Herbert and Mercedes Matter: The California Years with the Eames Office and Arts & Architecture. Reflections on the “Mercedes Matter Retrospective” at Pepperdine’s Weisman Art Museum
- March 19th, 2010
- Posted in Alexander Calder . Arthur B. Carles . Arts and Architecture . Charles Eames . Gregory Ain . Hans Hofmann . Herbert Matter . Jackson Pollock . Lee Krasner . Mercedes Matter . Ray Eames
- By John Crosse
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I recently viewed the Mercedes Matter Retrospective exhibition at Pepperdine’s Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum and luckily arrived just as Museum Director Michael Zakian was beginning a gallery talk on the show. The very enlightening lecture touched on the Matter’s California years which I found intriguing. This prompted me to purchase the exhibition catalog (see below) and to dig deeper into the Matters’ California period from late 1943 through late 1946. I also highly recommend the exhibition catalog to all fans of abstract and expressionist art, the avant-garde and the New York School.
The following blurb is from the Weisman Art Museum web site “Mercedes Matter (1913-2001) played an important role in the mid-century modern movement. Daughter of Philadelphia modernist Arthur B. Carles, she studied with Hans Hofmann in the 1930s and was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group. During WWII she and her husband, photographer Herbert Matter, lived in Santa Monica and were close to famed designers Charles and Ray Eames. In the 1950s she became part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Her friendships with painters such as Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston helped shape her own signature style, based on a bold, visceral response to objects in nature. This exhibition, the first major retrospective of Mercedes Matter’s art, was curated by Ellen Landau, professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University. It is accompanied by a book with essays by Landau, Weisman Museum director Michael Zakian, and two other art historians.”
The above Mercedes Matter exhibition catalog and related Pollock Matters exhibition catalog also edited by Ellen Landau bring out much little-known material pertaining to the relationship between Mercedes and fellow May Friend Bennett School alumna and Hans Hofmann art student Ray Eames nee Kaiser and their mutual friend Lee Krasner, also a student of Hofmann. Mercedes and Ray were also very active participants in the American Abstract Artists Association and both exhibitied work in the group’s inaugural exhibition in 1937. Lee later joined the group in 1939. The Archives of American Art Lee Krasner Oral History http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/krasne66.htm quotes Krasner “If you came into Hofmann’s aura you were aware of a painter named Arthur Carles (Mercedes father).” Ray Kaiser Eames’ Oral History includes many reverential quotes on Hofmann and references Herbert Matter’s work with the Eamses and for Arts & Architecture. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/eames80.htm.
Mercedes and Lee Krasner first met in jail after being arrested for protesting Works Progress Administration cutbacks in late 1936. Mercedes, Lee and Ray mutually suffered from the public perception of what a “women’s place” was and with many others of their ilk are just now, with exhibitions like this, emerging from the shadow’s of their husband’s public images.
The Matters moved from New York to Los Angeles in late 1943 shortly after attending the September 29th opening of close friend Alexander Calder’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Mercedes, Herbert and little Alex first stayed with the Eamses in Westwood in one of Richard Neutra’s recently built Strathmore Apartments which they had only moved into in 1941 upon their arrival from Cranbrook. (see below).
The photo below illustrates the clandestine bent plywood furniture experimentation going on in the guest bedroom not long before the Matters’ temporary stay. Eliot Noyes discusses the Eameses smuggling materials into the apartment after dark to avoid the landlord’s wrath in his article Charle Eames in the September, 1946 issue of California Arts & Architecture. Neutra was half-owner of the units at the time and his sister-in-law and mother and father-in-law were living in, and managing the apartments.
Thus it is very interesting indeed to speculate whether they were conducting this obviously messy industrial design work under the collective noses, so to speak, of the Neutra extended family and possibly having to do some heavy cleaning to prepare for the Matters arrival. (See Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture by Thomas S. Hines, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 172). Other early tenants mentioned in Hines’ book were film stars Delores Del Rio, Orson Welles and Luise Rainer and playwright husband Clifford Odets, photographer Eliot Elisofohn and John Entenza.
The Matters later moved into photographer Brett Weston’s house in nearby Rustic Canyon (see below) while he was away in the Armed Sevices. Dissatisfied with his wartime gig with the US government designing propaganda posters, Herbert was lured west by potential design work with the Eamses through Mercedes’ Hofmann Art School and American Abstract Art Association connections and friendship with Ray with whom she had stayed in touch. Being an alien he needed government approval to move, which was granted because of the Eamses’ Navy contract to produce their now famous molded plywood leg splints.
