The exceptions were surfaces that "been covered with too many coats of paint -- too much "corrected" -- but as many as these exceptions may have been they were still exceptions). Not all the American artists who learned from Matisse -- whether directly or through Hofmann or Avery -- followed him in the matter of touch. Certainly, Hofmann himself didn't. But even when they trowelled their paint on, built it up in layers or films, dripped, or sprayed it -- even then an awareness of Matisse's "aerated" surfaces seems somehow to have been present and to have informed what they did. And I think that that awareness is still present in the best of more recent American painting whether abstract or figurative.
There was of course, more to Matisse influence on American Abstract Expressionism than his touch. There was also and not least, his very approach to easel painting. Matisse's smallest, tightest, most involuted pictures are still not quite "cabinet" pictures in the way that Picasso's, Braque's, or Leger's largest paintings are. Picasso's pictures tend to close in on themselves, no matter what, Matisse's to open out, no matter what. It's as though Matisse (along with Monet, but in quite a different way) tried to wrench easel painting away from every one of its sources except wall painting. For the sake of a sheer spaciousness and airiness, for the sake of an art that would be utterly pictorial without being claustrophobic. Not that there's any necessary virtue in spaciousness and airiness, or any necessary vice in smallest and tightness. But it was as though Matisse (like Monet) felt that in order to expand the range of easel painting, he had to de-convolute it and make it centrifugal in organization instead of centripetal. (Of course neither Matisse nor Monet felt literally "required"; all they did was go where temperament and inspiration impelled them -- and where the circumstances of art in their time permitted them to go).
Matisse's larger paintings -- those of them that got seen in this country in the late 1930's and in the 1940's -- had a momentous effect on Abstract Expressionism. I remember his "Bathers by a River", c. 1916. It hung for a long while during the late 1930's in a 57th Street art gallery (it now belongs to the Chicago Art Institute). Its broad vertical bands used to give me trouble; they were too even and made the picture itself too dispersed. My eye was used to concentric, compact and more closely inflected pictures. This big picture slid my eye over its surface and seemingly out through its sides and corners. It was years later that I got to see Monet's lily pad murals in the Orangerie in Paris, and they were even more it centrifugal in organization than "Bathers By A River", but they weren't as "flat" and didn't cause my eye to "slide" nearly as much -- though they, too, seemed to leak through their sides and corners. But by that time I knew more of what it was all about and so did my eye.
Picasso and Braque, when their Cubism was Analytical, used to have trouble with their corners, trouble bringing them into the rest of the picture (which may explain why they would often resort to tondo or oval formats). In the early and mid 1940's certain American abstract painters (who were beginning to learn from Analytical as well as Synthetic Cubism) had trouble with their corners too and also with the vertical margins of their pictures. It was a question of bringing them into the ambiguous illusion of space that the main part of the picture showed. Matisse's bigger paintings, with their centrifugality, brought the solution, in defiance of what tell than had been (for Pollock as well as for Gorky) an essential part of the notion of the well-made picture. The Abstract Expressionists became able to let their paintings at spread and expand, in terms of design as well as in size. Now the corners and the margins of the picture could take care of themselves. They no longer had to be filled in or specified. Matisse's influence was far from being the only factor in this development. But that it was a very important one seems to me to be indisputable. Just as it seems to me indisputable that it was his example, most of all, that helped Miró open up the picture and deal in the broad and relatively uninflected, relatively empty expanses that show in the extraordinarily original (if not always achieved) paintings he did from 1924 to 1927 (which, in their turn too, greatly influenced American abstract art).
I've just said that Matisse was far from being the only factor in the opening up and expanding of the Abstract Expressionist picture. There was also a later Monet (whose art Matisse himself seems to have been untouched by). Monet's influence comes a little later and was particularly important to Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still and -- indirectly -- to Morris Louis as well as Rothko. But I don't think I'm claiming too much for "my" Matisse when I say that his influence on American painting at its best continues after Monet's leaves off. He sensed better, more prophetically, that heightened sensitivity of the pictorial surface which is now making the latter more and more allergic to whatever interrupts, whatever it takes away from, it's feeling as a taut continuum. It's this hypersensitivity that now summons (in the wake of Jules Olitski) those "emptinesses" which invade the best of recent abstract painting (in lieu of the all-over repetitions that likewise preserve the tautness and the continuum, but in a way that, since Pollock and Tobey, has become more less academic except in the hands of a Noland or a Poons). Well, Matisse was first to admit anything like those "emptinesses" into respectable art, sixty years ago and more. Rather, he made those "emptinesses" themselves respectable.
