During the busy final weeks of the exhibition Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917 at the Art Institute of Chicago, curator Stephanie D’Alessandro finds it hard not to take the stairs two at a time. Heading to the museum’s Regenstein Hall, where the show is installed, she stops behind two visitors who chat amiably as they meander up the stone steps. When D’Alessandro realizes she can’t bypass the women, she frowns—then laughs. “I have to remember that they’re here enjoying a day off,” she says. “Not everyone is working.”
D’Alessandro, AM’90, PhD’97, has been working hard indeed, both during the show’s recent runs in Chicago and at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and in the years leading up to them. The art historian joined the Art Institute in 1998 and became its Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator of Modern Art in 2008. She collaborated with the architects for the galleries on the third floor of the Modern Wing and installed the modern collection there. This year, she cocurated Matisse: Radical Invention with John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at MoMA.
Art critics gave the show glowing reviews in both cities, praising its painstaking use of scholarship and technology to illuminate the evolution of Henri Matisse’s style at a pivotal juncture. The exhibit focused intensively on the painting Bathers by a River but didn’t stop there. Using art-historical and scientific approaches to probe beneath the surface of works, the curators discovered “a new, growing body of information about how Matisse began changing the compositions, and how he produced them,” says D’Alessandro. “We can now see a very deep connection between this period of time and the rest of Matisse’s career—how he went back to and drew from this period in many of the other things that he did.”
The exhibition was a tremendously collaborative effort, involving a team of curators, conservators, scientists, technicians, archivists, and research assistants. Gregory Nosan, AM’91, PhD’01, the Art Institute’s associate director of publications, edited the catalog. With 384 pages and more than 650 images, “It was the most illustration-intensive exhibition catalog the museum has ever done,” says Nosan. Preparing the book involved everything from figuring out “how to refine the exhibition’s intellectual argument” to working with the Matisse family to subtly color-correct hundreds of individual images: “They take a very keen interest in Matisse’s works and how they are represented visually in any publication.”
Both D’Alessandro and Nosan see close connections between their current professional endeavors and respective doctoral work in Art History and English. “An exhibition of this scale and intellectual and curatorial intention is very much like doing the research for and writing a dissertation,” says D’Alessandro, whose PhD focused on German art and visual culture in the 1920s. “The only added part of it—and it’s a major undertaking—was imagining how to present it visually, on walls, and not just in writing.”
Nosan wrote his dissertation about Vauxhall Gardens, an eighteenth-century London pleasure garden. The project combined literary analysis with historical research on public art and architecture. “That’s what got me thinking about visual culture and what led me to museum work, and ultimately to museum publishing.”
Organizing a blockbuster exhibition entails many challenges beyond research. As curator, D’Alessandro helped with fundraising and PR for the Matisse show. She advised crews on shipping, lighting, and installation; she wrote labels to accompany each work and helped craft the audio tour and website. The hardest task was tracking down Matisse’s World War I–era monotypes held in private collections and unknown locations. “It required major sleuth work and terrier-like persistence,” she says, but 21 of the prints ended up in the exhibition.
Nosan found it intellectually challenging and intriguing to work with D’Alessandro and cocurator Elderfield, who are at very different points in their careers. “They brought different ways of thinking about the objects, about Matisse, and about art history to the table,” he says. “My job was to act as an intellectual advice-giver, a scholarly referee, and, when necessary, as an institutional diplomat.”
“An exhibition of this scale and intellectual and curatorial intention is very much like doing the research for and writing a dissertation.”
What Nosan likes best about his role and what his graduate studies prepared him to do is to “be a close reader of other people’s work and also a smart responder, so that if I’m doing my job right, I come into the relationship as a strong third player who helps to shape a sweeping, ambitious project like this one into a focused publication—and hopefully, simultaneously, into an exhibition that realizes its ambitions in a clear way.”
Nosan praises D’Alessandro’s “focus and stamina,” which helped to make the Matisse exhibition a success. “I also think that she was able to work not only with John but also with scientists and conservators, to envision a kind of art history that uses the object itself—what we can find out about its physical nature—as a starting point. And the whole challenge of melding the scientific and the technical on the one hand with the art-historical and contextual on the other—that’s a groundbreaking thing.”
Looking ahead, D’Alessandro is working on a comprehensive scholarly catalog of the Art Institute’s modern European collection of paintings, sculptures, and drawings and has several exhibitions “in incubatory phases,” she says. “I’m anxious to get back to German art, and to do something to celebrate the great surrealist collection that we have in Chicago.” Nosan’s next projects include catalogs for upcoming exhibitions on the American modernist John Marin and on World War II propaganda posters from the Soviet Union’s TASS news agency.
More than five years of preparation went into the Matisse show, but even as it ended in Chicago, D’Alessandro’s enthusiasm seemed fresh. “It gets very intense, but if you like this kind of work, it’s the thing that you live for,” she says. “I think all curators are teachers at heart, and the exhibition is a great opportunity to share everything you’ve learned and your passion for it with as many people as you can. For me, it’s the most satisfying part of the work.”