Arts Listings

SFMOMA Highlights Art of Sculpture

By Peter Selz, Special to the Planet
Friday July 13, 2007

It has been 35 years since the Berkeley Museum brought New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Sculpture of Matisse,” to the Bay Area. The current show as SFMOMA permits us to re-examine the great painter’s three-dimensional work. The museum’s press release speaks of his “sculptural masterpieces.” 

It was in painting, however, that Matisse created magnificent masterpieces. The show brought his Blue Nude (1907) from Baltimore to compare it with the bronze Reclining Nude of the same year. The painting is a 20th century Odalisque. But unlike its classic predecessors, this figure is sensuously contorted and its exaggerated physical features, outlined in heavy blue lines, reveal the painter’s intense feeling for the subject as well as his sense of physical structure. 

In 1907 also the painter made the exquisite small bronze, Reclining Nude 1 (Aurora) with even greater distortions of the body. Later he recalled: “I took up sculpture because what interested me in painting was clarification of my ideas, I changed my method, and worked in clay in order to have a rest from painting, in which I had done absolutely all I could for the time being. That is to say it was done for the purpose of organization, to put order into my feelings and to find a style to suit me, Whe I found it in sculpture, it helped my painting.”  

Among his later works in sculpture is the series of low reliefs, the Backs, in which the artist made his most important contributions to modern sculpture. Produced over a period of 21 years (1909-30), it shows a progression in concentration on the essential formal structure. 

Starting with a fairly realistic version that was still modeled in the manner of Rodin, Matisse progressively simplified the figure, so that in Back ulnone the woman’s long hair acts as a division between two columns in this monumental work. Nevertheless, the planar character and its balance and order shows that this work was done with the sensibility of a painter, who mastered drawing with pen, pencil or cut paper, as well as sculpture to infuse new ideas into his work as a magnificent painter.  

In great contrast to Matisse’s modernist sculpture, the museum shows work by the post-modern German artist Felix Schramm, whose Collider, 18 feet high and 35 feet long cuts across two galleries. Made of drywall, wood and paint, it ruptures the museum space. The viewer has to move under, through and around the piece to take it all in. 

The work is in the Dada tradition (yes, Dada has become a tradition now) and deals with disorder and destruction. It immediately reminds the viewer of the transgressive work of the 1970s by Gordon Matta-Clark, which was seen in a retrospective at the Whitney Museum this spring, but is not mentioned in the brochure of the Schramm exhibition.  

Matta-Clark actually hacked into existing walls and floors of derelict buildings and eventually split a house apart. Whereas Schramm devastates the pristine white cube of the museum gallery, the more radical earlier artist operated entirely outside the traditional framework. 

It would seem that in the 1970s a more radical approach to art (as to politics) was within reach.  



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Photograph Courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art, the Cone Collection  

Reclining Nude I (Aurora), 1907, by Henri Matisse.