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Herbert Matter

Herbert Matter

Herbert Matter

Herbert Matter

Art Market Watch

by Christopher Sweet

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Famously reticent but much respected by cognoscenti, the Swiss-born New York photographer Herbert Matter (1907-1984) stood at the center of the cultural collision of art, photography, film and design in post-war New York that is otherwise known as the New York School. Indeed, he was introduced to his wife, the artist Mercedes Matter (née Carles) by Fernand Léger, and the two became fast friends with another fabled art couple, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.

A stellar group of vintage photographs by Matter are now available to perspicacious collectors on Artnet Auctions in a sale that runs until Sept. 22, 2011. The photographs include a group of nudes Matter took of his wife in Provincetown in 1940, a year or so into their marriage. The majestic upright Nude (1940, est. $7,000-$9,000), a gelatin silver print with a delicate scrim of sand adding a fine grain to her torso, is especially impressive.

It was Mercedes, an original and longtime member of the American Abstract Artists, who first met Lee Krasner in 1936 when the two were arrested and jailed together for protesting cuts in WPA arts funding. The closeness of their long friendship was celebrated by Pollock, when he said of Matter, “You know, I really love that guy. I love Herbert Matter.”  Matter’s experiments in the darkroom, where he developed a unique brand of abstract photography, may have influenced Pollock in his desire to make energy visible through his drip technique of painting.

The Artnet Auctions selection of photographs by Matter include the powerful, molten Light Drawing of 1943, which was included in Matter’s first one-man show of photographs at the Pierre Matisse Gallery that same year. Opening his camera, Matter used a small flashlight to “draw” the image on the back of a 4 x 5 negative and then with the same negative, photographed an image of open space. The unique print carries a presale estimate of $6,000-$8,000.

Matter employed a host of darkroom techniques and devices to create his pictures, including montage, collage, rephotography, reverse printing, solarization and all manner of other kinds of photo manipulation. He also used unlikely materials to make photographs. For instance, Ice on Glass from the early 1940s (est. $3,500-$4,500), is an expressive abstract composition made with actual ice cubes. It resonates with the clotted black-and-white abstractions that Willem de Kooning, another friend, would paint later that decade.  

Matter's gelatin silver print Rubber Cement (ca. 1948, est. $3,500-$4,500) has a Miró-esque quality with its almost whimsical but incisive forms gamboling in a seeming deep space while skimming an impenetrable surface. In essence, Herbert Matter created the photographic equivalent of Abstract Expressionism.

As a designer and photographer, Matter also bridged the worlds of fine art and commerce at a time when such a posture was largely untenable (though photography has always been promiscuous in this respect). Artnet Auctions boasts three photographs from the fashion world -- Hand in Stocking, a photogram made in 1955, and Woman with Beads (1948) and Model for Vogue (1948) -- that bring an undeniable avant-garde inventiveness to commercial glamour. The estimates on these works are in the $2,500-$6,500 range.

The auction of these Herbert Matter lots is scheduled to close on the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011.

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