American Painter, Draughtswoman, and Writer
Long Island, New York
Summary of Mercedes Matter
Matter was one of that select group of female artists who manged to make their voice heard within the masculine roar of the New York School. Inspired initially by the teachings of Hans Hofmann, and through her close connection with Arshile Gorky, Matter adopted a painterly technique of gestural abstraction that was driven by oppositional forces in nature. Her still lifes, the subject matter that dominates her oeuvre, are characterized by sharp and energetic "oppositions" which she made her own by applying rhythmic bursts of vivid coloring. In the second half of her career, Matter also emerged as an outspoken critic of dogmatic arts education and became a national torchbearer for studio-led learning as founder of the influential New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.
- Matter adopted Hans Hofmann's well known "push/pull" theory. She too observed opposites in the natural world - colour/shape; positive/negative; forward/reverse; light/dark - but as she developed, Matter brough a greater subtlety to her works largely through a method of tonal shading. Moving beyond Hofmann's binary oppositions, her work allowed for more depth and movement to emerge in her abstract canvases.
- The still life was a subject that Matter returned to repeatedly throughout her long career. Her still-lifes were grounded in observation but she adopted a technique that explored space through the use of colour and line to represent the gaps and recesses between objects (plants, table-top and floor space for instance) as well as abstract representations of the objects themselves.
- Although it often worked to her detriment (through her frustrating inability to complete works), Matter was steadfast in her conviction that a painting was only complete when it took on a transcendental element; that being a spiritual quality that corresponded with the artist's own perception and experience. It was a concept she learned from Alberto Giacometti whose sculptures inspired her search for the experiential constituent of art making.
- Matter ran a successful parallel career as a teacher. Through her own teaching experience, she had observed first-hand how the arts education system was numbing the students' senses through the steady reduction in studio time. She set about redressing this deficiency and founded the influential New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. As the name suggests, the School gave precedence to students' studio work and Matter retained a life-long attachment to a School that has become an institution.
The Life of Mercedes Matter
For Matter art was a "process"; an act of deep contemplation. "One can have a tremendous intellectual grasp and be incapable of putting down a cogent mark on a piece of paper", she remarked wryly, but then the "study of art is very much concerned with the putting down of the mark. And this is the slow and lengthy process".
Progression of Art
Untitled (Number 4)
In Untitled (Number 4), Matter has rendered fluid and biomorphic, but predominately quadrilateral, shapes. Some shapes are layered to give the illusion of depth, while others traverse the edge of the canvas. Matter paints these forms in strong tones of blue, green, orange, yellow, black and white. The work was painted in 1933, the year Matter began Hofmann's evening painting course at the Art Students League in New York. It shows Hofmann's influence in Matter's application of his "push/pull" theory, for which he is famously known. The theory refers to a balance of opposing forces in nature, like colour and shape; positive and negative; forward and backward; light and dark. Hofmann portrayed these forces constantly in play with one another to create the illusion of space, depth and movement on a two-dimensional plane.
Matter, however, modifies Hofmann's by applying shading. Strong tones appear with a lighter shade which gives her composition the illusion of depth. The spacing between Matter's shapes, although seemingly arbitrary, are consciously placed to give the painting a sense of movement and vitality. The overall result is a composition of flux, but with the quadrilateral forms giving the work a strong sense of balance. It is an early career work which shows Hofmann's influence most strongly, but also carries the spectre of her first teacher, her father, Arthur B. Carles, who was himself a disciple of Matisse.
Oil on paper laid down on canvas - Mark Borghi Fine Art, New York
Tabletop Still Life
Matter's early works carry the strong influence of two New York artists, Hofmann and Arshile Gorky. She took the men as lovers and established close working relationships with both, but this work marks the beginnings of her greater independence as an artist. As the art historian Jennifer Samet writes, the painting shows Matter "beginning to find her own voice and painterly signature. She uses a strong, angular line within and between forms, turning the white, unpainted space of the canvas into an integral component". The painting also seems to pre-empt a pattern that emerges in later works. As Samet says, "painted during the war years and possibly an aesthetic response to the turmoil", Matter "starts to explode form" through a "fiery trail of red, blue, and green triangles".
