… I would say that, for a while now, Matisse has been a more relevant and fertile source for ambitious new painting than any other single master before or after him.
… Matisse’s smallest, tightest, most involuted pictures are still not quite “cabinet” pictures in the way that Picasso’s, Braque’s, or Léger’s largest paintings are. Picasso’s pictures tend to close in on themselves, no matter what; Matisse’s, to open out, no matter what. It’s as though Matisse (along with Monet, but in a quite different way) tried to wrench easel painting away from every one of its sources except wall painting. For the sake of sheer spaciousness and airiness, for the sake of an art that would be utterly pictorial without being claustrophobic. Not that there’s any necessary virtue in spaciousness and airiness, or any necessary vice in smallness and tightness. But it was as though Matisse (like Monet) felt that in order to expand the range of easel painting, he had to deconvolute it and make it centrifugal in organization instead of centripetal. (Of course, neither Matisse nor Monet felt literally “required”; all they did was go where temperament and inspiration impelled them — and where the circumstances of art in their time permitted them to go.)
Matisse’s larger paintings — those of them that got seen in this country in the late 1930s and in the 1940s — had a momentous effect on abstract expressionism. I remember his Bathers by a River, c. 1916. It hung for a long while during the late 1930s in a Fifty-seventh Street art gallery (it now belongs to the Chicago Art Institute). Its broad vertical bands used to give me trouble: they were too even and made the picture itself too dispersed. My eye was used to concentric, compact, and more closely inflected pictures. This big picture slid my eye over its surface and seemingly out through its sides and corners. It was years later that I got to see Monet’s lily-pad murals in the Orangerie in Paris, and they were even more centrifugal in organization than Bathers by a River, but they weren’t as “flat” and didn’t cause my eye to “slide” nearly as much — though they, too, seemed to leak through their sides and corners. But by that time I knew more of what it was all about, and so did my eye.
Picasso and Braque, when their cubism was analytical, used to have trouble with their corners, trouble bringing them into the rest of the picture (which may explain why they would often resort to tondo or oval formats). In the early and mid-1940s certain American abstract painters (who were beginning to learn from analytical as well as synthetic cubism) had trouble with their corners too and also with the vertical margins of their pictures. It was a question of bringing them into the ambiguous illusion of space that the main part of the picture showed. Matisse’s bigger paintings, with their centrifugality, brought the solution, in defiance of what till then had been (for Pollock as well as for Gorky) an essential part of the notion of the well-made picture. The abstract expressionists became able to let their paintings spread and expand, in terms of design as well as in size. Now the corners and the margins of the picture could take care of themselves. They no longer had to be filled in or specified. Matisse’s influence was far from being the only factor in this development. But that it was a very important one seems to me to be indisputable. Just as it seems to me indisputable that it was his example, most of all, that helped Miró open up the picture and deal in the broad and relatively uninflected, relatively empty expanses that show in the extraordinarily original (if not always achieved) paintings he did from 1924 to 1927 (which in their turn, too, greatly influenced American abstract art).
… [Matisse] sensed better, more prophetically, that heightened sensitivity of the pictorial surface which is now making the latter more and more allergic to whatever interrupts, whatever takes away from, its feeling as a taut continuum. It’s this hypersensitivity that now summons (in the wake of Jules Olitski) those “emptinesses” which invade the best of recent abstract painting (in lieu of the allover repetitions that likewise preserve the tautness and the continuum, but in a way that, since Pollock and Tobey, has become more or less academic except in the hands of a Noland or a Poons). Well, Matisse was the first to admit anything like those “emptinesses” into respectable art, sixty years ago and more. Rather, he made those “emptinesses” themselves respectable.
The superior artist is the one who knows how to be influenced. Matisse certainly knew how, especially when, as in the 1920s, he reached back into the past, to Chardin and Manet. But there was one moment, before that, when he let himself be influenced, profoundly, by art done by people younger than himself and to the greater advantage of his own art. Maybe it was to the very greatest advantage of his own art. I’m referring to the time during which Matisse “felt” cubism. I can see that beginning to happen in 1912, if not earlier. Black came into, or back into, his palette in that year, but settled there only in 1914. This could also be attributed to a general darkening of palettes in advanced French painting around that time. But cubism had to have something to do with it. The evidence is there in the way Matisse began, in 1914, to true and fair his drawing, as well as to introduce other than prismatic colors to his paint. By that time he had already done enough with color to plant himself across Western tradition in as epochal a way as Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Manet, the impressionists, and Cézanne had.
[line break added to make this easier to read online] All the same, I think that his color gained from 1912 on and especially after 1914. Bringing in frank blacks and grays and also franker whites and then, later on, earth colors (umbers, ochers, sienas) gave Matisse’s color a new weight and at the same time a new smoothness and new airiness and lambency. Somehow his prismatic colors became pearlier and furrier through their juxtaposition with non-prismatic colors, or through the mere presence of the latter somewhere in the picture; by the same token the blacks, whites, grays, and earths began to act like prismatic colors themselves. Color, now being employed across its whole, more-than-impressionistic range, became owned by Matisse in the years right after 1916 as it was never owned by any other artist, or in any other art, that I have seen. And it doesn’t affect the case that Matisse’s paintings after 1917 became much more modest in seeming ambition, as well as in size and “vision,” than those of the years previous. They remain and they weigh, as Raphael’s small earlier pictures remain and weigh.
… just as Matisse rejected verbal rhetoric, so he kept every last trace of illustrational rhetoric out of his art. He may have been the first painter in our tradition to do that in a really radical way. This doesn’t make his art better than a Giotto’s or Caravaggio’s or Goya’s or David’s, not necessarily. But it does make it a salutary example for all those people who find it hard, in any medium, to mean what they say.