An artist whose work shows of the power of the WPA — with a few scandals mixed in. **Catch a lecture on Mercedes Matter at this weekend’s Hamptons Institute symposium, sponsored by Guild Hall in collaboration with the Roosevelt Institute (details below).
Born in 1913 in New York to an artist and model, Mercedes Matter began her art career almost as soon as she could walk. Her father, Arthur B. Carles, was a member of the art world, having studied under Matisse, and he taught her to paint at the age of six. Later she would recall being given a paint box to work side by side with him. She would grow up in New York, Philadelphia, and Europe, following the legacy of her family to retain close circles among the emerging artists of the era.
A member of the East Coast cultural aristocracy, Matter was one of the founding members of American Abstract Artists (AAA) and also received a stipend from the Works Progress Administration. This stipend allowed her to become an assistant and translator for Fernand Leger, who would later introduce her to Herbert Matter, an artist whom she married in 1939. The Matters traveled the world and were close friends with the art stars of their time: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, and Alberto Giacometti.
It was through Matter’s experience with the WPA that the scope of her career expanded; she taught at several universities across the nation, further developing her own style of Abstract Expressionism. In 1963, Matter wrote an article for ARTnews entitled “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools?” that criticized the phasing out of extended studio classes. These classes, she argued, “painfully slow the education of the senses,” what she considered an essential part of learning. Her words moved a group of students to demand she form a school based on these ideas, and thus the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture was born in 1964. She would continue to write and create art throughout her later years, moving around Manhattan as she continued her work.
Her life is not just a tale of art, however. She became close friends, moved in with, and had a brief affair with Hans Hofman, 33 years her senior. She later was lovers with another of Hofmann’s students, Fernand Leger — the man who introduced her to her eventual husband. After she helped found AAA, she had an affair with Arshile Gorky and was later arrested and thrown in jail at a WPA demonstration. Her friendship with Lee Krasner began when they met in jail.
While her life was filled with racy stories, what remains today are her beautiful works of art. Her life tells the story of how the WPA expanded careers and invested in works of art — and had a few scandals.