The art critic Doug Harvey adds that, "At their most complex, these barely pictorial tabletop arrangements possess a shimmering geometric intricacy that pushes the origami-like triangulations of Franz Marc to the threshold of incoherence. Matter's mastery of Hofmann's trademark 'Push/Pull' color theory, quite frankly, exceeds that of the master himself. Her gradually increasing incorporation of white space (including raw canvas) [acts] as a sort of exorcism of the influence of Hofmann and her father" and which culminated, ultimately, in her late career "series of monochromatic charcoal drawings on canvas".
Oil on canvas board
Tabletop Still Life (version 1)
At the centre of this composition, a potted plant sits on a wooden table with various objects surrounding it. A vibrant red curtain or wall can be made out in the upper two thirds of the composition, behind the plant. The lower left quadrant shows the artist's studio floor, its darker navy tone further amplifying the three dimensionality of the plant. The subject of this painting, a table top still life, is something Matter returns to repeatedly throughout her career. While these still lifes are observed, Matter uses colour and line to record the unfolding relationship between the artist and objects, so that the still life itself becomes abstract. She often uses the green, red and violet pigments seen here still in the early stages of her career. It is a Fauvist-like palette that possibly reveals the influence of her father's work on her practice.
Matter was not concerned with portraying the surface of things or the particular objects. Rather, she is interested in the spaces between these and how they interact with each other - like how the studio floor recesses deep into the composition, the plant stands in the space between the viewer and it, and its leaves further extend into the viewer's space. Hofmann's "push/pull" method is still evident here: for every mark, an opposing mark exists. But much like a see-saw effect, Matter makes it her own by directing the viewer's eye along opposing diagonals and tones to explore space itself rather than conform to a conventional still life study.
Oil on canvas board - Mark Borghi Fine Art, New York
Tabletop Still Life
In this painting, Matter structures the composition around the abstract form of a fruit bowl, positioned left of centre and sitting on a wooden table. The light brown support is revealed in the bottom left corner of the composition, which is left mostly free of paint. It suggests the paint-spotted wooden floor of Matter's studio. Above this, a fragmented band of bright pink-red indicates a tablecloth beneath or around the bowl. The top two thirds of the painting are primarily chalky, alluding to a curtain or a white wall behind the table arrangement in the foreground. While these are all features of conventional still life - fruit bowl on table, cloth and curtain - their abstract forms translate the physical encounter between Matter and her medium, as well as the encounter between artist and object(s). Matter's handling of paint is heavy and impulsive. It gives the impression she paints with speed and spontaneity. Rough cloisonné separate shards of red, yellow, aquamarine and purple. They appear sharp and cutting to record Matter's evolving formal response to the arrangement.
The work was painted in Matter's more dynamic gestural style, which she adopted after returning to New York from California in 1946. This style shared the movement and energy of her contemporaries, and in particular Willem de Kooning's Attic (1949) which she claimed had a most "profound impact" on her own practice at that time. Her compositions were becoming more densely built up. Here forms interact and press up against one another. Line plays an important role in the composition.
This work shows Matter's engagement with the idea of "process" after a key turning point in her career which was inspired by her new engagement with the sculpture of Giacometti. Her brusque lines are similar in approach to contemporary Action Painters, such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, yet Matter's still life subjects give grounding to the energy behind her physical engagement with the canvas. Her insistence on "process", however, could cause her difficulty. She stated in her autobiography, "I always worked long on my paintings - months, sometimes years - and often pushed them beyond their high point into total destruction". Even in Matter's "finished" works, like Tabletop Still Life, the struggle is still evident: her canvas is crowded and heavily worked.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection, New York
In this late still life, Matters separates each form with a series of punctuating lines. It brings fluidity and movement to the composition. Elements of Tabletop Still Life (1952) are seemingly evident here, although now her forms are more densely configured towards the centre of the composition and less paint covers the outer canvas. With much of Matter's line left open and her forms even less definite, there is more room for contemplation on the artist's process.
