As the 100th anniversary year of the 1913 Armory Show winds down, it’s worth taking a look at an exhibition in Texas that may not directly corral together the scandalous and shocking art of that first burst of modernism into the Americas, but just as strongly shows how the waves of Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, and beyond would roll through the 20th century here with the spurring of that initial experimentation in Europe.
The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters from The Art Institute of Chicago at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth uses a large loan of works from the institute to show a loose chronology of modern art. After the 1913 Armory Show shocked New York City with its abstractions and carnal lines around vibrant colors that clawed against realism, the art traveled to Chicago, drawing the attention of many collectors whose tastes would guide the Art Institute of Chicago’s (AIC) refined collection of modern art.
The current loan follows a 2008 Kimbell exhibition of Impressionist art from the AIC, plus the Kimbell’s continued concentration on the modern masters, as with their 1999 Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry. In the current show, perhaps to balance the tension of a rivalry that still smolders after both artists are long dead, there has been a reversal of name ordering, and the competitive relationship between the two artists is shown as more of a harmony in the evolving styles of modernism. Picasso and Matisse are each represented with 10 works in the nearly 100 that make up the exhibition, yet even with those limitations Picasso’s sometimes gloomy frenzy of shapes isn’t quite ready to play nice with the more cool, studied Matisse.
Along with the two figureheads is a procession of expected names: Brancusi, Duchamp, Kadinsky, Mondrian. Even Le Corbusier makes it in with a painting that’s actually not bad (while a brilliant architect, he wasn’t exactly the most talented of visual artists), and there’s a vivid piece by Kazimir Malevich, who sometimes gets overlooked in these modern art highlights exhibitions. While this isn’t in any way an exhibition that’s going to revive that first sense of an emerging precipice, as the rise of modernism did 100 years ago, there are a few notes of surprise. One is a painting by Frantisek Kupka that responds to the tones of a cathedral’s stained-glass windows through his interests in using color like a musician uses pitches and in scientific innovations, an aspect of art in the early 20th century that doesn’t often come into play in such exhibitions.
The exhibition coincides with the opening of the Kimbell’s new Renzo Piano Pavilion, and the museum has temporarily transferred works from their existing collection to that expansion. The Age of Picasso and Matisse, however, emphasizes how the new building will have a hard time competing with the loftiness given to art in the existing Louis Kahn–designed museum. And it deserves a little boost of the colossal. No one coming into the museum is likely to be scandalized by Henri Matisse’s “Bathers by a River,” which represents his eight-year-long laboring over the ideas of Cubism, but its place as the exhibition’s centerpiece beneath the vaulted concrete ceiling, with haloed light beaming in, gives it a frame of monumentality that no scrap of wall text could convey.
The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters from the Art Institute of Chicago continues at the Kimbell Art Museum (3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth, Texas) through February 16, 2014.