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Art review: Mercedes Matter at the Weisman Museum

February 19, 2010 |  5:00 am

400.mercedes-matter Mercedes Matter (1913-2001) was a minor New York School artist whose primary claim to notice was applying Abstract Expressionist scale to School of Paris painting. Still-life abstractions derived from Cezanne-style easel paintings are closer to the size of canvases by Rothko or De Kooning.

A sketchy traveling retrospective at Pepperdine University's Weisman Museum assembles 38 paintings and three charcoal drawings, starting with juvenilia. (The show is supported by and comes with an oversized catalog published by the gallery that handles her estate – the same gallery that in 2005 unveiled a group of 32 small, previously unknown Jackson Pollock drip-paintings, "discovered" by Matter's son, now widely dismissed as inauthentic.) Matter's father, early American Modernist Arthur B. Carles, began her instruction as a child, and the show opens with a pair of precocious, Matisse-inspired color abstractions made when she was about 8 years old.

Following later study with Hans Hofmann, who seems to have taught or influenced just about every New York School painter, she briefly toyed with pure abstraction, thickly painted. But soon Matter returned to still lifes, composed as either big, chromatically vibrant force-fields, or else dramatic charcoal drawings, often on exposed canvas board.

Triangular, prismatic forms and linear vectors alter placid arrangements of bowls, fruits, mounded tablecloths and an occasional landscape into energized fields of flat, jagged hues. Like many American painters of her father's generation, she worked toward a synthesis of Fauve color and Cubist structure; but the scale of her work came to outstrip theirs. Perhaps that diffusion of intensity helps to explain their general feeling of clumsiness.

– Christopher Knight

Weisman Museum, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, (310) 506-4556, through April 4. Closed Mondays. www.arts.pepperdine.edu

Image: "Tabletop Still Life," circa 1936. Credit: Weisman Museum, Pepperdine University.

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