Interview with Mercedes Matter, May 26, 2001
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Mercedes Matter
Question:
When did you first meet Hofmann?

Mercedes Matter:
Well, I had an aunt who was an artist- a professional artist, quite ahead of her time because she traveled all over Europe doing portraits- of people’s children, mostly- she loved children. But she wanted to understand modern art, so she went to Paris and studied with Andre Lhote. Soon after, she came back to New York just when Hofmann was starting the League, and she immediately enrolled there. After a few days she said to me, “You’ve got to go and study with him. I’ll pay your tuition.”

I was just out of school and was living in New York so I could go. And that’s how I met him. I went in and it was an evening class- PACKED- and he stopped and looked at me- he stopped what he was saying and it was very strange. And then I turned out that he knew my father in Paris before the First World War.

So I took him to Philadelphia to see my father, and he couldn’t believe anyone was painting like that in this country at that time. I mean, it was the Ashcan School period, and he was really conscious of what was going on in art and also very original as a painter. So they talked for 36 hours, without sleeping. My father was so hungry for someone on his level to talk with. I wish I’d had a way of recording that because it was a remarkable conversation.

Then I continued to study with him and he became almost part of the family- he was such a good friend.

Question:
Now, you continued studying with Hofmann when you went that summer to Gloucester?

MM:
Twice I went to Gloucester. That was the first summer I went, and a group of students and Hofmann took a house together- a lovely, lovely house near the most heavenly bay. It was a lovely little bay with a huge rock on one side that you couldn’t reach except at high tide. It had flowers growing in crevices and it was way out- it was just a wonderful place to go and sit. The second summer in Gloucester, my father was ill but he came out with a nurse and we took the same house with Hofmann. That summer we went and sat on that rock as we often did, and Hofmann was very, very depressed. I said, “What’s wrong?” and he said, “All those years of the school in Munich mean nothing to me compared to the fact that I did one painting. I’m just so depressed.”

So I said, “Well, Hans, if you’re feeling that way, why don’t you just go right to town now, right now, and buy paint and canvas and come tomorrow morning and start painting in that studio. There’s so much space.” But he started from the same still life I was painting, and he started in the manner he’d been painting before the War.

I suppose you know what happened during the War- just before it began he had tuberculosis, when he was living in Paris. So he went to Corsica to get over it and left his studio. When he was in Corsica, the War broke out and he lost all his work up to that point. So he started his school in 1914 and he was virtually occupied with his school from that time until 1934. That’s about twenty years. He must have painted sometimes, but I know he hadn’t done anything but draw for years and years before that summer.

Question:
He began painting from your still life?

MM:
From my still life, he painted in the pointillist way, which was how he had painted before he left Paris, I guess. He didn’t stay there long, because the paintings he did that winter were not painted that way. The two still lifes I saw in the Whitney retrospective show were done that winter after that summer- I just think they are wonderful paintings- and they’re not done in the pointillist way. They’re long paintings, obviously, and struggling paintings, and I think absolutely marvelous. They have all his sense of space, but they have a kind of depth that sometimes his paintings don’t have when they’re done rather spontaneously and fast, and I like these.

Question:
Tell me a little about his background in Paris.

MM:
I know (Jules) Pascin was a friend of his; he liked Pascin very much. I don’t remember who else he talked about.

Question:
Tell me about his stay at the Art Student’s League. How many students were in his class?

MM:
Oh, there were hundreds. I mean, it was packed. Young American painters were hungry for what he had to give, just to know what was going on in the world because of the Ashcan local point of view that was prevalent. They wanted to know about Picasso and what was happening in Paris, so they flocked to him at the League.

He was there for two years.



Later in that year- he’d started with a drawing class and then he had also a painting class in the afternoon or morning.

Question:
Why do you think he left the League and started his own school?

MM:
Oh, I wonder that. It was a mistake for him, because he had all the weight of it and he had less students and he had to pay the rent and everything. And the first two places he had- first he had a big skyscraper building on 50th and Madison, way upstairs. I don’t even remember what it was like, though I’m sure I was there. And then, he went to the nice loft he had in the only modern building in New York at that time- it was International Style, with glass all around. It was a low building, three floors I think, on Lexington and 57th. He had a whole floor there, so there was a lot of room.

Practically all of us in the daytime class were scholarship students that brought him no money at all. He gave scholarships to anyone who interested him who couldn’t pay, so he didn’t get much income and lived very frugally. I think there were one or two paying students, and then in the evening there were more students. There was a model in the evening and he used to draw. He made a lot of drawings from the model there.

In 1935, when the school was on 57th Street, my father (Arthur B. Carles) had a show of his work at Marie Harriman Gallery, which was just a block away. It was such a remarkable exhibition. The late paintings were all done before 1935. They were just so prophetic and so completely beyond any paintings that I know of at the time. Hofmann would take his students to the exhibition.

Question:
Why did Hofmann like your father’s work so much? What did they share?

MM:
Well, they shared the consciousness of that time. America was terribly provincial at the time. It was not connected to the things that were happening in Europe and Paris that made one think about things in a new way.

Question:
Did you go to Hofmann’s public lectures?

