Cut-Out Curves


• Henri Matisse, Forms (White Torso and Blue Torso), Jazz, stencil on paper, 1943
• James Welling, Torso, digital chromogenic print, 2005–2008
• Murano Handblown Vase by Murano Artisans of Brazil

“My curves are not crazy,” said Matisse in 1947, the year he published “Jazz,” a book of collages and hand-written vignettes. He had recovered from illness and was living what he called a second life. The colorful paper cut-outs of this period were “his real self: free, liberated,” a distillation of all the work he had done before.

Matisse could cut dynamic shapes with such confidence only after a lifetime of painting with rigorous enthusiasm. In his book “Moonwalking with Einstein,” Joshua Foer describes how the purpose of asking art students to focus on negative space and contour lines is to make them see objects as collections of shapes and lines rather than recognizable objects. It takes years of training and deliberate practice to be able to see objects in the abstract. Matisse had achieved just that, and his Forms recreates the exercise of inverting positive and negative space. He could see a torso as a contour free from representational meaning.

In his series Torsos, contemporary photographer James Welling breaks apart shape of the body into superimposed layers. He cut pieces of window screen into shapes resembling torsos, overlaid the grids in a moiré pattern, scanned the composition and made it into a Lightjet print. Welling images the torso as a shifting grid, not a static, recognizable shape.

Both Matisse and Welling play on the edge of figuration and abstraction. The more we think about their shapes as abstract, the more they resemble torsos. Perhaps that elusiveness makes them more sensual.

“Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer
More on Matisse’s cut-outs
Talk by James Welling about his work