Pictures of Icarus

Pictures of Icarus

With his cutouts, Henri Matisse tried to free himself from gravity.


The prototypical craftsman, the exemplary artisan, the shrewd inventor: this was Daedalus. Having contrived for the Cretan Queen Pasiphaë the simulacrum of a cow in which she could conceal herself so that the white bull of the sun would mate with her, he then designed the labyrinth inhabited by her monstrous offspring, the Minotaur. An Athenian, Daedalus longed for home but was forbidden to leave Crete, so, Ovid said, “to new arts his cunning thought applies, / And to improve the work of Nature tries.” Thinking “for sure the air is free,” he fashioned a pair of wings out of wax and feathers. After taking them for a successful test flight, he made a set for his son Icarus. We know the sad result: with youthful impetuousness, Icarus flew too high. As he neared the sun, the wax melted and the wings disintegrated. “Down to the sea he tumbled from on high, / And found his Fate.”

Ever since, Icarus has represented failed ambition. It may be a compliment to call someone a high flier, but the implication is always that a fall is yet to come. Thinking of the story in relation to the arts, it might be considered a cautionary tale about what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”: for any artist, trying to surpass the achievement of a great precursor may lead to letdown and, perhaps, to becoming a master of what Alexander Pope dubbed “bathos,” or “the art of sinking.” Yet Romantic and modern poets have been ever tempted by the fate of Icarus. I’m not thinking about those who have literally drowned themselves, like Hart Crane or (presumably) Weldon Kees, but rather those like Giacomo Leopardi, who saw poetry as the product of thought as it “drowns in immensity,” or Stéphane Mallarmé, for whom a poem might be “some splashing below of water as if to / disperse the empty act.”

Mallarmé was an inspiration for Henri Matisse, who illustrated an edition of his Poésies in 1932. Only later, however, did Matisse represent the theme of Icarus, and in a radical departure from the airy elegance of the etchings he did for Mallarmé’s poems. “It was in the summer of 1943, the darkest point of that whole period,” as Louis Aragon would later write, “that he made an Icarus.”

Summoned from the depths of wartime, this Icarus is not the earliest work in “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” the grand-scale exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through February 8, but it is a crucial one. Matisse had used the cutout method—painting sheets of paper in gouache, then making cutouts pasted or pinned together—in the 1930s, but only to produce studies of things like stage curtains or book covers. The Fall of Icarus is different because it was made with no specific project in mind, though it inspired Matisse’s book project Jazz; it stands behind not only the book’s eighth plate, Icarus, but also its first one, The Clown. In 1943, Matisse was more inclined to make cutouts because, for an artist in his 70s who was physically challenged, the process was less taxing than oil painting. But it was precisely Matisse’s dissatisfaction with the book that led him to realize that the cutouts could be ends in themselves.

I was lucky enough to have been able to see the exhibition last spring in London, where it was shown at Tate Modern. Yet I felt a little let down by it. Maybe I’d become too convinced in advance that the cutouts are one of those sublime instances in which an artist miraculously succeeds in transforming his art in old age, making “late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor” in “harmony and resolution” (the words are Edward Said’s).Walking away from the Tate, I couldn’t help but feel that Matisse’s extraordinary late-life reinvention had come at a high cost: it had opened up a new imaginative world to him, but only through the loss of what, to the very end of his life, he believed was the source of his art—its relation to experienced reality. The true artist, he maintained, “assimilates the external world within himself,” and so he criticized abstract artists for losing a “criterion of observation.” Even in the nearly pure abstract forms of his cutouts, however, Matisse never abandoned figurative imagery; a gastropod can be made out—albeit just barely—in the 1953 masterpiece he titled The Snail, which many another artist would have been happy to dub Composition With Rectangles. But most of the cutouts are unattached to any model outside the artist’s imagination or memory.

Even a minor canvas from Matisse’s much-derided Nice period in the 1920s better evokes our all-too-human flesh, and the claims of gravity upon it, than many of the most ambitious and (on their own terms) most successful of these cutouts. I began to wonder if I didn’t agree with Dominique Fourcade, who wrote that the cutouts amounted to “a new departure, so radically modern…it effectively cut [Matisse] off from his own past as well as from the past of painting,” but that even in terms of his longed-for synthesis of drawing and color, they “are not, in this respect, the best part of his work.” Could Matisse have been an elderly Icarus, taking an unexpected fall?

