Mercedes Matter, “Untitled (Table Top Still Life)” (ca. 1935-1936), oil on board laid down on canvas, 12 x 16 inches (all images courtesy Mark Borghi Fine Art)

Mercedes Matter (1913-2001) did not make it easy for us. Her work, currently on view in a mini-retrospective at Mark Borghi Fine Art, evades narrative or biographic pull. Neither does she allow forms to come together into an easy-to-digest, structural resting-place.

Instead, she made easel-size paintings (and charcoal on canvas drawings) based on the still life and the figure, but abstracted into a force field of compressed space with an agitated line. Her work was about capturing the electric energy between objects.  Source imagery was rendered nearly unrecognizable.  It was a painterly language and drawing style entirely her own.

Matter either lacked the confidence or was too uncompromising to pursue exhibiting her work very much in her own lifetime. An example: Leo Castelli offered her a solo exhibition in the 1950s, and she declined, telling him she wasn’t ready. Still, Matter was at the very center of the art world. Her life — and her position as an educator, friend, lover, or mentor to some of the most influential artists and art critics of the time — reads like a history of the most vanguard 20th-century art movements.

It is poignant that the Borghi mini-retrospective is on view concurrently with Making Space: Women Artists Inventing Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art.  The MoMA show does not include Matter’s work (presumably because her work is not represented in their collection, from which the show is entirely drawn).  But when we consider Matter’s position in the scene, it feels like a remarkable and unfortunate exclusion.

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.

Matter was a believer — in the possibility of channeling a total, magical presence, even if it meant destroying a work or never completing it. She was convincing and uncompromising. I’ve come to see Matter’s work as a more holistic expression of all these complexities: the failures, the ferocity, and the vision.

Mercedes Matter, “Tabletop Still Life (version 1)” (ca. 1941-1943), oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 24 inches

It would also be easy to relegate any discussion of Matter to her incredible biography (certainly a worthy topic of exploration), the intrigue of her love affairs, and her looks. She was stunningly beautiful, well into old age. The nude photographs her husband, photographer Herbert Matter, took of her in 1940 on the beach in Provincetown are elegant, tactile and over-the-top sexy.

Matter craved intensity. Her intimate relationships with powerhouses of the New York art world (Harold Rosenberg, for example) likely exceeded sexual escapades into intellectual bonds and sources of aesthetic inspiration. Matter’s fierce intelligence, opinions, and sophistication were certainly as valued as her beauty. In her essay on the artist, Ellen Landau describes Matter’s extra-marital affairs in the context of a proto-feminist attitude. She wanted to be permitted to “play the field” as much as her male colleagues did.

Matter’s father was Arthur B. Carles, the American modernist painter who studied with Matisse and showed at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery. Her mother was Mercedes de Cordoba, a musician, actress, and model who posed for photographer Edward Steichen. She was nurtured as a painter from the age of six by her father, and the exhibition at Borghi fittingly begins with Matter’s earliest work: a landscape and self-portrait from 1929, when she was 16 years old.

In 1933 Matter enrolled in classes with Hans Hofmann at the Art Students League. This began a lifelong and intimate friendship with the older artist. She was also briefly Hofmann’s lover. She worked closely with him in Gloucester, Massachusetts, catalyzing a productive summer of artistic exchange. She introduced him to her father. And when Hofmann had apparently stopped painting, she encouraged him to start again.

In the 1930s, Matter joined the Works Progress Administration, and 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 was Leger’s assistant and translator on this never-realized project. She became friendly with fellow WPA artists Lee Krasner, John Graham, and Arshile Gorky (with whom she also had an affair). And through Léger, she was introduced to the man who would become her husband: Herbert Matter, the influential Swiss graphic designer and photographer. Mercedes also became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group in 1936.

Her work from the 1930s, a selection of which is on view at Mark Borghi, embodies the search she took in her early paintings, when she was absorbing the art of those around her, including Gorky and her father, Carles.

Mercedes Matter, “Tabletop Still Life” (ca. 1938), oil on canvas board, 20 x 24 inches

“Tabletop Still Life” (c. 1938), and “Table Still Life (version 1)” (c. 1941-43), however, show 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. In the later work — painted during the war years and possibly an aesthetic response to the turmoil — she also starts to explode form. We can decipher the potted plant at the center of these paintings, while the remainder of the surface is a fiery trail of red, blue, and green triangles.

These aesthetic elements — the white space of the canvas or paper; the exploding of forms; the ferocious, agitated line; the dynamic, rich color orchestration — are Matter’s singular handwriting. They are consistent elements in her work over the decades, reflecting a particular period in American art as well as Matter’s personal belief system.

