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Cut-Outs and Make-Outs at MoMA's Matisse Marathon Exhibit in New York

Walking into the show is nothing but delightful: the colors pop and are probably perfect regardless or because of their ability to fuck with your psychology and wake you up at four in the morning.

by Lauren Oyler
Feb 10 2015, 7:12pm

If you live in New York, you might know the Museum of Modern Art stayed open for 56 hours straight—from Friday morning until Sunday night—to accommodate the procrastinators who hadn't managed to make it to the museum's current exhibition, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. When I arrived on Sunday morning at around 2 AM, the crowd was a mix of genuine art buffs and pre- or post-party couples. The PDA—like the crowds at the museum during its normal operating hours, the months of media coverage surrounding and exalting the show, and the adjectives in Jerry Saltz's glowing review in New York magazine—was excessive.

In the lobby the crowd was a combination of bemused novelty and self-satisfaction. We were among the relative few willing and cultured enough to "take advantage" of the opportunity to be there, then. An air of after-hours propriety suffused us, the yawning and over-accessorized. Plus, thankfully, there were no children. I missed the midnight rush, which a security guard told me was "insane," as packed as the museum ever is, with lines extending around the block and the wait over two hours.

I was a little disappointed there wasn't more chaos, actually. I was hoping the opportunity to hang out at arguably the world's best contemporary art museum at an unorthodox hour would have lured out more of New York's bizarre. These cut-outs were, after all, "a new form of poetry that come at us like a flotilla of visionary barges on an imaginary Nile," as Saltz put it last October.

The line at 5 AM. Photo by Lauren Silberman.

In hindsight, I should have expected a crowd like this. The people I asked to come with me responded with aggressive nos and implied I was crazy for inviting them. Sample replies to my invitations included "WAT!?" "4 am?!?! Not at all" and "There is no way I could be awake at 4 am even if I wanted too [sic]." I waited in line by myself for ten minutes, got in the elevator with a Swedish architecture student and three couples, and together we emerged at the sixth-floor gift shop.

Occasionally people would walk by smelling like beer, and more occasionally I overheard the conversations of those who were clearly drunk. Bursts of cackling over something on someone's cell phone brought the house-party vibe into sharp relief, as did the couples: so many couples, gazing lovingly at each other, kissing like they were reuniting after a long period apart, resting heads and languid arms on each other's shoulders, leaning up against walls and one another. A woman bent forward from her waist to rest her forearms on a vitrine of sketches and studies for the illustrated book Jazz, which was mostly about the circus, and her boyfriend or husband or whatever he was put his hand on her hip, almost ass, and pressed himself against her. Two rooms away, a girl with big hoop earrings was up against a wall, her arms around her boyfriend's shoulders, like high-schoolers up against a locker, but instead of a water fountain, next to them was a formally revolutionary four-foot-by-four-foot blue nude produced by the founder of a major artistic movement.

Installation view of 'The Swimming Pool' (1952) in the exhibition 'Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs' at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 12, 2014–February 10, 2015). Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art.

Many guests told me they were visiting for the second time, though more for the experience than the art. "I just don't see why it's so important," a woman named Catherine told me as we looked at The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown , an earlier small work in cobalt, magenta, green, and yellow. "It's nice. It's beautiful! I guess it's because it was the first—a precedent." Another guest, Tirosh, was there "100 percent" because it was "a thing." A third, Elizabeth, a 26-year-old wearing some kind of rhinestoned or otherwise sparkly head chain, called it a "wonderful concept."

Henri Matisse. 'The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown.' 1943/44. Centre Pompidou.

And they were right: It is nice; it is beautiful; it is definitely a thing and concept, not least because it is so nice and beautiful. Walking into the show is nothing but delightful: the colors pop and are probably perfect regardless or because of their ability to fuck with your psychology and wake you up at four in the morning. Even the name of the show is show-like, that bold definite article declaring something culturally and historically significant, that famous and flamboyantly French name positively wielding the colon.

Henri Matisse. 'Blue Nude II' (Nu bleu II), spring 1952. Musée national d'art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Purchase, 1984. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I don't mean to suggest that The Cut-Outs wasn't worth seeing. It is a fine show, by which I mean both that there was nothing wrong with it and that it was executed with exquisite precision, fine in the sense of the sulking girlfriend as well as in the sense of the anachronistic and hard-to-please English professor. It really is culturally and historically significant: Matisse came to the cut-out technique as he grew older and lost his ability to paint. What was first a way to try out compositions and colors—you can see this in the works, which have many more pencil marks and jagged edges than the photos make out—became the art itself. The exhibit moves you naturally through this process, which spanned from Matisse's early experiments with cutting paper in the late 1930s to his death in 1954. The richness of the colors and the almost-childlike simplicity of his forms make the whole thing very easy to access, at least on some level.

And that's why it worked as a 56-hour show—a more difficult exhibition would not get people out of Netflix and into Midtown in the middle of the night; WOW! colors and purist forms that can double for décor as well as for fine art can attract the huge audiences that ultimately beget more huge audiences. It would be better if you "got" Matisse, sure, but you don't have to to get this.

MoMA's version of the show was important because it exhibited The Swimming Pool, Matisse's largest cut-out project, as it was intended: The nine panels were displayed not along a hallway, but as they had been designed, to decorate a room. Senior curator Jodi Hauptman told the New York Times that this site-specific mural, which Matisse did to "make his own pool" in his dining room, was "the philosophical and geographical heart of the show."

But there was PDA there, too: a couple sat on a low bench, her knee over his, holding both of each other's hands, laughing about something that I'm sure was not Matisse, who doesn't come off funny so much as cute or male-genius-y, depending on the placard. (Of the large-scale piece The Parakeet and the Mermaid, he said, "I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk. There are leaves, fruit, a bird." Conversely, he also said: "I know it will only be much later that people will realize to what extent the work I am doing today is in step with the future.")

At around 4:30, I sat down across from the blue nude and felt it would probably be best just to stay there, forever, in a stupor kept awake by the colors. I was telling the aforementioned Elizabeth that I had recently moved to New York because my hometown isn't interesting when an older woman with bright red hair interrupted us.

"If you have to live in an interesting city to be an interesting person, you have a problem," the woman, who would later introduce herself as the performance artist Penny Arcade, said. She complained about the current art scene in New York. She did not like that everyone was in heels and dresses; it was "like a cocktail party without the cocktails." I was tired and went to sit down.

As I was googling Penny Arcade, she came rushing into the room.

"I remembered something!" she said. "Do you know who Jack Smith was?"

I didn't. "Well, you should," she said, sitting next to me. He once asked, 'Why can't museums be open all night?'"

A decent enough question, sure, but I also wondered if I didn't already know the answer: People would rather be making out. Or—even more obvious—sleeping.

Depleted, I walked into the lobby, where the security guards were being brought coffee. Ticket stubs and other small pieces of trash littered the ground. Beyond a group of well-dressed students at the front desk and another couple, up against a column, the place, like the streets outside, was deserted. It was definitely a thing, and it was definitely over.

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Henri Matisse: The Cutouts is on display at MoMA through February 10.

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