Sophie Matisse, Jan. 22-Mar. 2, 2002 (extended to Mar. 8), at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, 22 East 80th Street, New York, N.Y 10021.
A scholar, collector and curator, Francis Naumann is the author of Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1999) and was the organizer of "Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York" at the Whitney Museum in 1996. So when he decided to go over to the other side and become an art dealer, he naturally enough made Dada and Surrealism his specialty.
The premiere show at Naumann's new gallery on East 80th Street -- a building otherwise filled with leading Old Master dealers, among them his twin brother, Otto Naumann -- was the very art-historical "Man Ray in America: Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture and Photographs of the New York/Ridgefield (1912-1921) and Hollywood (1940-1950) Years."
But there's more to life than classic modernism, and sure enough, Naumann's second show is a survey of paintings by the 30-something New York artist Sophie Matisse. As one might suspect, Matisse does have her own modernist forbears, since she is great-granddaughter of Henri Matisse and step-grandchild of Marcel Duchamp. She's also married to the French Pop artist Alain Jacquet.
All these family ties seem to entangle Sophie's esthetic sensibility as well. For she makes art about art -- specificially, she paints persuasive likenesses of well-known paintings, but all rendered without any living thing in them. The Mona Lisa without Mona. Velazquez' Las Meninas as a vast, empty room. Some 20 famous paintings in all, completely denuded of their human inhabitants, by Degas, Eakins, Hopper, Homer, Monet, Charles Willson Peale, Vermeer and even Henri Matisse. (Works range in price from $12,000 to $16,000, with smaller gouaches priced at $2,500-$3,500 and a few large works at $28,500.)
It's as if the sitters got antsy and walked off the canvas to take a break. Or are late for their appointment in the studio. Or were zapped and carried off by a traveling spaceship, who knows. The works are funny and one can see why a Dadaphile like Naumann chose to show off Sophie Matisse as his first contemporary artist.
Perhaps most humorous is Matisse's version of American Gothic, in which the farm couple are gone but the pitchfork remains, standing alone in the middle of the picture. In her Absinthe -- punning also on the word "absent" -- Degas' impossible tables are now clearly hovering in midair, once the legs of his sitters are gone. No wonder the rummies have abandoned their drinks.
But there's more to all this than sight gags. Some of Matisse's paintings are pronounced statements of absence. Under her treatment, Hopper's luncheonette, Velazquez's studio and Degas' dance studio are profoundly, poignantly empty. The human presence is most strongly missed in Sophie's beautifully painted versions of four Vermeer interiors: Young Woman Holding a Water Pitcher, Woman with a Pearl Necklace, The Lacemaker and The Astronomer. Their sumptuous appointments, part of the revolutionary Dutch sacralization of the new middle-class domesticity, seem especially abandoned without their subjects.
By contrast, Matisse's Monna Lisa (Be Back in 5 Minutes) stands alone as a view of an Italian landscape with a dramatic river valley, obviously viewed from a balcony with a marble balustrade -- and as such, it is a genre newly introduced here to Renaissance Italy. Monna Lisa -- it's the Italian spelling -- was the first painting Matisse did in her series, and may be the most famous artwork in the world. Matisse has not just the smile but the whole person disappear.
One of the largest works in the show, the nine-foot-tall Staircase Group, is a particularly rich play on Charles Willson Peale's painting of the same name, a portrait of his two teenaged sons posing on a narrow, spiral staircase. Peale's original, painted in 1795 and currently in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum, is installed in a doorframe with a real step in front, clearly meant to be a trompe l'oeil deception. Matisse notes the similarity of the Peale work to Duchamp's famous Door: 11 rue Larry, which swung between the entrance to his apartment and the door to his bathroom, and could be both open and closed at once. It too is now in the Philadelphia Museum.
Arguably the most potent of Sophie's works are her tributes to her grandfather, Henri Matisse. It feels liberating and rebellious to view her versions of his paintings. In her Fishbowl, the goldfish are gone. In her The Conversation, the bright blue room stands empty with a lonely chair. Curiously, in the original Conversation, neither Matisse nor his wife is obviously speaking, presumably estranged due to the artist's affair with his model. In Sophie's version, the absence of the painting's subjects makes the original painting's subject more … present, if you will.
Coming up at Naumann Fine Art is a show of works by the elusive Dada artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Lorignhoven. Scheduled for next fall is an exhibition of contemporary artists who work with images of Marcel Duchamp.