Reassessing Mercedes Matter

 Mercedes Matter, “Tabletop Still Life,”ca.1942, private collection, New York

Mercedes Matter, “Tabletop Still Life,” ca 1940-4, private collection, Mass.

In LA Weekly, Doug Harvey tells the story of Mercedes Matter, who was born into the East Coast cultural aristocracy in 1913 to father Arthur B. Carles, a pioneer American abstract painter who studied with Matisse, showed at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery and exhibited work in the legendary Armory Show. and mother, Mercedes de Cordoba, a Parisian correspondent for Vogue and a favorite model of photographer Edward Steichen. “Her uncle Pedro was a star of Broadway and early Hollywood, and her aunt Sara was a famous fashion photographer and illustrator. Her father started her painting at the age of 6, and she spent her early teens touring the art capitals of Europe. After attending the progressive girls’ school Bennett College in Millbrook, New York, she moved to Manhattan and began studying with Hans Hofmann at the Art Students’ League.

“Matter (then going by the name Jeanne Carles) and Hofmann (33 years her senior) became close friends � briefly lovers � and maintained a close relationship until Hofmann’s death, in 1966. Matter is said to have lured Hofmann back to painting after a two-decade hiatus, and casually instigated the summer painting retreat that evolved into Hofmann’s Provincetown school. She became the lover of another student of Hofmann’s, painter Wilfrid Zogbaum. Fudging paperwork, Matter qualified for the WPA dole and became an assistant, translator and lover to Fernand Leger, who was in America designing WPA murals along the Hudson River. In 1936 Matter was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists Association, became the lover of Arshile Gorky, and was arrested at a WPA demonstration and thrown in jail. There, she met Lee Krasner, who became another close � though not lifelong � friend, joining Hofmann’s painting class and modeling jewelry for Matter’s close friend Alexander Calder.

“Through Leger, Matter met and began working for Swiss graphic designer and photographer Herbert Matter, who, as an artist for Cond� Nast publications, was largely responsible for translating the photomontage innovations of the dadaists into the visual vocabulary of the cultural mainstream. They, too, soon became lovers. In 1941 they married, but by some condition of Herbert’s Swiss citizenship, they were forced to move to Santa Monica and work for Charles and Ray Eames for the duration of World War II. Upon returning to Manhattan, they found themselves at the center of the burgeoning New York school � Krasner was now married to Jackson Pollock, and both Hofmann and Gorky were seminal figures in the emerging language of abstract expressionism. The Matters were among the Pollocks’ closest friends, and Mercedes was part of the inner circle at the Cedar Bar and the first woman member of the Artists Club, forming close friendships with Philip Guston, Bill and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, critic Harold Rosenberg, and composers Morton Feldman and John Cage, among others. Herbert joined the Yale fine-art faculty, and Mercedes went on to found the Studio School, a small but influential atelier-style institution in the original home of the Whitney Museum.

“All this biography is a roundabout buildup to the big question: “Mercedes who?” It’s hard to imagine a more advantageous entr�e into the nascent Art World, and with close friends like these, you’d have to be a pretty lousy artist not to make some kind of dent. Which seems to have been the prevailing public perception � where there was any at all � of Mercedes’ role in the AbEx pantheon: important educator, but otherwise a socialite dabbler. A small but cogent traveling retrospective � currently on view at the Weisman Museum at Pepperdine University � gives the lie to this misassessment. Beginning with a pair of startling small works painted at the age of 8 (!), ‘Mercedes Matter’ traces the artist’s steady evolution � incorporating and synthesizing Postimpressionism, fauvism, expressionism, cubism, Hofmann’s principles of spatial composition with pure color, the loopy, automatist compositions of the early New York School, and the innovations of her AbEx peers � through to her bittersweet blossoming in the late ’90s after the death of Herbert and most of her contemporaries….” Read more.

Mercedes Matter: A Retrospective Exhibition,” curated by Ellen Landau. Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA. Through April 4.


