I arrived at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday night for the opening of its powerful (and timed-ticket event) Matisse exhibition and immediately made a beeline for Bathers by the River. Standing in front of this greatest of paintings were the renowned sculptor Jackie Winsor and my colleague Jerry Saltz, who sported a nifty white Indiana Jones safari jacket.
"What does the seated figure at the top of the picture remind you of, Charlie?" Jerry inquired. "Picasso's Gertrude Stein," I answered.
"Yes, I can see that, if you flipped it around," Saltz responded. The three of us then marveled at the contrast between the repeating green palm fronds which ripple harmoniously down the side of the picture and what Ms. Winsor agreed were "the clunky feet" of the bathers. Jerry pointed to the elegant female nude on the right. "How is she holding her arm, Charlie, behind her back or crooked in front of her?" and immediately answered her own question, "Both!" Matisse has clearly sketched in the cinematic movement of the lady's arms.
You don't have to look at X-ray specs of Bathers by the River to realize the long hours and balletic leaps of variation that Matisse put into this masterpiece. The deep white polygon of white with blue flecks is obviously dense with reworkings and Matissean meditations. The hand and method of Seurat is an apparent influence.
Jerry and Jackie then launched into challenging me to name all the painters whose late work resonates in the severe divides of the planes and figures in Bather by the River. The plain circular heads? Baldessari. The Aristotelian division of vertical rectangles could have been fabricated by Barnett Newman. For no discernible reason, Saltz agreed, the spirit of Arshile Gorky was redolent. And the spatial possibilities of color fields reminded us of Hans Hofmann and, perhaps, Motherwell, who admittedly stole everything he did from Matisse
As Si Newhouse sauntered by and Larry Gagosian made a rare appearance at a museum opening (as opposed to the VIP dinner/vernissage), Jackie and Jerry and I sighed in satisfaction. We had yet to see the rest of the show.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).