* * *

After I saw the show again in New York, my doubts dissolved. Perhaps for the artist (or only me?), it was merely a problem of switching gears. In 1951, Matisse declared that “from the Joie de vivre—I was thirty-five then—to this cutout—I am now eighty-two—I have remained the same…because all this time I have searched for the same things, which I have perhaps realized by different means.” Yet for all his modesty, Matisse had to make a great leap to get from making even a relatively late painting—say, the somber, dignified Still Life With Shell (1940), which was shown in London but unfortunately not here—to the cutouts that began pouring out of him in 1946. In New York, there is a cutout study for the Still Life, lighter and more ebullient than the painting itself. But unlike his later works in this mode, all of the still-life elements—the pitcher, coffee pot, cup, green apples and seashell—have clearly been observed from life; they have been first drawn and then cut, rather than drawn in the act of cutting, as Matisse would later do, and they have internal rendered detail that is rare in the later cutouts (an exception being the magnificent standing nude, Zulma, from 1950).

What made me suspicious of the cutouts in London is precisely what seemed so inspiring about them in New York: the sense that Matisse had tried to free himself from gravity. I could see more clearly that, miraculously, he’d succeeded. “You have no idea how, during the cutout paper period, the sensation of flight which emanated from me helped me better to adjust my hand when it used the scissors,” he once said. “It’s rather difficult to explain. It’s a kind of linear and graphic equivalence to the sensation of flight.” I had wanted to see the artist as a kind of Antaeus, who needed to keep his feet on the ground to maintain his strength. But what Matisse lost in earthiness, he gained by taking on the fluidity of air and water. You might say that he rewrote the myth of the ingenuous youth who flies too high, turning him into a wily old man who survives his plunge to the fluid element, finding under its surface a “cosmic space in which I was as unconscious of any walls as a fish in the sea.” That oceanic space is not the one to be found in the exhibition’s centerpiece, however: the newly restored Swimming Pool (1952), which was not shown in London. Although it is Matisse’s largest work in this medium—or the longest, at any rate—it maintains the domestic scale appropriate to its original situation, in his dining room. Many smaller cutouts, with their floating algaelike forms set in a space with no clear sense of orientation, actually communicate a stronger sense of the deep. And while critical consensus would have it that the expansion of scale made Matisse’s cutout method possible—a movement beyond the limits of easel painting—the smallest and simplest cutouts are often just as powerful as the largest and most elaborate ones.

“Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” is as uplifting an exhibition as you’re likely to see for some time. But its sense of elation is inextricable from a sense of risk. In The New York Times, Holland Cotter called it a “victory-lap show,” which seems exactly wrong to me. No one takes a victory lap in the darkest moments of a war, after a debilitating operation he thought he might not survive. The success of the endeavor being celebrated at MoMA should not disguise the desperation with which it was undertaken.

* * *

There were also cutouts of a sort on view at the Marian Goodman Gallery downtown—part of a show of new work (all made this year) by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco. His cutouts are made of thin pieces of plywood, not paper, and they eschew Matisse’s glorious color, but they evoke the feeling of flight just as handily, dancing as they do across the gallery walls. And so they should, because these flat sculptures turned out to be a flock of a dozen boomerangs, each matched up with a portion or two of the matrix from which it’s been jigsawed. The title—Inner Cuts—alludes to the seam between the pieces of plywood, and what this gap reveals is the basic distinction between an intended form and the space around it: an awareness that “negative space” is just as active in defining the image as the form it surrounds.

The boomerangs have smoothly rounded V-like forms; sometimes the angle is acute, sometimes obtuse. The adjacent forms are irregular; sometimes one of the edges is straight, but mostly their curves seem to suggest that other forms—perhaps other boomerangs—have been cut from the same plywood piece. A curious detail is that, while the edges of the leftover forms have been kept raw, the edges of the boomerangs themselves have been smoothed away to achieve the necessary aerodynamic profile. But this is not the difference between finished and unfinished; it a difference between greater and lesser degrees of unfinishedness, for a completely finished boomerang would be smoother still, and probably painted or at least varnished. Why did the artist—especially one who makes boomerangs for his own recreation—decide to leave these ones unfinished? It may be a moot question, because Orozco is working with the basic formal issue that inaugurated modernism: the dispute over “finish” that separated Manet from his academic contemporaries. He is gently reminding us that every form is a broken-off fragment that connects to other fragments, whereas a completely finished object urges us to forget this.

Two of Orozco’s unfinished boomerangs have the name “IKARUS” scribbled on them in graphite. Did they fall to earth instead of returning to the thrower’s hand? Someone with a better understanding of boomerang design than I have might make a guess. Still, I can’t help thinking that it indicates a desire to cultivate the risk of a flight that ends in failure—the important thing is to cheat gravity for a while, to get airborne.