I’ve noticed that the white space can feel alienating, and even disappointing.  It is almost a psychological signifier of Matter’s self-censorship, her refusal to finish work. As I said, she didn’t make it easy for us. Her work is not ingratiating, and a lot of that is due to her refusal to “close”: to close forms with contours, to close paintings. Closure didn’t interest Matter: relationships did.

During the war years, the art world in New York included many European émigrés. In their biography of Willem de Kooning, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan write, “The Matters were among the few people considered cosmopolitan enough in the New York art world to interest the surrealists.” In 1943, the Matters moved to California, as Herbert was working with Charles and Ray Eames. Distanced from her scene, now raising an infant son, and dealing with difficult wartime circumstances, Matter’s own work was curtailed. They returned to New York in 1946.  In these years, the Artists’ Club was formed, and Matter was the only original female member.

In 1963, after having taught at several art schools, Matter wrote a scathing critique of the state of art education: “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools,” which was published in Art News. A group of her Pratt students encouraged her to start her own school based on this vision. Students took matters into their own hands — and, in line with this period of cultural ferment — were equally active in the beginnings of what would become the New York Studio School on West 8th Street, in the original home of the Whitney Museum. Matter would remain involved with the school until her death in 2001.

Mercedes Matter, “Untitled (Reclining Nude)” (ca. 1954-1956), oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches

“Untitled (Reclining Nude)” (c. 1954-56) was the painting at Borghi Fine Art that I most wished I could see within the context of the MoMA exhibition. Only with close viewing do we even recognize the figure in the painting. Matter’s stitched marks, the openness of the forms, and her brilliant palette, possess a powerfully distinctive feminine aesthetic, in line with much of the work in the MoMA exhibition. It’s a painting that embodies a system of open deductions.

In the 1950s Matter organized a weekly figure drawing session in her studio with a group that included Lois Dodd, Philip Pearlstein, Philip Guston, Jack Tworkov, and occasionally Alex Katz. Included in the exhibition are four charcoal figure studies — several of which depict two figures. Matter frequently employed two models because she prioritized the relationships between things over the thing-in-itself. The exhibition does not include any of Matter’s larger charcoal on canvas works, which she began in the 1970s. She made these works as a way to elevate the drawing medium to the level of paintings, since she worked for months on drawings, and made erasure an integral part of the process.

Mercedes Matter, “Figure Study (A)” (ca. 1966-1968), charcoal on paper, 14 x 16 inches

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.

It was a concept she got from Alberto Giacometti. She saw his sculpture as transcending source material or object-hood, and embodying an experiential, real presence. His example gave her permission to forego the goal of completing work. She and her husband became close friends with Giacometti, and in 1987 they published a major monograph on the artist, with photographs of the sculpture by Herbert and a text by Mercedes.

Matter’s insistence on the nude female body, and on still lifes of flowers, drapery, and skulls as the focus of observational painting — for herself and her students — can also feel problematically outdated. It is difficult, today, to reconcile radical painterly invention with dusty still lifes and charcoal. This is perhaps even harder to ignore in the Borghi Fine Art’s Upper East Side gallery, where paintings are installed in close proximity, and one is even shown on an old-school viewing platform. But her students still talk about the incredible beauty of her set-ups, each object carefully selected, individual fruits purchased from the overpriced Balducci’s, and arranged to exhibit complex color harmonies.  There was a drama in her method that successfully communicated the belief that everything exists in relation to something else.

Mercedes Matter, “Autumn Still Life” (ca. 1985), oil on canvas, 44 x 48 inches

“Autumn Still Life” (c. 1985) most exemplifies Matter’s mature vision. “What I want is depth compressed to the surface,” she wrote. This comes across, but we can also see it as a compression of her own presence as a person, and a woman.  She turned the still life into a mountain: a signifier of monumental, impossible aspiration. Her femininity is embedded in the elegance of arcing lines, and the knitted, halting, tentative rhythms. As Graham Nickson wrote of Matter in a 1996 exhibition catalogue, “She has that awful, wonderful itch that defines a real artist.”

MERCEDES MATTER: A Survey: Paintings & Drawings from 1929 to 1998 continues at Mark Borghi Fine Art (52 East 76th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 26.

Jennifer Samet, Ph.D. is a New York-based art historian, curator, and writer. She completed her dissertation at the CUNY Graduate Center on Painterly Representation in New York: 1945-1975. She has lectured...