Earlier this year, after a day of studio visits and an evening of gallery openings in Chelsea, I took a short taxi ride up Eighth Avenue with Marcia Wood and the editor of a New York-based art magazine. The back-seat conversation was, of course, about art. Marcia mentioned that I was curating a summer show for her gallery, and because we were nearing our destination, I described it simply as “a meditation on visual pleasure.”

“Ah, beauty,” responded the editor. “Isn’t it nice that we can talk about it again?”

Indeed, it’s hard not to gush. There’s a renewed desire in contemporary art for the elements that comprise formal ideas of beauty—harmony of order, pattern, shape, texture and color—put together in ways that evoke feelings of pleasure, maybe feelings of the spiritual as well. This may be an old-fashioned notion, but it’s back. Beauty is the new beauty.

The work in Luxe, Calme et Volupté is unabashedly beautiful. Appropriately for a show in this season, it is a summer idyll, a visual bonheur. Each of the 15 artists here—13 individual artists and an artmaking duo—have created works which, while formally rigorous, are sensually complex, richly simple or simply luscious. Consider the sumptuousness of David Ambrose’s textured paintings on paper, opulent on their surface and, deeper, in the wholeness of devotion they convey; the serene horizontals, rising and repeating, of Rose Olson’s luminous paintings, metaphorical oceans or skies distilled to their essence; or the polished marble sculptures of Venske & Spänle, cool and white, as innocently personable as they are slyly provocative.

“Luxe, calme et volupte”—luxury, tranquility and pleasure—is the refrain in Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 poem, “L’Invitation au Voyage.” In a celebration of life’s splendor, the poet invites his beloved to travel with him to an imagined place where the light is golden and the air perfumed, the language is soft and secret, a place of order and beauty where all desires are met, a world of luxury, tranquility and pleasure. It seemed the perfect title for this show.


I am not the first person to borrow from Baudelaire. Matisse’s 1904-05 Luxe, Calme et Volupté, in Fauvist colors and post-Pointillist brushstrokes, depicts a different idyll, an afternoon of bathing and sunning at the water’s edge in Saint-Tropez. Monsieur Matisse’s paean to pleasure is intimate and seductive.

Much to my surprise, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, the exhibition, has much in common with Luxe, Calme et Volupté, the painting. Both share a radiance of palette, a fullness of forms and a lushness of surface. Then, too, there is the repetition of elements that generates a larger whole. Matisse created his composition from the staccato swipe of a paint-laden brush, repeated again and again. In this exhibition, the repetitions are in circles, in squares, in pins amassed and ordered, in paper pierced repeatedly, in pixels arranged, in paper layered and collaged and, yes, in the swipe of a paint-laden brush, repeated again and again.

Henri Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupté
(Musée d'Orsay, Paris)