Mercedes Matter: A Miraculous Quality

March 22, 2021 – June 30, 2022
Palm Desert, CA


One of the most influential voices of the 20th century, Mercedes Matter has not gained the recognition she deserves and yet her impact is felt in both her work and in her teaching.

Born into an artistic family – her father was early American modernist Arthur Beecher Carles – Matter was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists. She was very close friends with Fernand Leger, even helping him with some of his murals. In New York, Matter was also friends with some of the most important Abstract Expressionists including Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston. She was even the first female member of The Club, the important artistic circle of Abstract Expressionists. Not restricted to the AbEx artists, Matter and her husband counted Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti as close friends.

Matter’s work defies easy categorization. Although firmly abstract, her work springs from careful studies of real life. Look closely and you will see emerging from the canvas the essence of still lifes or bodies. Dashed off with apparent ease in a riot of color, Matter would in actuality spend months or years on a drawing or painting. This commitment to studio practice would inform one of her most important contributions to art history.

Taught by one legendary teacher Hans Hofmann, Matter in turn would found her own school. Following a landmark 1963 article she wrote for Art News “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools?”, there was movement among art students for Matter to follow through on the ideas proposed, a reflection of the student activism of the 1960s. Spurred by this, she founded the New York Studio School in 1964 which continues today. Early teachers included Guston and Alex Katz as well as art historian Meyer Schapiro and composer Morton Feldman. The school returned the focus on studio classes and emphasized life drawing.

The exhibition touches upon different points along Matter’s long artistic career, spanning over six decades. From the early abstraction of the 1930s to the charcoal drawing (a medium which she took up in the 1970s) and up to a painting done in the last year of her life, we see a commitment to close study matched with dynamic brushwork. Elaine de Kooning once remarked of Matter, “Everything has a miraculous, alive quality. There is not a dead area on her surfaces, not an inch that she hasn’t considered. And there is something that goes beyond what she was aiming for.”

In bringing this many of her works together, the show makes the case that Matter was just as important as the artists in her circle, and it is only a matter of time before Matter is vaulted into the same league as her friends Frankenthaler and Krasner.

Heather James Fine Art is proud to spotlight Mercedes Matter and her pre-eminent artistic voice.