MM:
Well, that brings up a subject I’d like to talk about, because I always found an enormous discrepancy between Hofmann when he lectured: his ideas, his dogmatic ideas, and his real way of teaching when he was one-to-one, or with his students, when he would draw on your work and you’d see how he’d evolve a drawing, which was just fascinating because it would grow from a little pygmy on a piece of paper to an immense monumental creature. It just didn’t ever seem to really hold together, his way of talking at a lecture and the way he really was.

My most wonderful experience with Hofmann was during the first year I was studying with him at the League. We were walking up Central Park West and that just was an enormous diagonal to 110th street in the early ‘60s, and the Park on one side and all the buildings in this tremendous diagonal. And he said, “You see, appearance is different than what you know about reality. You know that it’s a long street going up to 110th, but then if you really look at it from the point of view of appearance, and in relation to what you are facing, which is the surface of your canvas, you see quite differently. For instance, you see that piece of sky above, say, 97th Street that comes way in fron of this building over here on 62nd Street…”

And suddenly everything turned around and faced me and connected with the surface that I had to deal with. And that was the beginning of everything for me. It just transformed- it was like a thunderbolt. I was overwhelmed with the excitement of seeing that connection. And to me that connection is the basis of painting.

Question:
If you were to summarize the elements of the Hofmann School that you thought were successful in terms of art education, what would they be?

MM:
First of all, it was a real art school. You worked. You didn’t go running about from one class to another. You stayed in one place and worked like a painter works. Secondly, immediately he made you aware of the importance of seeing like a painter, and the transformation that is necessary to make it real on a vertical surface, and yet to be involved with the depth in your experience. And that is the basis, more than anything. Color- he was very good about color, too, and very emphatic about it. But the basis was this sense of transformation, as opposed to descriptive on the surface. There are just pure notations of space in relation to the vertical surface, and they’re unmistakable in their depth, in their relative depth. And that’s essentially the biggest and most important of Hofmann’s teaching, I think. Certainly for me it was.

Question:
Tell me about how Hofmann would tear a drawing to make a point.

MM:
Well, you can only move two ways on a flat surface, vertically and horizontally. So he would show, say, a torso, or the head of a model coming from the torso, and the student would have drawn the outline and sort of made it right over the torso. So Hofmann would tear it and move it over to the left, say, so that there was a definite interval of space between the head and the torso.

Question:
What elements of the Hofmann School did you incorporate into the New York Studio School?

MM:
I was there and I taught what I knew, so I had to. I didn’t say, “This is Hofmann’s idea,” although the first year, he came to visit the School and he felt so at home there that he started right in teaching! But it was about painting and drawing, and how could it not be in harmony with his ideas, because they were very sound ideas.

Before I started the Studio School I taught at Pratt Institute and the Philadelphia College of Art, which is now the University of the Arts. I couldn’t believe it when I realized that if I went there on a Thursday to teach and I came back the next Thursday, they hadn’t painted in between. They were doing a hundred other things. So they’d paint once a week. I thought, “My God, where did that ever come into being, it’s so ridiculous.” I just thought that when you run about from one class to another and everybody teaches differently and you’re doing a lot of academic things, that you’re nowhere. You don’t know who you are or what you’re doing because it’s all different. There was no inwardness. There was no time for inwardness. And so the School was simply a real art school where you went and you worked all day every day, and you weren’t being pushed around and pressured.

The second year of the Studio School I asked Hans Hofmann to teach because he felt so at home when he came to visit. I remember writing to him when I saw what was happening to my life because of the School. It was taking over my life and swamping me with things I had to do, and I wrote to Hans and I said, “You were very taken over by your school in Munich and I helped you, and now I need your help…” I didn’t send it right away, and then he died, within weeks of my writing that. He didn’t teach because that was the year that he died.

Question:
What made Hofmann such a good teacher?

MM:
Well, first of all, he had an incredible energy that he projected that was so inspiring. He had this incredible “chi,” this energy and vitality. Secondly, he projected ideas that had come to pass in Paris among the great painters of the early part of the century, and very clearly was able to make students understand them.

Question:
What elements of Hofmann’s teaching do you think are still relevant?

MM:
Painting doesn’t stop because somebody starts to throw some dirt on the floor or spit on the canvas. Painting has existed longer than the twentieth century, and any good painter is steeped in the same understanding of painting. I don’t at all believe in fashion and trends. I can’t say enough against them. It’s so frivolous. Up to the point of Abstract Expressionism, the real center was the artist doing something. When de Kooning and Pollock became successful and brought money in, the whole thing changed. To me, this new trend every few months and the connection between dealers and critics and museum directors trying to LEAD the way? I mean, who the hell are THEY to do it?! But certainly the nature of painting doesn’t change because some trend wants to make it something else. Of course Hofmann’s theories are still relevant.

Question:
One of the things we haven’t touched on yet is that Hofmann worked from nature. Why do you suppose he placed so much emphasis on his students working from nature?

MM:
Because he knew that was how you learned. You’re looking at the world around you the way you do when you live. You look, you see, and you learn to see as a painter. You learn to connect, to make that connection.

Question:
I’ve been listening to tapes of Hofmann in which he says that you cannot really teach art. All you can do is encourage students to do what they can.

MM:
Well, he did a lot of teaching about specific points. Of course, you can’t make someone become an artist. They have to have what it takes, and the drive, and the intelligence, et cetera. But I think that he taught a great deal more than just encouraging.

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