By contrast, Orozco’s paintings have often seemed too slick, closed off and deadened by their immaculate finish. The critic Roberta Smith once charged his paintings with “an oppressive sense of contrived, rather mindless industriousness” that makes them “handsome yet generic blue-chip art products,” and I usually agree with this judgment. Yet at Marian Goodman, Orozco’s paintings took on a new sense of freedom. All of them are based on the geometry of overlapping circles. Three of them, titled Inner Sections, have white grounds on which Orozco has filled in some of the curved slivers created with red or blue tempera or gold leaf; the odd little shapes swarm around one another like flocks of birds. In the others, called Inner Sequence, the artist has created a surface of plaster that he’s shrouded in densely atmospheric passages of charcoal, while incising his circular geometries into the plaster. Their swirling, shadowy spaces are easy—and rewarding—to get lost in.

* * *

For Matisse and Orozco, Icarus is a passing reference, albeit a telling one. The story was at the heart of the Irish artist Isabel Nolan’s exhibition at Manhattan’s Sean Kelly Gallery, “An answer about the sky,” which includes a prose meditation on the Icarus myth printed on six framed pages hung among her paintings and sculpture, and a long wool rug—more than twenty feet—that hangs from one wall onto the gallery floor. (All but one of the works are dated 2014.) Yet the tragic boy who “flailed and sank towards the sea’s slow surface,” as Nolan writes, is not her paintings’ focus; the human form does not figure in them. However, one might feel Icarus’ fall embodied in Harbinger, a pentagonal stained-glass window cantilevered off the wall in a red-painted steel frame; it seems to plunge into the room like a falling star. The paintings, however, are all about the sun. “Metaphors of divinity, enlightenment, revelation, power, or goodness do not expose or explain the immense truth of the Sun,” Nolan writes. “The Sun embodies the pending heat death of the Universe.” In other words, the sun represents everything in relation to which we inevitably fall short—and then it falls short too. If Harbinger suggests a fall, it must be significant that the luminous forms within its five straight sides are circular like the sun; maybe for Nolan, Icarus and the sun are really one and the same.

This failing sun may be the one that appears in several of Nolan’s paintings: a luminous orb looks as if it’s melting, its sizzling Turneresque hues pouring down like rain. I can’t help think that Nolan has used water-based oil paint, and sometimes watercolor as well, in order to emphasize that the sun’s hot, dry light must somehow be already akin to the fluid medium into which the high flier is fated to fall. The same intense palette can be found in the carpet piece, The emptied room: A rug for the 20th century. On the wall, the colors cohere into an architectural study of archways receding into the distance, but on the floor it’s as if the same hues had disintegrated into so many separate puddles.

The sculptures here include three open-formed biomorphic abstractions made of plaster and jesmonite, on metal armatures. They have a skeletal look, a little like such early Giacometti sculptures as Woman With Her Throat Cut (1932). Yet they also evoke some sort of botanical or other natural growth. Are these the corals that were made not of the father’s but of the son’s bones? While the tale of Icarus set the tone for this show, I don’t think Nolan intended it to account for every detail. She herself points out that artworks are never “wholly in control of their own meaning or ends.” Another sculpture, There will be time no longer, seems altogether indifferent to whatever literary meaning one might be inclined to lend it: a kind of large, three-dimensional scribble or curlicue of steel sheathed in bright red wool, it suggests a path of movement, certainly—but in which direction? Down, like Icarus into the sea? Or is it an ascension, like his first hopeful leap toward the eye of heaven?

If the story of Icarus still has meaning for artists today, it might be that the boundary between failure and success, disaster and triumph, can be ambiguous. From the wreckage of a miscarried effort, some other attempt may succeed; but that one will be subject to breakdown, too. More inexorable than any god is the second law of thermodynamics; as Nolan puts it, “Entropy is bureaucratically indifferent to yearning, pain or repair.”

But the story of Icarus resonates in yet another way. The scene in which Daedalus fastens the wings to his son’s arms—“But fix’d with trembling hands; and as he speaks, / The tears roul gently down his aged cheeks. / Then kiss’d, and in his arms embrac’d him fast”—might be of a father in Ecuador giving his child over to coyotes for the hard journey north, or another in Libya readying his boy for the treacherous journey by sea to Sicily. The name of the young Malian whose body was discovered in the wheel well of a US Air Force cargo plane in Ramstein, Germany, last summer is still unknown. Surprising as it might be that Icarus remains a guiding myth for art, let’s not forget that beyond the gallery walls, where human beings are trying their best to make their way across borders—to “mark the pathless way” between one land and another—there are far more like Icarus than we can count.

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