Brett Weston in front of his home-studio at 537 E. Rustic Rd., Santa Monica, ca. 1943. Photo by Ralph Miller. From A Restless Eye: A Biography of Photographer Brett Weston by John Charles Woods, Erica Weston Editions, 2011, p. 106.
The Matters stayed in Southern California until late 1946 when Herbert’s employment was no longer restricted. During this period, Herbert’s work for the Evans Products Company and Eames Office consisted of photographing design work and product and assisting with article, advertising and exhibition graphics. He also became affiliated with John Entenza’s Arts & Architecture Magazine in 1944 through his association with the Eamses.
The Eamses learned a lot from Herbert along with former Cranbrook associate Harry Bertoia, architects Gregory Ain and Griswold Raetze and others who also joined their team in 1942-3. Matter taught Charles how to skillfully use a 35 mm camera and mentored Ray in new ways of composing images for her graphic designs. With his photography and graphical design skills, Herbert documented the early furniture designs and war products of the Eameses. Beginning in 1944 he also created covers, photography and article layouts for Arts & Architecture and on a freelance basis for Conde Nast publications such as Vogue with assistance by Mercedes. (For a look at the Malibu Beach cottage Raetze designed for 1932 David Alfaro Siqueiros mural patron Dudley Murphy see “Glamourized Houses: Julius Shulman is a master at making them look dramatic,” Life, April 11, 1949, p. 146-8 and “House at Escondido Beach, Griswold Raetze, Architect,” Arts & Architecture, March 1947, pp. 26-27. For more on Murphy and Siqueiros see “Richard Neutra and the California Art Club: Pathways to the von Sternberg and Murphy Commissions“).
Herbert didn’t waste much time making a splash in the waters of the L.A. art scene as he had an exhibition of 47 of his photographs at the Los Angeles County Museum from April 16 through May 7, 1944. Work from the exhibition also appeared in the May, 1944 issue of Arts & Architecture. (See below).
Matter was also part of a group show with Evans Products colleagues Ray Eames and Harry Bertoia, fellow countryman Hans Burkhardt and other notable artists such as Man Ray, Knud Merrild, Annita Delano, Grace Clements, Circle Gallery founder Frederick I. Kann and others at the Circle Gallery on Sunset Blvd. in July through August 5th. (For much more on Delano see my Foundations of Los Angeles Modernism). The group coined themselves “The Open Circle, a formative group of abstract artists” and the gallery brochure for the show featured definitions of abstraction from Man Ray and Grace Clements. (See below). L.A. Times art critic Arthur Millier in his review of the show declared of Eames and Bertoia,
“Another original is Ray Eames. Her smaller picture (she simply labels them “Abstraction”) is a little masterpiece of formal design in brown, black and grays. And don’t overlook Harry Bertoia, the man who can make colored lines whizz around in all directions like the lines of melody in a good orchestral fugue.” (Millier, A., “Abstract Art Enthusiasts Exhibit Work,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 1944, p. III1, 6).
The above images illustrate some similarity between Mercedes’ paintings and Herbert’s cover designs. Herbert’s “light pen” drawing from actual May 1944 cover above also appears to have been a natural evolution from the maquette illustrated above left.
In the June 25, 1944 issue of the L.A. Times, Millier reviewed the exhibition of paintings, drawings, water colors and prints in a joint exhibition of fellow Eames Office team member Harry Bertoia and Lyonel Feininger at the Nierendorf Galleries at 8650 Sunset Blvd. Millier opined “…Bertoia, whose work is new to the region, shows an extraordinary power to create richly expressive effects with the abstract means of line and color.” The cauldron of creative activity taking place in the office and the art being exhibited and published must have generated a great sense of joint pride among the design crew.
Mercedes hated the isolation from her New York friends resulting from the California sojourn and the Weisman exhibition catalog includes many excerpts from letters to her mother and Lee Krasner to that effect. Mercedes was also burdened with having to raise newborn Alex which virtually halted her career in its tracks.
