We have been privileged to know Sophie Matisse for two decades. Notwithstanding her long, happy marriage to French Pop artist Alain Jacquet, many men over the years, including ourselves, have worshipped her as the most gracious, elegant, accomplished beauty in the New York art world. The fact that she counts Henri Matisse, Pierre Matisse and Marcel Duchamp among her close family members has been a mere bagatelle to her admirers.
Not so for Sophie. We first realized her isolation and alienation as an artist, sitting on a garden swing with Sophie at her dealer Francis Naumann’s Yorktown Heights estate, on a Memorial Day weekend, a few years ago.
Sophie showed us a catalogue of her Tokyo solo show depicting her versions of classic paintings by Vermeer, Velasquez and others with all the figures removed. She emphasized the fineness of her own brushstrokes and colors in these empty pastiches, and we realized we were gazing at a beautiful woman who, as in a Henry James novel, was trapped.
Clearly, Sophie wished to banish the giants of Western art from her psyche, failed, and was forced into submission by the heavy presence of her forebears, both familial and spiritual. Her subsequent successful career, recently with her gorgeous, popular DayGlo responses to Picasso’s Guernica, has been a wrestling with Matissean chimeras.
We want to liberate her through interpretation. Hence, at last week’s opening of Sophie’s new, sparkling "Zebra Stripe Paintings," we remarked to Francis Naumann that, "these are the first truly new Surrealist paintings in New York since Julian Levy showed Max Ernst in the 1930s."
Naumann, always a stickler for proper labeling, scowled, "I wouldn’t necessarily call them Surrealist." He’s been making a big deal about Sophie’s dyslexia, which is actually an advantage in these ribbonized blendings of flowers, wine labels, clouds and fruits with classics by Caravaggio, Parson Weems and Vermeer.
"They are Surrealist dreams," we countered, "juxtaposing two irrational flows of images into a new hyperreality." As such they are redolent of Sophie’s personality: a beautiful, soulful woman defenestrated by flaws beyond her control, which ultimately render her all the more desirable.
Surrounded by admirers at her vernissage, Sophie kissed us and smiled, "In my next life, I’m going to marry you, Charlie." Well, we happen to be deeply in love at the moment with a gorgeous art history professor, so we’ll have to take a rain check, and Sophie’s new work warms our heart as well.
If there was ever a bride who stripped her bachelors bare, it is Sophie. Let her and her beautiful new paintings heat up your holidays.
Sophie Matisse, "The Zebra Stripe Paintings," Nov. 18-Dec. 30, 2005, at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, 22 East 80th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).