A Dedication to Art and Artists

The Life of Mercedes Matter

Artistic expression was a constant in the life of Mercedes Matter. She was born in Philadelphia in 1913 to parents, Mercedes de Cordoba, a well-known model in the Photo-Secession movement, and Arthur B. Carles, the American painter who studied under Matisse in Paris. Matter took to painting at an early age, encouraged by her father and influenced by the family’s circle as they travelled through France and Italy. She returned to the United States for college and quickly found herself immersed in the energetic New York art scene that included Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Philip Guston, Arshile Gorky and her soon to be husband, the photographer and designer Herbert Matter. It was Hans Hofmann though, who would prove to have the most significant impact on her future career. Through his tutelage, Matter embraced concepts from the abstract expressionist movement and merged them with the French figural tradition to create unique compositions in which her original object of focus was made almost unrecognizable through her abstraction of it. Canvases with large empty spaces punctuated by vibrant and expressive shapes and colors became her signature and while these works gained her significant recognition as a prominent artist of the era, it was her subsequent teaching career, also heavily shaped by Hofmann, that became her legacy.

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

In 1953, after returning from California during the years of WWII, Matter took up teaching posts at New York University, The Pratt Institute and the Philadelphia Art Institute. Over the course of her tenure at the schools, she watched as the curriculums moved away from the studio-centered education model, something that both she and Hofmann believed was crucial to a student’s education, in favor of an emphasis on accreditation courses. Matter pushed back against the trend but slowly became disillusioned, finally publishing an article in ARTnews titled, ‘What is Wrong with U.S. Art Schools’. The article became a rallying cry to both students and others in the industry who saw the importance of studio time and instruction by professional artists during these pivotal years in an artist’s development. 

A solution was realized when, in September of 1964, Matter opened the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. The school’s manifesto was signed by, among others, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Barnett Newman, Isamu Noguchi and Mark Rothko and proclaimed that an art student’s education should imitate the life of a working artist. The school has stayed true to this credo through a progressive program led by faculty such as Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Milton Resnick and Meyer Schapiro, creating a space more in the tradition of an atelier than traditional American art school. For over five decades since its founding, The New York Studio School has provided a foundation to alumni such as David Reed, Christopher Wool and Joyce Pensato and continues to be a formative point in the advancement of artists today. 

Matter was uncompromising in her belief that a work was complete only when it achieved a transcendence of the motif, when it captured a magical presence, based on the artist’s process of total correspondence to perception and experience. To make a painting that merely worked formally was not at all the point.

Jennifer Samet