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Exploring the Character of Color

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AN art "of balance, of purity, and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be ... like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue."

This is how French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) summarized his aims on a number of occasions. It is the kind of unassuming comment that might be expected from a modest man. It hardly hints at his seriousness or justifies the conviction of Matisse's greatness that many other artists and writers about art have had. But the potency of his work has been evident in this century by its widespread liberating effect. And this effect, given the particularly French character of his paintings, with their sunli t joie de vivre, and even their hedonism, has turned up in surprising quarters.

It could not have been entirely expected, for instance, that a tanner's son, "a Connecticut yankee" who was still only a Sunday painter at the age of 39, might before the end of his late-flowering career, be dubbed "the American Matisse." This was Milton Avery (1885-1965).

Perhaps an even more surprising admirer of both Avery and Matisse was the Latvian-born emigre artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), who became one of the "names" of the so-called Abstract Expressionist period of American art (1940s-60s). But the intense solemnity of this painter, instilling the heroic presence of his apparently simple, gentle-edge bands and rectangular areas of resonant color with deep currents of feeling, would seem a far cry from Matisse's light touch and domestic subject-matter.

Rothko, for all his admiration of the French master, wanted very much to distance his art from Matisse's - which would suggest, perversely, that he knew very well his debt to him. In fact, according to art critic and curator William Rubin, he "was always anxious lest he be taken for a painter in the vein of Matisse, whom he nonetheless dearly loved." And in no way would Rothko have called his art "an armchair"!

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