Matisse: Oklahoma City Museum of art prepares for massive exhibit

A sort of holiday air permeates the second floor of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art as gloved workers carefully remove masterpieces from their secure crates.

"It's Christmas when you're opening up the boxes and opening and unwrapping the presents," said Trent Lawson, a preparator who helps install exhibits at the museum. "Hanging it all on the walls is kind of the easy part."

That might be hard to believe watching a team of installers from Oklahoma City and Paris, France, work in pairs to painstakingly unpack, inspect, measure, carry and finally place more than 100 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints.

But museum staffers have been preparing for two years for Saturday's public opening of "Matisse in His Time: Masterworks of Modernism from the Centre Pompidou, Paris," which includes masterpieces by the likes of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Fernand Leger and Amadeo Modigliani.

The exhibit is expected to be one of the biggest in the museum's history in more ways than one. Not only does it span the entire second floor, but it also is expected to draw huge crowds, since the Oklahoma City museum is the only North American venue for "Matisse in His Time."

"It's exciting and it's also a relief in a way. But mostly it's exciting. Mostly it's 'Wow, they're finally here. They're in one space — and they're in our place,'" Michael Anderson, the museum's director of curatorial affairs, said last week while watching installers hang a vivid landscape. "We're making really good progress. … It's been — knock on wood — pretty smooth so far. As you can see, it's completely transformed. It looks completely different in here than it did before."

Touring art history

The Centre Pompidou is the largest modern art museum in Europe and the second largest worldwide, after New York City's Museum of Modern Art, he said. The exhibit includes about 50 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by Matisse alone, and it's the first time many of the pieces have traveled outside Europe.

"This exhibit tells the story of modern art the way the Centre Pompidou tells it: through Matisse," Anderson said. "Then, it also tells the story of how Matisse worked in concert sometimes — sometimes in competition — with other artists. So, Picasso's a big figure in this exhibition. … We see how these artists developed not only friendships but also rivalries, how they depicted the same subjects in novel ways, how they imitated each other, and how they challenged each other."

"Matisse in His Time" opens with the newest work, French artist Claude Viallat's 1992 "Homage to Matisse," painted on reclaimed tent canvas nearly four decades after Matisse's death in 1954 at age 84. The exhibit then traces Matisse's celebrated career, starting with his tutelage under prominent art teacher Gustave Moreau — who created the show's oldest painting, dating to 1875 – and chronicling Matisse's influence on a wide range of art movements, from fauvism and cubism to surrealism and modernism.

"Just one –ism after another, he's kind of in the middle of it," Anderson said. "You see how he was really on the vanguard. There's a lot of instances where he's doing something before everybody else is doing it."

Designing for masterpieces

Revamping the museum's entire second floor to showcase more than 100 priceless pieces is an art form all its own, and Ernesto Sanchez, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art's head of exhibition design and installation, has been planning for "Matisse in His Time" for about a year and a half, since he received the checklist outlining the objects and galleries.

He said hanging the paintings and placing the sculptures is "the last chapter of the book of every exhibition."

"There's many chapters prior to. When they arrive, it goes easy because everything's already painted, selected. All the groundwork has already been done. It's just the matter of putting it together," Sanchez said. "Always the last, the cherry on the cake, is the lighting. That's what makes all the difference."

His process began with drawing out an exhibit design on paper, then creating both two-dimensional and 3-D models of his proposal. He sent the renderings to curator Cecile Debray at the Centre Pompidou for feedback and approval.

"They have a better understanding of the storyline of the works, how they relate to each other. I'm relating them more aesthetically according to each of the sections. And then they're like 'No, no, no, put this one in front of this' or 'put this next to this because the storyline is about this.' Cecile, that's her job. My job is to make it fit and look good and (be) safe," Sanchez said.

His job included devising a color scheme for each exhibit section, with shades of yellow, gray and cream chosen to showcase the masterpieces. Sanchez even designed one room in a hexagonal shape to enhance the viewing experience.

"It's not just colors that I like. I need to look at complementing the works, not only the works in each section, each room, but how each of the colors in the rooms progressively correlate," he said. "Knowing that we have a cubist section, then I wanted to play architecturally with that space."

Getting to the final layout involved quite a bit of "trans-Atlantic back and forth," Anderson said.

"With over 100 works, we wanted to know where every one was going to go before they got here," he said. "That's not to say there won't be some last-minute changes — something maybe just won't work visually — but we really wanted a pretty clear plan of where everything was going to go so we could get it done in the allotted time."

Readying for opening day

Transporting 100 priceless artworks across an ocean to another continent is an expensive and complex undertaking, Anderson said, especially since most of the pieces had to be packed in individual crates to ensure their safety. The Inasmuch Foundation made a sizable grant in honor of its late founder, Edith Kinney Gaylord, to bring the exhibit to Oklahoma City.

"There's a lot of security involved in moving these from France to the United States," Anderson said, adding that some transportation details were kept confidential for security reasons.

After proving a hit in its previous stops in Switzerland and Italy, Oklahoma City will be the final venue for "Matisse in His Time." It is expected to draw a national audience to Oklahoma City, and the museum has for the first time instituted a timed ticketing system to help with crowd control. Marketing and Communications Director Becky Weintz said about 2,500 advanced tickets already have been sold, significantly more than usual.

As he helped the installation team unpack, inspect and hang paintings, Anderson said the exhibit is living up to the "masterworks" of its title.

"We've looked at these works in catalogs the last couple of years, and some of them just look completely different than any image that we've seen so far. So really, that's exciting. And then you kind of develop new favorites when you see them in person. It's that kind of shock of seeing them in person, the revelation, is really kind of unique," he said.

"These are pieces that just don't let you down when you see them in person. You take it out, and you just see why these are considered masterpieces of painting. They really, really do make an impression."

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