Untitled (Tabletop Still Life), ca. 1998, 38”x 46”
Some of Mercedes Matter’s early works have a singsong, seesaw effect—Hans Hoffmann’s push/pull theory taken too literally. Others are tense and stringy and avoid the edges of the canvas.
What am I referring to as the early work? Everything before 1985, when Matter was @ 70 years old! This show is damned frustrating because it’s a mini-retrospective and only 3 pieces in it are after ’85 and, especially after checking the catalog, those are the ones I yearn to see. But this is the show and so, uneasily, I try to figure out what went wrong for so long.
(Almost all of the paintings are untitled still lives. [I wonder if artists don’t title their works so critics can’t talk about them?] Also my pictures of them are pretty bad.)
To start with, I can’t agree with Jennifer Samet at Hyperallergic that, to paraphrase, “dusty still lives” are an outdated genre. (Though I do think Samet is right on when she writes, “Her work was about capturing the electrical energy between objects.”)
I prefer Norman Bryson’s theory (*) that still life is the laboratory where painters go to reinvent painting–and seeing. Think of Cotan’s pure geometries, Cezanne’s exploration of space, cubism, pop, etc. It’s not outdated, just hard.
Tabletop Still Life (version 1), ca. 1941-1943
Tabletop… (version 1) is an example of the seesaw; for every action, an equal but opposite reaction. The viewer is rushed by the diagonals into the slightly-left-of-center for no particular reason and finds it hard to escape even though the red is actively pushing her outward. There is no interest in the surface of things or the specific objects at all; it is all about a force field, volumetric space, no tenderness, just thrusting gesture and expert but pointless manipulation of the viewer’s attention.
One aspect of mid-century painting, whether abstract or figurative, there seems to be a common belief in action and gesture. And a mistrust of calculation—underpainting is one example.
Tabletop still Life, ca 1938
Another painting, slightly earlier than the last, is tense, cramming everything into a center nucleus. This strategy is one that she will use repeatedly later, creating space but only on the edges. Matter is a great experimenter—here the drawing, the black and white lines, is forceful and does all the cramming and the color is no longer used in a Hoffmanesque way; it is random and dissipating. Possibly because I thought nucleus, I think atoms and bombs and what I have heard referred to as “the often futile search for a unified theory.”
Untitled (Tabletop Still Life) ca 1978
I wonder what this “still life” consisted of?
What is left of the color sits uneasily atop a black and white structure. If this was the last painting chronologically in the show, my assessment of Matter’s work would be that she makes me feel tired with all her ideas and her ideological harshness.
Autumn Still Life, ca 1985
But then, in Autumn Still Life, my eyes stop dashing around the canvas trying to make sense of the whole, they start to rest on individual blocks of defined spaces, and I am free to move around, adding them up in my own way. The center of the canvas is holding still, commanding but not trapping my attention. The untouched canvas at the edges loosens the composition and slows the movement instead of forcing everything into a central ball. All of a sudden, everything is working.
Untitled (Tabletop Still Life), (detail) ca 1998
And even more so in Untitled….’98 (seen above full size); the black drawing lines are gone, the concentration on the center is gone, the emphasis on a focal point for the composition– gone. What first caught my eye and started to slowly assemble itself, taking its own sweet time, was this vase of red and lilac flowers in the upper left quadrant and then below it, 4 monumental apples in a diamond configuration. In the early work there is a conflict between drawing and painting but not here; it is a delightful series of sketches jostling good-naturedly for attention, the most delightful one, low center—a pedestaled fruit bowl— and assembling themselves into a pyramid like a team of acrobats–the peach, the pear, the grapes!
What a struggle it was for her and for me in all that “early” work. I was thinking, “Oh she’s trying this, she’s trying that” but by the end, it was just, “How’d she do that?”
(*)Looking at the Overlooked, 4 Essays on Still Life Painting