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Mercedes Matter Photo

Mercedes Matter

American Painter, Draughtswoman, and Writer

Born: 1913 - New York
Died: December 4, 2001 - Long Island, New York
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism
"One can have a tremendous intellectual grasp and be incapable of putting down a cogent mark on a piece of paper. The study of art is very much concerned with the putting down of the mark. And this is the slow and lengthy process."
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Mercedes Matter
"I always worked long on my paintings - months, sometimes years - and often pushed them beyond their high point into total destruction."
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Mercedes Matter
"The school was her creation, it was her creative act, and she was passionate about all aspects of it."
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Painter Andrea Belag, On the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture:
"Painting doesn't stop because somebody starts to throw some dirt on the floor or spit on the canvas. Painting has existed longer than the twentieth century, and any good painter is steeped in the same understanding of painting."
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Mercedes Matter
"Up to the point of Abstract Expressionism, the real center was the artist doing something."
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Mercedes Matter
"You look, you see, and you learn to see as a painter. You learn to connect, to make that connection."
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Mercedes Matter

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.

Biography of Mercedes Matter

Mercedes Matter with students at the New York Studio School, Photo: Herbert Matter, courtesy Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

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".

Important Art by Mercedes Matter

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

c. 1938

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

c. 1991

Still Life

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

c. 1998

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

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Flora Igoe

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Mercedes Matter Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Flora Igoe
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 28 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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