Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Mercedes Matter at the Weisman Gallery, Pepperdine University

January 23 – April 4
24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263

Mercedes Matter, Tabletop Still Life, ca. 1936. Oil on canvas, 43 x 48 inches, Private collection, Florida.

Mercedes Matter, Tabletop Still Life, ca. 1936. Oil on canvas, 43 x 48 inches, Private collection, Florida.

Mercedes Matter has long deserved the retrospective organized by art historian Ellen Landau, currently on view in the Weisman Gallery at Pepperdine University in Malibu. With more than fifty works, accompanied by documentary photographs and a comprehensive catalogue, this is an enlarged version of the show featured last fall at Baruch College in New York City.  It establishes Matter’s role in the development of the New York School and attests to the force of her artistic vision.

Exhibiting rarely during her lifetime, Matter, who died in 2001, became known as an educator through her leadership of the New York Studio School. To those of us who studied there, her personal associations with Hofmann, Gorky, Pollock and others remained mysterious, even though the force of her personality suggested that she was no mere hanger-on. In fact, as evidenced here, her paintings hold their own against those of her colleagues – smaller in scale, yet often richer and more eloquent in their grasp of essentials.

Through her father, the American modernist painter Arthur Carles, and her mother, a Spanish dancer and model, Matter was exposed in childhood to the artistic tradition and avant-garde milieu of Europe. She also underwent the religious discipline of Catholic girls’ schools. In a youthful letter she describes dancing alone on Good Friday while meditating on Christ’s suffering, testifying to a strong inner life, to a personal investment in rhythmic movement and light. The earliest works here –a teen-age self-portrait and two surprisingly mature paintings from age eight – use paint and color with expressive assurance and a suggestion of contained passion.

Her first mentor, Hans Hofmann, cultivated tensions between sensuality and self-discipline, between drawing and color, much as did her father. Both Carles and Hofmann painted cubist abstractions from subjects in the studio, while also endorsing, somewhat contradictorily, the primacy of color. But while Carles generally respected the planar architecture of cubism, Hofmann, whose color involved a more impulsive, expressionistic drive, prepared the way for Jackson Pollock’s all-over improvisations.

Here we can witness Hofmann’s concepts, which she later interpreted in her teaching, emerging within Matter’s own artistic practice and in dialogue with her peers. In early works she abstracts flower arrangements into rectangular planes of color, somewhat like early Mondrian, but these soon give way to more propulsive, looping forms, shaped by competing relations of figure and ground. Initially influenced by Gorky, these works culminate in the early 1950s in paintings like Tabletop Still Life (1952), which have the gritty incisiveness of de Kooning’s Attic, a painting she particularly admired.

Matter seems to thrive in relation to authority figures – to her father, her peers at the Club, or great artists of the past – but there’s always her own powerful persona, which survived the psychic stresses of abstract expressionism and the existential doubts of Cézanne and Giacometti. Her works maintain their own assertive vigor as she negotiates among these influences. There’s an internalized severity to her art; its fierce angularity suggests an appetite for sensual abandon constrained by geometry. Although close friends with Pollock, and an admirer of his work, Matter resisted his method, remarking in an interview, “What I like least … is the liberation.” Closest to Pollock’s gestural abstractions are some open, ethereal paintings that move freely into and around a still life yet maintain a geometric clarity. “Articulation” was a word Matter favored, “activating space”, and shaping the final inflection of every mark.

Mercedes Matter, Still Life with Skulls, ca. 1978-98, Charcoal on canvas, 40 x 44 inches, Estate of the artist

Mercedes Matter, Still Life with Skulls, ca. 1978-98, Charcoal on canvas, 40 x 44 inches, Estate of the artist

But after 1960 Matter’s work tends more towards density, towards the gradual accumulation of colored marks, as in Cézanne’s late paintings. As for him, direct visual experience, the process of observation, assumes primacy. Still life is no longer a step on the way to abstraction; painting doesn’t point beyond the objects, but hovers around their simple physical mass. Her high-keyed colors become more earthy and muted, and then disappear entirely in the large, powerful drawings, which appear through the 1980s and 90s and often include cows’ skulls collected near her home in Connecticut. Matter excavates the projections and voids of the skulls, as though to impart their airy hollowness to the entire arrangement; united in an overall mesh of marks, the objects seem to levitate from the table.

Giacometti becomes a dominant influence, but Matter doesn’t step back, as he often does, to take in the larger view of the studio; as in cubism, still life remains a close-up affair. Combining artifice and sheer physical presence, still life embodied for Matter the truth of visual experience. She claimed to work from still life for practical reasons, but it must have remained for her a site of origin, a source of fresh beginnings, shrouded in associations with her father’s studio and the art of the past. The objects in her paintings, steeped in emotion, fusing modernist ambition to European tradition, are eloquent in their muteness.