The superior artist is the one and knows how to be influenced. Matisse certainly knew how, especially when, as in the 1920's, he reached back into the past, to Chardin and Manet. But there was one moment, before that, when he let himself be influenced, profoundly, by art done by people younger than himself and to the greater advantage of his own art. Maybe it was to the very greatest advantage of his own art. I'm referring to the time during which Matisse "felt" Cubism. I can see that beginning to happen in 1912, if not earlier. Black came into, or back into his palette in that year, but settled there only in 1914. This could also be attributed to a general darkening of palettes in advanced French painting around that time. But Cubism had to have something to do with it. The evidence is there in the way Matisse began, in 1914, to true and fair his drawing, as well as to introduce other than prismatic colors to his paint. By that time he had already done enough with color to plant himself across Western tradition in as epochal a way as Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Manet, the Impressionists, and Cézanne had. All the same, I think that his color gained from 1912 on and especially after 1914. Bringing in frank blacks and grays and also franker whites and then, later on, earth colors (umbers, ochres, siennas) gave Matisse's color a new weight and at the same time and a new smoothness and new airiness and lambency. Somehow his prismatic colors became pearlier and furrier through their juxtaposition with non-prismatic colors, or through the mere presence of the latter somewhere in the picture; by the same token the blacks, whites, grays and earth's began to act like prismatic colors themselves. Color, now being employed across its whole, more-than-Impressionist range, became owned by Matisse in the years right after 1916 as it was never owned by any other artist, or in any other art, that I have seen. And it doesn't affect the case that Matisse's paintings after 1917 became much more modest in seeming ambition, as well as in size and "vision", than those of the years previous. They remain and they weigh as Raphael's small earlier pictures remain and weigh.
It tells that it was Matisse's post-prismatic colors that influenced Miró most, especially with regard to black, white and gray. It also tells that Avery's color was most influenced and formed, in its own individual way, by Matisse's post-prismatic phase; it's from that phase that Avery learned how to cool and clear his view of Nature. And maybe Hofmann, who could never forget the Fauve and immediately post-Fauve Matisse, would have steadied the quality of his own art -- as high as it is -- had he learned more about that same cooling and clearing.
Two of Matisse is strongest paintings have for the respective subjects: a window, table, two chairs and a bowl of flowers ("The Window" of 1916, in the Detroit Institute of Arts); a marble-topped table in the open with a few small objects on it ("The Rose Marble Table" of 1917, in the Museum of Modern Art). These pictures were painted during the darkest days of the First World War. Matisse lived through and amid two world wars. During the second one, most of his subjects were of a kind, and visualized in a way, that wouldn't have been out of place in a fashion magazine (which isn't quite to say that the sheer pictorial quality -- as uneven as it was -- of these paintings sank to that level). What are we to make of this apparent distance of Matisse's from the terrible events of his time and his place? What are we to make of his "coolness" in general? What I make of it is something that I want to celebrate Matisse's character and person for, Matisse as apart from his art. It's as though he set himself early on against the cant, the false feeling and falsely expressed feeling that afflict the discussion of art in our culture. He challenged and defied that cant, in what he said aloud as well as in what he did in his art. I can't admire enough the kind of courage that permitted him to write for publication, back in 1908, that he dreamt of an art that would be like an easy-chair for the tired "brain-worker" -- that is, the businessman and intellectual and even the bureaucrat, not the "toiler". And it was an art that would refresh the brain-worker rather than uplift him. That Matisse's art actually does ever so much more than that -- including "uplifting" -- isn't to the point here. What is, is that he himself was willing to claim only so much and no more, for it. And maybe those who might want to bestow their own rhetoric on his art were being warned off. His art would speak for itself just as all art does when it comes down to it, good and bad art alike.
Matisse is art speaks for itself through its "mechanics", it's "form" and through the feeling which that "form" makes manifest. It's not by far the first to do so and to transcend the illustrated subject by doing so. (All good painting and sculpture does that to some extent). But just as Matisse rejected verbal rhetoric so he kept every last trace of illustrational rhetoric out of his art. He may have been the first painter in our tradition to do that in a really radical way. This doesn't make his art better than a Giotto's or Caravaggio's or Goya's or David's, not necessarily. But it does make it a salutory example for all those people who find it hard, in any medium, to mean what they say.