Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Herbert Matter we like best

figure 1

Herbert Matter (1907-1984) is not much remembered today by cameraless artists, yet he made standout contributions that are worth reconsidering.  In his time he was best known as a graphic artist and designer; trained in Europe by people like Léger and Le Corbusier, he immersed himself equally in art-world currents of the time - dadaism and especially constructivism - and paid close attention to the work of El Lissitzky and Man Ray.  He absorbed his lessons well.  By the time he came to New York in the 1930s he had developed techniques of photomontage and typography as a visual art that revolutionized American advertising (that is not too strong a word) and which served him as a calling card throughout his life.  Just one example: for many of us, the logo he created for the New Haven Railroad became one of the iconic emblems of mid-twentieth century America.

In 1938 he married a beautiful young painter named Mercedes Carles, who had been a student, then lover, of Hans Hoffmann and a cellmate of the young Lee Krasner - later the wife of Jackson Pollock - when both were arrested during political demonstrations.  Soon his circle expanded; he befriended sculptors Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti, eventually photographing their work for publications, as well as painters Franz Kline, Phillip Guston, and others.  Between jobs for clients like Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, he became an adept of the darkroom; when he shared a space with photographer Robert Frank on West 37th Street he would work up to 12 hours without a break - too bad for you, Robert.  A personal body of work began to emerge: Mercedes nude on the dunes of Provincetown, then landscapes, then abstract closeups of treebark and rocks - great memes of the day - then more Mercedes, dancing, hair in the wind.  He probably thought you couldn't do better than take pictures of Mercedes and he's close to being right.  But then one day he found a great new subject: light.

Following cues from Moholy-Nagy and others, he began using a penlight as a paintbrush to draw on photo paper directly in the darkroom, often using the paper-negative method to end up with whitish lines.  He also tried experimenting with liquids of different miscibilities and viscosities, resulting in the chemigram-like 'ameoba forms' in figure 2, which today we would just call a glassprint.  This was 1941, 1942.  By the next year, the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York gave him his first show.  Some critics have suggested that during this period he might also have influenced the breakout work of his friend Jackson Pollock, just then developing his drip technique, although I don't buy it.

figure 2

figure 3

figure 4

But by the following year, 1944, Herbert must have realized he was really a designer at heart, and although he now knew he could execute a broad range of graphic, arty things with considerable ease, he and Mercedes decamped for Southern California where he took a conventional job with Knoll Furniture, photographing chairs by Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, or by Charles and Ray Eames, and probably earned good money doing it.

Still, he couldn't totally elude the demon of experimentalism.  He'd seen the photographs by Gjon Mili who had used flashlights and long exposures to illustrate movement, and he wanted to try it himself.  Here's Herbert taking off his pants and jacket with open shutter, around 1945:

figure 5

Later, he may have been inspired by work coming from the Chicago Bauhaus when he hooked up an electric circuit and made this:

figure 6
The problem we have with Herbert Matter, and the reason you don't find him in the histories of alternative photography, is that he wasn't sure what he wanted to be, artist or designer.  He was perhaps too gifted a designer to allow himself to become an artist as such, to let himself go in that irrevocable way, into the terror and joy of it.  For us that's a loss, all the keener the more we look at figure 4 or figure 6, two of my favorites.  He had more things to give us.

After his California sojourn, he spent the last twenty years of his life teaching design at Yale.

The photographs above come in most part from the library of Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.


  1. Brilliant beautiful work and brilliant written account of Matter's life and career(s), Doug. You are quite an art historian with never lagging enthusiasm. Let's see more.

    1. Thanks for the words, Norm. I need folks like you to inspire me by telling me what inspires you - that's what I want to write about. Herbert Matter never crossed my mind until Martha mentioned seeing one of his glassprints recently...it was indeed fun getting into him a bit.

  2. Great piece Doug!! I don't think I have heard of him. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. BTW I know you have done research on Edmund Teske. Do you have any information on his techniques?

  3. A couple of weeks after we posted this, Herbert Matter was the subject of a show at the Gitterman Gallery in New York..

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