  1. Your piece on Mercedes Matter was very interesting. I studied with her at the Studio School which she founded along with students and artists. That was in l966 or so when I was there. You didn't even mention her founding of that school, but there was other stuff I hadn't known in your blog. I was surprised at how good the paintings were that you showed. She was not a terrific teacher, she never adequately explained the "space" she was always talking about. That famous photo of her in the Cedar Bar is very close to how I experienced her personality. She was corny in saying things like,"Don't give up aarrt!" I learned from her about architecture, partly due to the wonderful first location of the studio School which was at the NE corner of Broadway and (Bond?). With large windows curved at the top, that loft space was a lesson in architecture and then when we moved to 8th street, and her gushing about beautiful space in some rooms went way beyond my then understanding of architecture as details added to a facade. It contributed to my susceptibility to the lofts the students were then moving into, and I was able to find a loft on Grand St. where I still live. The tone of the art world that she inhabited was made much more real to me by that biography of DeKooning. It discusses the factions of the era, and Mercedes comes down with the more democratic side.

    She was not really an influence on my painting in that she was not analytical. I remember her with affection and am glad she is being noticed now.
    –Cindy Piersol Feldman

  2. I enjoy reading your blog; discovered it 6 mos. ago.
    As a working designer for the past 40 years + counting (dare I take off my shoes + sox)? Rhetorical question.

    I divert from why I am prompted to write:

    Mercedes Matter + Robert Blackburn are the 2 teachers I most remember from under-grad daze at NYU. I lived at Rubin Hall + Cedars Tavern was around the corner on Waverly. Andy Warhol held court up on 23rd St.
    Those were the daze of deKooning etc…Suffice to say I took it all in. I appreciate it all the more from this far-off + away vantage point.

    About Mercedes: I was fortunate enough to not know who she was + did not learn about her "silverspoon" connections. What I got from her was her enthusiasm + encouragement. She spoke of Hans Hoffman, push + pull + the summer sessions in P-town. She declared a strong + long-lived friendship with Gocometti. Invited me to join her in the just beginning classes at the Studio School on 8th St. I hold images of the 1966 Black-out + candle-lite table tops flickering from 8th St. restaurants…kept open to feed the wandering souls. Giving us all a bit of solace + comfort; along with a great sense of camaraderie. Yes, when crisis occurs…the average NY-er is right there for you.

    Dare I digress? Of course !
    Ah ! I remember it well. Mercedes was wonderful to me invited me to her "carriage-house at the NYU Mews …bright + sunny and welcoming. I sensed nothing but pure teacher and she was so good at that function. As for Bob Blackburn…I was initiated into Litho (conundrum + stone), acquaint + serigraphy. I carry it still and work in all of these mediums.

    I had Irving Sandler for "History of Art-1945-present"…he sent us all up to the Modern + the Guggenheim…+ the Jewish Museum to discover Guston, Gottlieb + Newmann. I was given the best education ever + I use every ounce of it to this day.

    Having graduated NYU in '67, I went on to Parson's (it was up-town then…2nd Ave + 53rd St).

    Moving to San Francisco in 1977+ shifting gears to the world of Surface design…no need to go on. It's all on my web-site + so abbreviated…for concern it would show how looooooong-lived I really am !

    I loved Mercedes + treasure the time I spent with her.
    European Art History was enlivened for me by the presence of Leo Steinberg, during a summer school session offered by Sarah Lawrence in Paris '65.
    No more…I spare you. all this to say:
    Thanks for your BLOG…you bring the NY art scene to me here in No. CA wine country.
    Thanks for bringing to my attention Lee Lozano…what a painter !

    Happy New Year 2011…May it be not just another dreary year for so many working artists.
    Yes, I am one of those now. One of the many women artists of my generation who are still working today + unrecognized !
    Working for the sheer pleasure of being alive + indomitable at that !

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