Jazz, by Henri Matisse. Introduction by Riva Castleman. Translation by Sophie Hawkes. New York: George Braziller Inc. 176 pp. $90. Taste and sensibility were central to Matisse's art. No one in this century surpassed him in the creation of utterly simple but highly lyrical and provocative images. And no one has even come close to matching his genius for color, placement, and line.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his paper cutouts, those brilliantly colored and simple works of his later years that were the crystallizations of everything he knew about art. And nowhere was his cutout method more perfectly realized than in his illustrations for ''Jazz.''
''Jazz'' is a large book with 36 color pages and 68 pages of handwritten text , published originally in 1947 in a limited edition of 250 copies. It is both the epitome and the summation of Matisse's career as an artist, for it includes a number of his final and most extraordinary images, as well as pithy and poignant reflections in his own handwriting on his life and work.
Unfortunately, copies of ''Jazz'' are difficult to obtain and are very expensive. (Recent auction prices hover around $40,000 for one copy.) And so only a few art lovers have ever been able to own or even to leaf through a volume.
That situation will be altered considerably, however, with the publication later this month of this new edition of ''Jazz,'' which comes wondrously close to duplicating the original in effect - and which is moderately priced.
Great care was taken to come as close to the 1947 edition as possible. Twenty-one inks were specially manufactured to match the individual colors of each plate, and a special paper was made from wood-free paperboard. The result is a remarkably beautiful and authentic-looking book that is considerably enhanced by Riva Castleman's introductory remarks. These detail the origins of the original book and point up some of the problems encountered in reproducing Matisse's cutouts.
All this would mean very little, of course, if Matisse's quality and genius didn't shine through. But they do - and rather uncannily at that. The color plates are ravishing; they beautifully capture the improvisational and spontaneous qualities for which his cutouts are so famous. ''The Toboggan,'' surely one of the most perfect of all modern images, brilliantly conveys Matisse's color magic at its best, and ''Icarus,'' ''Pierrot's Funeral,'' and ''The Wolf'' are, by themselves, more than worth the price of this book.
There is a liveliness to Matisse's imagery that derives mainly from his color and design, but also from the fact that most of his images in this book relate to circus or theater themes. His original title, in fact, had been ''Circus,'' but as the work progressed and he noted the affinity between his chromatic picturemaking and musical improvisation, he decided that ''Jazz'' was more appropriate.
And it was, for his creative approach certainly was improvisational. His first step was to paint large sheets of paper in watercolor, which were then fastened to the walls. Choosing from among them and using only a pair of scissors, Matisse proceeded to cut numerous decorative forms. These were then pinned into groupings on the wall and moved about until he was satisfied with their effect. Once that was achieved, the components of the composition were pasted onto a larger sheet and removed to make way for other tentative groupings.
The text is entirely in Matisse's handwriting and assumes a decorative as well as a literary function throughout the book. It includes comments on the creative process, advice to young painters, and, in his own words, ''observations and notes made during the course of my life as a painter.'' A typical example: ''Happy are those who sing with all their heart, from the bottom of their hearts. To find joy in the sky, the trees, the flowers. There are always flowers for those who want to see them.''
But nothing he wrote is more relevant to his art, and descriptive of his work on this book, than the following: ''The artist should call forth all his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest possible modesty in order to push aside during his work the old cliches that come so readily to his hand and can suffocate the small flower which itself never turns out as one expected.''
Expected or not, ''Jazz'' turned out to be a beauty - both in its original 1947 edition and in this, its more recent, manifestation.