The Eameses began contributing articles to, and collaborating with, editor John Entenza for his California Arts & Architecture very shortly after arriving in California in 1941. Charles’ first contribution was an article “Design Today” which appeared in the September, 1941 issue in which he discussed the role of the designer in the modern world with illustrations of work by students from his Cranbrook class. Eames’ winning designs (with Eero Saarinen) in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Design” competition were reported on in the December, 1941 issue. Entenza soon realized the value of the Eames association by placing Charles on the masthead as an Editorial Associate and Ray as an Advisory Board member in 1942. (For more on how Entenza became involved with and acquired ownership of California Arts & Architecture in 1940 see my related post “California Arts & Architecture: A Steppingstone to Fame: Harwell Hamilton Harris and John Entenza: Two Case Studies”).
Ray Eames cover designs began appearing the next year and clearly show the influences of Hans Hofmann, Joan Miro, Hans Arp, Alexander Calder, and Herbert Matter. (See my related link Matters California Years for more on California Arts & Architecture and John Entenza). Ray’s art work first appeared on the cover of the April, 1942 issue from which time her designs appeared almost exclusively through most of 1944 when Entenza began to also feature Herbert Matter’s work. An article by Ray on her art and graphic design and philosophy appeared in the September, 1943 issue and was reproduced on pp. 26-27 of Arts & Architecture: The Entenza Years by Barbara Goldstein (see recommended reading below).
Above and below are examples of Hebert’s Arts & Architecture covers which appeared beginning in May, September, and December of 1944 and then almost exclusively during 1945-46. Beginning in 1944 he also contributed many now iconic interior layouts of designs by Charles and Ray Eames and others and prefabricated housing as well as to the overall look of the magazine during this incubation period of the Case Study House Program. Matter joined Charles Eames on the masthead as Editorial Associate in September, 1946, the same month his now iconic abstract cover of Eames furniture parts appeared. (See below bottom left).
The Matters also introduced to the pages of A&A the work of their inner circle of artist friends and colleagues from New York including Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, and Hans Hofmann. Herbert arranged for the Pollock interview in the February, 1944 issue and designed the cover of the January 1946 issue (top left above) featuring Calder’s Constellation. Mercedes contributed an article on her former lover and mentor Hans Hofmann in the March 1946 issue to accompany Ray Eamses’ cover design featuring a section of a Hofmann drawing. (See below).
From “Eames Design: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames” by John and Marilyn Neuhart. (from my collection)
An article Modern Handmade Jewelry featuring work by Calder (and Bertoia) appeared in December, 1946. Herbert’s art work continued to appear on A&A’s covers during 1947 (January, February, April, October and November) and 1948 (May) and in Knoll ads in the 1950s while he continued to appear on the masthead as Editorial Associate. Herbert arranged for another Hans Hofmann appearance in 1949.
Herbert Matter. “Kazam!” Machine developed mainly by architect Gregory Ain to produce the molded plywood nose section below and other aircraft parts for Vultee Aircraft. (from Work from the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, July 9, 2000 auction catalog from my collection, see below)
Model of the Eames Office at 901 Venice Blvd. constructed by John and Marilyn Neuhart in 1978. (from the Wright/21/Now Eames Auction, 08 April 2010, lot 732. http://www.wright20.com/auctions/view/JKMK/JKML/732/LA/none/JU0D/3
Eames Office staff with plywood glider nose section also seen hanging from the ceiling in the photo below. Left to right: Charles Eames, Marion Overby, Gregory Ain, Harry Bertois, Ray Eames, William Francis and Norman Bruns. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. The Work of Charles and Ray Eames. Copyright, Eames Office. Scanned from Gregory Ain: The Modern House as Social Commentary by Anthony Denzer, Rizzoli, 2008. (See recommended reading list below).
Herbert Matter photographed all of the molded plywood aircraft parts seen above as well as the sculpture by Ray Eames. See the previous and following photos for examples of the work he was doing for the Eamses soon after he and Mercedes moved to California. His photos had an almost immediate impact on the east coast as they were incorporated into the important Design for Use exhibition at MOMA in 1944. The show ran concurrently with Built in USA: A Survey of Contemporary American Architecture which included much work by Richard Neutra and his progeny including Gregory Ain, Harwell Hamilton Harris and Raphael Soriano. (See recommended reading list below).