Samuel Rosenberg's essay Action Painting (1952) established the idea of the artist's personal (and intimate) interaction with the canvas as a critical aspect of abstract painting. He linked existentialism, the prevailing philosophical ideology of the time, to painting and Matter, a friend and one-time lover of Rosenberg's, explored the idea of spatial organization to get to the very essence of her still lifes. But it was Giacometti's work that prompted her to find the "magical presence" in her art and Still Life (1991) exemplifies Matter's attempts to mirror Giacometti's approach. It would continue throughout her career and result in this late "less busy" style.
Oil on canvas ¬ - Mark Borghi Fine Art, New York
Untitled (Tabletop Still Life)
In this late tabletop still life, Matter's composition has lost the dark cloisonné's of her earlier paintings and there is no longer an emphasis on the centre of the composition. Instead, it's lighter tones of colour bring, but do not insist on, contemplative attention. The viewer is brought to the surrounding space. The dark pink and red tones of the upper right quadrant divert the viewer's attention from the centre and the almost blank space of the upper left quadrant offers relief. A vase of red and lilac flowers in the upper left quadrant slowly begin to assemble themselves and below it, four large apples are presented in a diamond shape. The viewer's eyes are invited to rest on individual blocks of defined places, suggesting a slowing down of her artistic process.
This table-top still life is representative of Matter's late style which, although evidently removed from her earliest works, still shows the interest in color, texture and movement across the canvas. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Matter's shift in style over the course of her career was not a polarizing one. This may have been because she maintained wide-ranging connections in the art world, rather than limiting herself to a small group of like-minded artists. She continued to work from life throughout her career, while internalizing the lessons of Giacometti and focusing more deeply on perception as she grew older. Matters aimed to create (and maintain) a real presence, using perception, and above all an awareness of formal means.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Biography of Mercedes Matter
Christened Jean Carles, the artist later known as Mercedes Matter was the daughter of the American modernist painter Arthur B. Carles, who studied with Henri Matisse and exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz's famous 291 Gallery and the 1913 Armory Show, and Mercedes de Cordoba, a musician, actress, Parisian correspondent for Vogue and model for Edward Steichen and other members of the Photo-Secession group. Matter describes her mother as "A most gifted dilettante with no intellectual consciousness [who] played the piano, painted, did everything well, without consciousness". But it was her father who she credited for igniting her passion for painting. She recalled how, at the tender age of six, he bought her a small paintbox and the pair adventured into the French countryside (where they were living at the time) to paint the landscape.
After her parents divorced in 1926, Matter spent her remaining school years at various private schools in Europe and America but it was her time spent in Italy, between the ages of 12 and 14, that she found most rewarding. Traveling between Venice, Assisi, Rome, and Florence, Matter became acquainted with the works of the Italian masters and thus was sealed her life-long interest in the history and development of art. On Matter's return to America. she furthered her artistic training by studying sculpture with Lu Duble at the progressive girl's school, Bennet Junior College in Millbrook, New York.
During the fall of 1933, Matter's maternal aunt, Mathilde de Cordoba, herself an etcher and portraitist who had studied with Hans Hofmann at the Art Students League, implored Matter to study with Hofmann and even paid her tuition fees. She joined Hofmann's Abstract Expressionist class (at the Art Students League) where she trained with him over the following two years. The pair briefly became lovers and worked closely together on art projects. They were close enough for Matter to introduce Hofmann (33 years her senior) to her father (who lived in Philadelphia). The art critic Doug Harvey added that Matter's influence over Hofmann was such that she "is said to have lured [him] back to painting after a two-decade hiatus, and casually instigated the summer painting retreat that evolved into Hofmann's Provincetown school". The pair maintained a close friendship up until Hofmann's death in 1966.
