Do you see the two sculptures, both in bad shape, on the far right of this painting by Henri Matisse? Now, to the right of these, do you see a mottled, spindly gray rectangle embedded in a white rectangle? It seems to be fixed to the wall, but, given the wacky perspective of this painting, who knows? Anyway, what is this thing? Credit card slot? Security camera? Portrait of rigatoni? Miniature “zip” painting by Barnett Newman? First attempt at a stick figure?
I don’t know how to conduct a seance, so instead of asking Matisse the question directly, I posed this question to a group of visitors who were looking at the painting at the Museum of Modern Art, where it is at the center of the superb eponymous exhibition, “Matisse: The Red Workshop. The exhibition has a “Where is Waldo?” aspect that encourages you to be a detective. Shown with the painting, are, for the first time, all existing works of art depicted in the painting. For example, you can find the real “Le Luxe II” (1907-08), then see its red clone, painted in “The Red Studio” in 1911. The exhibit includes six paintings, three sculptures, and a ceramic plate. But nothing looks like the confusing thing, nor are there any clues as to what the thing is.
“Light switch” was the guess, including the guard standing next to the board; a woman from Lima, Peru, visiting her son in New York; a tourist from Tokyo, Japan; and two six-and-a-half-year-old cousins in matching green floral dresses who “don’t just think it’s a switch, but know it.” I asked Dennis Ashbaugh, a painter who has had shows at the Whitney and the Met. He argued that in composing the painting, Matisse had to balance the plane of the picture, prevent the right side of the canvas from falling with a red edge, and follow the plunging arc of geometric art on the left wall. “I bet he was looking for a device to do all of the above, saw a switch and said, ‘Fuck, I’m going to use that,'” Ashbaugh said. The second most popular answer was “doorknob”.
Other theories include a thermometer, a tool that smoothes paint, a sconce, a doorbell switch (“you press it and someone comes running with more paint”), a stone top inlaid with a table side tables (“I’d bet my life on it”), a drawing of a pencil, an obelisk, a fragment of a temple or gate post, a vertical woven storage basket of some Native people, the grocery list of Matisse (to put near the door so he won’t forget it), a vagina, a penis (both genital responses submitted by the same person), a photo of a condom (“obviously”), a perch for his doves, a mounted African sculpture, a mezuzah, a distant doorway, or a small window of the variety you might see in a castle through which an archer can shoot.Nadine Orenstein, Head of Drawings and Prints at the Met , recalls that, in “L’Atelier rose” by Matisse, completed several months before “L’Atelier rouge” (same room, different angle, pink Pepto Bismol floors), there was another rectangle within a rectangle. But here, the inner rectangle is forest green. Could it be a paint sample? “Maybe he had paint color swatches that he hung on the wall,” Orenstein mused in an email. (By the way, underneath that forest green thing is a smaller unidentifiable object that could be a paint swatch or a small framed picture of the Apple logo.)
Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA, who has spent the last four years putting together this show, surely should know that, right? “At the museum, we affectionately call it ‘the mystery object,'” she told me during a private tour of the exhibit. In trying to solve the riddle, Temkin said, she and her researchers “looked at other paintings to see if there was a comparable element – and yes, there it is, in ‘The Pink Studio.'” ( As Orenstein had also observed.) Temkin continued, “We also spoke with researchers from the Henri Matisse Archives, who thought a lot about this, and with two or three of Matisse’s great-grandchildren.
Hmm. Is it even philistine to speculate? David Apatoff, lawyer and art critic, thinks so. “Matisse was a great liberator, bordering on disconnecting art from content,” he told me in an email. “He rejected the traditional realism of the Academy to make images he called ‘decorations.’ Yet here we are a century later, and scholars are still trying to roll it back, reconnecting its decorations to them. Apatoff thought the object was a compositional device. Then he reminded me that Matisse once said : “Anyone who wants to devote himself to painting must start by cutting out his tongue.
Let me speak for the language. (Orenstein, the curator at the Met, told me, “Nothing is more fun than coming up with ideas about things you know nothing about.”) So what about the hypothesis of the ‘switch ? Temkin does not buy it. Matisse moved into the studio in 1909, when he was thirty-nine years old, before becoming Matisse the famous painter. The workshop was a prefab, bespoke and spacious but still simple, completed in three months in the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux. Only a few photos of this workplace exist. In none, there is a switch. Also, light switches at this time were push buttons; they certainly didn’t look like dimmers. “Perhaps a drawing or engraving or photo of him or someone else, distilled,” Temkin concluded, inconclusively.
“It just shows you,” a young woman visiting the exhibit told me, “You have to be careful what you put on your wall. It could be a painting or it could be a light switch.” ♦