Panels designed by Charles Eames and Herbert Matter for the New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, 1946. (top and middle images from Work from the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, July 9, 2000 auction catalog and bottom image from Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, p. 274, see recommended reading list below and http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/eames/bio.html)
Mercedes Matter recalled a circa 1945-6 dinner discussion at their place in the Weston House in Rustic Canyon regarding the design of the Entenza house at the above site. (From p. 68 of Joseph Giovannini’s The Office of Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser: The Material Trail in the below catalog for the exhibition The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: The Legacy of Invention.) She was referring to Charles’ inability to remember attribution of ideas. During dinner he asked Mercedes what she would do if she were designing a house. She said “I’d have a room, a studio without any windows, just a skylight, because I would want it to be, a room that I would be completely private in, turned inward, so I wouldn’t be distracted by looking at anything outside. And literally, three weeks later, he came over with a model of the house and said, ‘Here is a room without any windows, it’s a study, completely private, turned inward.’ He used my words, and innocently: he didn’t even remember. I was staggered. What Charles did was to organize the whole thing.”
Herbert Matter. Publicity photo for the the Museum of Modern Art’s 1946 New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames exhibition, with stabile by Matter family friend Alexander Calder. From The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention, Abrams, 1997. (see below)
The above four images indicate how the Eames Office crew was effectively collaborating on all cylinders to not only prepare for the very important 1946 MOMA New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames exhibition (top photo) but to prepare images and graphics for the equally important September, 1946 Arts & Architecture cover story Charles Eames by Museum of Modern Art Director of Industrial Design Eliot Noyes (see cover and centerfold below). The crew developed the device specifically for the MOMA show to demonstrate the strength and durability of the plywood chairs by letting them tumble around inside the rotating drum. Herbert built upon that idea with the time lapse photo used to creatively illustrate the chair in the magazine. The Table of Contents touts the Charles Eames article “An article on the most significant development in the design and manufacture of furniture in America.”
Anxious to get back, the Matters returned to New York in late 1946 leaving behind and taking with them quite a legacy of collaborative ideas and images for the Eamses and themselves to build upon for future articles, exhibition designs and product advertising layout. Mercedes quickly and elatedly caught up with her friends, resumed her career and became an important part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The Matters’ relatively short time in Los Angeles provided a great example of east coast – west coast artistic and design cross-pollination in the creative crucibles of the Eames Office and John Entenza’s Arts & Architecture during this very fertile period in Southern California design.
Recommended Further Reading:To gain a sense of Mercedes Matter’s early influence from her father’s work:
For more on the relationship between the Matters and the Pollocks (and Eamses) see:
The below very well researched and annotated auction catalog includes many lots of black and white photos by Herbert Matter from the collection of John and Marilyn Neuhart illustrating the work and design processes at the Eames Office during the 1940s with prices realized ranging between $1,000 and $4,000.
For a detailed look into everything Eames see:
For much on the Eames – Entenza relationship, features on both Ray and Charles and the Eames – Matters contributions to Arts & Architecture including the February, 1944 feature on Jackson Pollock see:
For excellent discourse on Herbert Matter’s and Ray Eames’ work for Arts & Architecture and an analysis of his important January, 1945 Case Study Program cover and her previously-mentioned January, 1944 cover see Lorraine Wild’s essay Formal, Cool, Dense: Graphic Design in Los Angeles at Midcentury in the catalog for the Oct. 7, 2007 – Jan. 6, 2008 exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art:
See more on the Eameses’ furniture designs and Matter’s graphical displays and photos of same in the above in another excellent essay, The Migration of Modernism: From the Turn-of-the-Century Vienna to Midcentury Los Angeles by Michael Boyd.
For much on Ain’s time with Neutra and the Strathmore Apts. see below:
For much on the Ain years spent at the Eames Office and earlier with Richard Neutra see:
For more on the photography and graphic design of Herbert Matter see the below exhibition catalog featuring the January, 1945 cover of Arts & Architecture on the cover of the catalog. The Herbert Matter archive is housed at Stanford University. The exhibition was curated by Jeffrey Head who also provided the text for the catalog.
Watch for the soon to be released “The Visual Language of Herbert Matter.” See trailer below.
The USPS has also just issued stamps with Hofmann’s “Golden Wall” from 1961 and Jackson Pollock’s “Convergence” from 1952. (see press release at http://www.usps.com/communications/newsroom/2010/pr10_022.htm) and stamps below.
Doug Harvey, L.A. Weekly Review: http://www.laweekly.com/2010-02-05/art-books/matter-s-most/1