Matters would periodically return to Philadelphia to see her father, who would invite her to socialise among his artist circles. In a late career interview with Matter, the art critic Erika Duncan, wrote that "whenever she would go to visit her father in Philadelphia, the minute she arrived he would put her in front of an easel with a canvas and palette and paints, and would leave her alone for several hours. When he came back, he would always admire what she had done. And yet later on, [Matter] softly adds, 'It was his admiration that paralyzed her'". Theirs was a complicated emotional relationship which may have led to her seeking out father substitutes in figures such as Hofmann.
The art historian Jennifer Samet noted that around this time Matter joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) where she was "assigned to work on a project that Fernand Léger supervised under the administration of Burgoyne Diller - a mural for the French Line pier on the Hudson River". Matter became "Leger's assistant and translator on this never-realized project" and also became associated with "fellow WPA artists Lee Krasner, John Graham, and Arshile Gorky (with whom she also had an affair)". Indeed, Matter moved her easel into Gorky's studio and the pair painted side-by-side and a comparison of the two's works at this time show similar curls of abstracted still life objects, orifice and moon shapes. She recalled later, "I was on the WPA, and I was seeing a lot of Gorky at the time and he wanted to educate me because I was from finishing schools, and knew nothing about politics. So he brought me a whole library of communist literature". It was probably Gorky's political prompting that led indirectly to her participation in the Artist's Union tumult of 1936.
Matter had heard that there would be a march on December 1, 1936 at the Project headquarters. She recalled, "I ran and told Arshile Gorky, 'The revolution is coming' but he stayed home and, of course, it was I who landed in jail". As many as fifty artists were injured and two hundred others were taken to 57th Street Precinct to be charged with disorderly conduct. Matter, who could never have imagined she would be "travelling up Park Avenue in such a fashion", by chance found herself in the same cell as Lee Krasner. The two had never formally met. This would be the inauspicious beginnings of a friendship that would see the two inspire one another's works. Indeed, it was likely Matter's recommendation that brought Krasner to Hofmann's school and led directly to a job for Krasner modeling jewellery for Matter's friend, Alexander Calder.
In 1936 Matter became a founder member of the American Abstract Artists (AAA), a society formed to promote appreciation of abstract art amongst Americans (though many critics dismissed the group as being "unAmerican" and too European) and which held its first annual exhibition the following year. Over its lifespan the AAA would attract artists including Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning and David Smith.
Having already made the close acquaintance of Léger (there is some suggestion that the two had been romantically involved), Matter met up with the Frenchman again on a subsequent visit to New York. This time Léger introduced Matter to the Swiss graphic designer and photographer, Herbert Matter. By 1939 the couple were cohabiting and by 1941 they were married. In addition to family members, wedding guests included Krasner; Hofmann's wife Miz and two of Matter's former lovers. The Matters were very active in the emerging mid-century New York art scene with its large influx of European émigrés. In Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan's biography of Willem de Kooning (cited by Samet) they observed for instance that at this time, "The Matters were among the few people considered cosmopolitan enough in the New York art world to interest the surrealists".
In 1943, due to conditions attached to Herbert's Swiss citizenship, the Matters were compelled to move to Santa Monica. Here they worked for their friends, the designers Charles and Ray Eames, for the duration of World War II. During this spell, Matter also raised their infant son. Though she described herself as a "terrible housewife", she embraced the role of motherhood. Nevertheless, Matter was not painting and missed her bohemian life on the East Coast. Krasner captured the distance felt between the two in the following letter, written to her dear friend in 1944:
"Dear Carles [Matter]. If it's any consolation, to you, we [Krasner and her partner Jackson Pollock] miss you and Herbert as much as you miss us. It's hard for me to realize that you are 3000 miles away. I keep thinking that you're on some prolonged vacation and Herbert is just too busy to see anyone. Your shack sounds wonderful and I really wish I was there - however don't start getting ideas - I just don't like the sound of California - but the waves and the aloneness that kind of aloneness, seems wonderful - the fact that you can think about painting again and be away from the hysteria of the city - all that I envy".
