Against a neutral background of negative space, yellows, oranges, and purples vie for prominence in Colors of Autumn by Mercedes Matter. The abstraction of the image allows us to contemplate changes that the season brings. The intense colors that transforms leaves just before they dry up and drop from the trees in temperate regions are rivaled by the drama of autumnal sunsets, purple clouds back-lit by cherry pink skies.
As the daughter of a famous modernist, Matter understood the expressive possibilities of abstract painting in the mid-1930s, years and a war before the general public had any inkling that the movement would take over the art world, drawing all the oxygen from other types of art for more than a decade.
Just what is being abstracted in paintings known as Abstract Expressionist? Thoughts and emotions, filtered through a recognition that a flat two dimensional representation of three dimensions is intrinsically abstract. Renaissance perspective is, at bottom, just another abstraction.
Those who met Mercedes Matter (1913-2001) described her as "elegant" and even "infuriatingly chic." And did I forget to mention "charming, intelligent, talented, and witty"? By the time she was twenty-three Mercedes Carles had an established artist as lover, Armenian expatriate Arshile Gorky. The next year she began to take classes with Hans Hoffmann, another expatriate artist who had just opened his own art school in New York City and who would be an influential teacher of dozens of abstract painters, including Mercedes Carles. Hoffmann also followed Gorky in her affections.
Her artistic circle grew to include Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Bill and Elaine de Kooning, and Less Krasner and Jackson Pollock. When Mercedes saw the first version of de Kooning's Woman On A Bicycle ar his studio in 1952 she thought, "it was a portrait of myself, albsolutely like a photograph could be." "The next day it wasn't me at all, it was somebody quite different," she told interviewer Sigmund Koch years after the event
Arthur B. Carles, who had studied painting with Matisse was her father and Mercedes de Cordoba. an artist's model who worked with Edward Steichen was her mother. Thanks to her parents, Mercedes met seemingly everyone in the art world while she was growing up. Born in Philadelphia, Mercedes received her first paintbox before attending finishing schools on two continents. She said that the museums and churches of Italy were her first art school.
She met Herbert Matter while she and Bill de Kooning worked together on a mural project for the WPA with Fernand Leger; Mercedes also translated for the Frenchman. Mercedes became friends with Leger who, in turn, introduced her to his friend Matter, a Swiss photographer. The couple married in 1941. By the mid-1950s, Mercedes was, as Mary Gabriel described her in Ninth Street Women, "the opposite of a retiring wife." Along the way, she had affairs with fello w artists including Philip Guston.
For further reading:
Ninth Street Women: five painters and the movement that changed modern art by Mary Gabriel, New York, Little, Brown & Company: 2018
Mercedes Matter - Autumn Still Life, 1985, Mark Borghi Fine Art, NYC.