AT first sight the line that loops around the Manhattan corner looks like any group of eager New Yorkers waiting to get into the latest hit movie. There are teens in baseball caps and babes in arms. Yet this crowd also includes tourists from across the United States and abroad. They are waiting to get into the Big Apple's newest cultural blockbuster: the Museum of Modern Art's mammoth exhibit of Henri Matisse's works.
MOMA's retrospective is the most comprehensive, wide-ranging exhibit on the French master yet assembled. More than 400 paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings - from Matisse's still-life paintings of the 1890s to his colorful paper cutouts of the early 1950s - are included.
"The show is exactly the size it had to be to represent the whole range of his work," says MOMA director Richard Oldenburg. "It was really a one-time opportunity."
Museum officials knew from the start that the show would succeed. The broad popular appeal of Matisse, an artist who bridges the pre-Modern and Modern periods, was a given. Many Matisse fans admire his work just for the vibrant colors and patterns. Yet the combination of steady rave reviews (Newsweek called it "The most beautiful show in the world") and the early crush of the crowds came as a surprise. For the first several days MOMA's telephones rang off the hook.
By MOMA calculations, some 750,000 people will be able to see the exhibit before it closes Jan. 12. More than 44,000 visitors went through in the first week. Advance tickets are becoming as hot an item as a Saturday night seat for Broadway's "Guys and Dolls." Mr. Oldenburg says that advance tickets are still available and that the museum reserves some tickets for same-day sales.
The broad scope of this Matisse exhibit has made it unusually costly. Philip Morris Companies, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art are underwriting close to half the $4 million cost. Insurance and transport are the largest expenses. Exhibit tickets are priced at an all-time high of $12.50 to make up the balance. "If this all works out, we'll break even," saysOldenburg.
Putting the exhibit together required sleuthing and diplomacy as well as scholarly know-how. John Elderfield, curator of paintings at MOMA and director of the Matisse exhibition, is an art historian educated in England who had worked on four smaller Matisse shows for the museum. He has spent most of the last three years visiting, writing to, and phoning museums and private collectors in what he admits has occasionally been a "teeth-pulling" exercise to persuade the holders of various Matisse treasures to
The first chore was to gain the cooperation of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which, along with MOMA and the National Museum of Art in Paris, are the principle holders of Matisse works. Though MOMA officials had talked about such a loan with their Russian colleagues as long ago as 1980 in connection with a similarly broad MOMA retrospective on Picasso, the war in Afghanistan brought the talks, as well as the Picasso exchange, to a halt.
When Russian cooperation finally was secured, other prospective lenders were more easily persuaded. Mr. Elderfield and his research staff put together some 1,200 to 1,300 large file cards of published pictures of Matisse works. They then winnowed the total to a representative group. "You have to force yourself to give something up," says Elderfield.
THOUGH some works were too fragile to lend and tight stipulations by donors kept other works from moving, Elderfield says he had few flat rejections. In many cases, MOMA promised a trade.
For the nine Matisse works from the Baltimore Museum of Art, MOMA is lending Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and other important paintings. MOMA Matisses have also been promised to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris for an exhibit opening there in February. Elderfield also has a collection of Matisse slides in his office that he used to illustrate a talk he gave a few days ago at Buffalo's Albert Knox Museum, another key Matisse lender.
"What I really wanted to create [in the exhibit] was a sense of Matisse's career unfolding," says Elderfield. He wanted to build a broad and fresh foundation for a whole new evaluation of Matisse, he says. His hope is that some people who have seen Matisse as a simple "purveyor of pleasure without the kind of toughness one wants from modern art" will come to appreciate the full range and depth of the artist's achievements.
Much of Matisse's work is joyful and gives the viewer an "uplifting" kind of pleasure, says Elderfield.
Though some viewers assume that Matisse put little effort into these pieces, Elderfield says he hopes the exhibit will help to demonstrate that many such works actually are the product of "enormous hard work."
He says his own views of Matisse's work have been changing for as long as he has been studying him: "That's really how great art works - it constantly challenges you."
"The whole purpose of a show like this is not just to assemble great pictures but to try to make a major contribution to art history and scholarship," MOMA director Richard Oldenburg says.