On their return to New York in 1946 Matter described the climate as "intensely stirring". Krasner was by now Lee Pollock, and both Hofmann and Gorky were making great strides with the new language of Abstract Expressionism. A turning-point in her mature career came, meanwhile, when she attended an Alberto Giacometti exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1948. Matter described it as "a change of epoch ... a radical change of one's awareness". She had been deeply moved by Giacometti's sculpture for its "real and magical presence" and the artist's "total correspondence to perception and experience" and she too began to place greater emphasis on the mental processes of the artistic production and perception. Whereas process had played a limited role in the work of Hofmann and her father, it would become a principle issue in the theoretical basis of Abstract Expressionist painting.
In her well regarded monograph on Giacometti, Matter recalled the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus who rolls a boulder up a hill in Hades, each day undoing the previous day's work and beginning the task afresh. It was a process she would liken to her own practice of art making. Samet pointed out the drawback with this approach, however, when she wrote: "Matter either lacked the confidence or was too uncompromising to pursue exhibiting her work very much in her own lifetime", noting that, "Leo Castelli offered her a solo exhibition in the 1950s, and she declined, telling him she wasn't ready". But despite her relatively low key presence on the New York exhibition circuit (and even though she exhibited into the 1950s in various group shows including the annual Stable Gallery exhibitions) Samet notes that Matter remained "at the very center of the art world" and was the only female artist invited to join the famed Artists' Club which met initially at 35 East 8th Street, Greenwich Village.
Matter recalled her involvement with the Artists' Club with great nostalgia and even attributed her partaking in its discussion groups, and its ignoble (but glorious) social activities, as decisive in her maturation as an artist. Historian Bonnie Rosenberg notes that "the Abstract Expressionists always questioned the make-up of their community" and though the Artists' Club failed to agree on almost everything to do with art, "they could at least agree to meet and talk - and certainly to drink". She adds that artistic friendships had been forged through the FAP, the AAA or through Hoffman's art school and that various "members" would meet in studios and galleries around 10th Street. The Artists' Club (or simply "The Club"), founded by Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, William Baziotes, David Hare and Mark Rothko, was essentially a philosophical discussions group for artists, critics and poets, many of whom became the key movers within the New York Studio School.
Rosenberg writes, "When the talk was over [...] all would decant to the Waldorf Cafeteria a hang-out on 6th Avenue, off 8th Street". Matter remembered that at the Waldorf there "were two tables, one presided over by Landes Lewitin and the other by Aristodemus Kaldis [and since] they were not on speaking terms, you had to choose which table to sit at. If you were very tired, you would go to the table of Kaldis because he carried on a monologue about Greece and you wouldn't have to say anything".
Rosenberg adds that "when the Waldorf started charging for coffee by the cup, they found the Cedar Tavern. The Cedar was a dive. Its bare walls and smoke-tinged air spoke little to its artistic clientele. But on the corner of University Place and Eighth Street is where Ad Reinhardt, Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and Mark Rothko chose to congregate. And drink". Matter described how as one of the Club's inner circle, the Cedar provided perhaps the better part of her initiation as a qualified member of the New York avant-garde: "Nobody had much money to go to the Cedar Bar at that time.", she said, but "later, with the club, we had a loft [in Robert Motherwell's apartment] with a fireplace. A lot of guys living alone just delighted to have a fire. Friday nights carried on the panel [discussions] and then turned into a big party, with talk and dance".
It was during the 1950s that Matter's teaching career started to take shape. She taught at the Philadelphia College of Art and at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where she stayed for 12 and 10 years respectively. She also taught at NYU for several years. By 1963, however, she had grown disillusioned with the state of American arts education. Her article for Art News titled "What's Wrong with U.S. Art Schools?" criticised the phasing out of extended studio classes which she considered essential to "that painfully slow education of the senses".
Matter condemned the rushed pace of new art schools, where students run "to and fro, from one class to another, and from every room comes the voice of an instructor pouring out a version of his subject capsuled to meet a time limit". The old academy, she wrote, "required certain disciplines of the eye and hand" and an "effort and persistence, an attitude or rigor" and it was to this she wanted to return. Her philosophy was clear: "Strip away everything but ... basic, serious components: drawing, painting, sculpture, history of art". The article prompted a group of her students from Pratt, and some from Philadelphia, to ask for her help setting up an art school that would provide "an environment in which they could work mostly uninterrupted, all day everyday, and where they could study with authentic artists".
Thus was born the influential New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, sited on West 8th Street in the original home of the Whitney Museum. Historians, Lauren Mahony and Michael Tcheyan described how "The school was dedicated to the principle that an art student's education should mirror the life of an actual artist, the life the student would lead upon graduation. Its program called for long uninterrupted periods in the studio, plus critiques from artists and mentors farther along in their professional careers. The founding manifesto was signed by de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Isamu Noguchi, Mark Rothko, and others [while] early faculty included Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Milton Resnick, and Meyer Schapiro".
One of the School's alumni, David Reed, told Mahony and Tcheyan: "[Matter's] philosophy of art education and being an artist inspired me. Her friends and colleagues were involved with the School and were my introduction to New York painting culture. I always volunteered to deliver her manifestos and petitions to be signed - in this way I was able to briefly meet Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, and have a longer conversation with Mark Rothko in his uptown studio on 69th Street. Mercedes took a group of us to Elaine de Kooning's studio and brought Philip Guston and Milton Resnick in to teach. The composer Morton Feldman was the dean of the school and convinced Willem de Kooning to come back with him after lunch one day and they spoke with students together in the library. These experiences formed me as an artist".
Over a period of fifteen years, Matter devoted much of her time and energy to the School, first as founder and chairman of faculty, then as dean (she would remain involved with the School until her death in 2001). Duncan wrote (in 1994) that, "Years have gone by since 1964, when the Studio School first started, and still Mercedes goes into New York City once a week to teach. And still the students, defying the notion of crowded curricula, paint all day long and every day".
In 1979 Matter suffered a serious illness, and just afterwards, Herbert became terminally ill. They had moved to Long Island where Herbert had designed a house with twin studios, however he died in 1984 before making use of his own space. Matter coped with her husband's death by immersing herself in an intense period of work. She spoke of this late period as a harvest of all her years of effort and she produced several large drawings in charcoal on canvas that became recognized as significant works. Matter's paintings, meanwhile, continued to show their characteristic strong use of red. The series began to break up into fragmented areas dependent upon the white of the canvas and moving finally towards "colorless" painting. For her last years she worked on a series of observational but abstract animal-skull still lifes. Matter continued to teach and make art right up until her death, aged 87, in 2001.
The Legacy of Mercedes Matter
Matter's life's work serves as an incredible gesture to the modern art of her time. It incorporates elements of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Hofmann's principles of spatial composition with pure color, automatist compositions of the early New York School, and the innovations of her Abstract Expressionists peers. In addition to her work and teaching, she was a prolific writer, penning articles on artists including Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline and Alberto Giacometti. Matter's educational background, family life and early exposure to modernists and Abstract Expressionists, were all crucial in forming her identity as artist and mentor. Her varied circle of colleagues, friends and mentors were, no doubt, important for her style which did not shift dramatically over her career, but instead became more and more focussed on the artistic process, using perception to establish a real presence and above all an awareness of formal means.
For many observers, Matter seemed to communicate better through the public domain of the school than in the private sphere of the studio, but it has been a revision of her studio practice that makes the most lasting contribution to her legacy. Samet summed up her career best perhaps when she wrote: "There can be something frustrating about looking at Matter's body of work as a whole - and it's probably because we can relate her shortcomings to ourselves: the failure to finish paintings, the self-doubt, the channeling of creative energy into students or men instead of her own work. But Matter's way of seeing - her translation of the three-way relationship between artist, subject, and artwork into pyramidal compositions of lines denoting charged intervals of space - was highly inventive and influential to generations of her colleagues and students".