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Jan Matulka - The Global Modernist

September 19, 2004 - January 16, 2005

 

(above: Turi Pole Landscape, c. 1921, watercolor and conte crayon on paper, 23 x 19 inches. Private Collection)


Jan Matulka - The Global Modernist, a major retrospective survey of this complex and fascinating Czech-American modernist artist, will open at the Montclair Art Museum September 19, 2004.  The exhibition is organized by TMG Projects and the Montclair Art Museum, and drawn from the estate of Jan Matulka and private and public collections. It includes 66 works -- paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, and illustrations produced by the artist between 1916 and 1950. Ranging from vivid, pastoral landscapes to advanced abstractions, the works dramatically illustrate Matulka's art as a probing compendium of transatlantic stylistic developments spanning from impressionism to abstract expressionism. A restless traveler and dedicated teacher, Matulka created a prodigious body of work that reflects a European appreciation for modernism and artistic innovation and a deeply political streak that made him a regular contributor to the progressive New Masses publication. He maintained close contacts and friendships with a wide range of leading European and American artists. (right: Landscape in Southern France, c. 1922, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 31 inches. Estate of Jan Matulka)

Matulka was born in 1890, in Bohemia, which later became the Czech Republic. He moved to the United States in his late teens, and he soon began studying at the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1917 and 1918, Matulka traveled throughout the American Southwest on a scholarship, producing work based on Native American themes.  He was among the first modernist artists to travel to the Southwest and he captured the Hopi Snake dance in a modern idiom. Matulka was a revered teacher, both at the Art Students League and as a private instructor, known for giving extensive encouragement and creative license to many students including David Smith, Burgoyne Diller, and George L.K. Morris.

Patterson Sims, Director of MAM, is the coordinator of The Global Modernist exhibition at MAM. Sims has included additional loans of Matulka's work from the Whitney Museum of American Art and New York private collections, including works inspired by Native American art. Sims was the co-organizer of a previous major survey of Matulka's work in 1979-80,which was a collaboration between the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art) in Washington, D.C. He will conduct a gallery tour of the exhibition on Sunday, September 19th, at 2 p.m. (right: Still Life with Mandolin and Pears, c. 1925, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Private Collection)

The Global Modernist will be on view in MAM's Judy and Josh Weston Exhibition Gallery through January 16, 2005. The exhibition will then tour to the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina; the Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, Florida; the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia; the Avampato Discovery Museum, Charleston, West Virginia; and The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio.

A catalogue with an introduction by Patterson Sims will accompany the exhibition, and is available for purchase from The Montclair Art Museum's Store.

 

Catalogue Introduction by Patterson Sims:

 

Reconsidering Jan Matulka

 

From the teens to the early 1950s, the very sincere and hard working painter, draftsman, and printmaker Jan Matulka created a prodigious output of art. Pencil and paint at hand, he frequented and pictured locales as varied as rural south Bohemia, Manhattan, the New England seacoast, and the American Southwest. Seemingly never aesthetically blocked, he could shift from composing politically barbed illustrations for the New Masses journal to depicting disparate still life objects on a canted table. He worked with equal facility in abstract and precise, realist modes. Matulka's myriad subjects and styles coalesced in a signature approach that stressed outlines and diagonals, jaunty and densely packed compositions, and an often florid, vivid palette.

Having co-organized the first Matulka museum retrospective in the late 1970s, as this second retrospective brings his work to the attention of new audiences, I ask, is Matulka's art more or less relevant? Are its multiple styles and subjects less jarring and confounding than they appeared twenty-five years ago? Does his art and career now look more credible and comprehensible given the contemporary scene's propensity for artists who work in many media and styles and when art exists on a global, rather than local or national, stage? If Matulka's clear stylistic mentor and primary influence was Pablo Picasso, then does Matulka's status and way of working rise along with the continually ascending master artist of the twentieth century, venerated for having even more artistic facility and diverse styles than intimate interpersonal relationships?

Certainly Matulka's contribution as the teacher of and positive influence upon a significant percentage of the small band of American modernists and abstract artists who emerged in the early 1930s validates his importance. His gifted cadre of students at New York's Art Students League of New York and privately at a downtown studio space included, briefly, Francis Criss and George L.K. Morris, and, more influentially, George McNeil, Irene Rice Pereira, Dorothy Dehner, Edgar Levy, Michael Loew, J. Wyatt Davis (the brother of Stuart Davis), and, most famously, David Smith. Matulka's influence upon Smith and several of his other students was summed up memorably by Smith, "Matulka was the kind of teacher that would say you've got to make abstract art -- got to hear the music of Stravinsky -- Have you read... Stendhal?... It was from him that for the first time I learned Cubism and Constructivism... Matulka was the most notable influence on my work -- I was going to say 'life,' because my work is my life." (1) His students sustained loyalty and affection surfaced thirty years later, when in the aftermath of the pivotal David Smith retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1969 several of them and other associates purchased from Matulka a still life painting of around 1930 to give to the Art Students League. A second outcome of Smith's retrospective was that the Guggenheim Museum accepted the gift of eleven drawings and another circa 1930 painting from the artist's widow. Ultimately, the positive light that Smith's retrospective shed upon his former teacher launched the revival of the interest in Matulka's work that this exhibition continues.

The respect and lasting interest in Matulka's work is likewise attributable to its quality and range and how very much work there is to see and appreciate. As demonstrated in this exhibition, gathered primarily from the resources of his estate and family, Matulka made a great deal of highly accomplished art that is still not in public or private collections. I thought I had seen nearly every work by Matulka that still existed when preparing the Whitney Museum of American Art and National Collection of Fine Arts (now called the Smithsonian American Art Museum) retrospective of 1979-81, yet many of the works assembled here were unfamiliar to me and are as strong as the ones that were selected for the previous museum show. His heirs either held back from view or retained work that did not fit into a tidy picture of his development, or my curatorial biases, focused on the work of the 1920s and early 1930s, simply rejected or denigrated the more problematic aspects of his oeuvre. Though much more work has emerged from the estate of the artist and a few other sources and this show extends the meaningful duration of his work another decade to around 1950, no comparable cache of previously unknown dated works or any written records from the artist or those close to him have surfaced to amplify our knotty understanding of the intentions, development, or dating of his work. This survey is much more forthright about Matulka's practice of over-painting, leaving compositions unfinished, and working in multiple styles. Now, in an era when artists work in all media, favor the ephemeral, make drawing their primary medium, and eschew homogeneous style, Matulka's muscular and often hectic assimilation of different modes of abstraction and representation -- and particularly his later forays into surrealism and abstract expressionism -- have become less perplexing and problematic.

While Matulka undeniably made most of his very best work in the 1920s and 1930s, the intriguing coda to his career from the late 1930s and through the 1940s deserves to be seen. During this time he worked in a parallel, though likely very isolated, way with some of the period's most sophisticated surrealist and American abstract artists. Even though Matulka was said to have destroyed considerable amounts of his art in his final years, and his penury required that he paint over previous canvases, use both sides of sheets of paper and the backs of exhibition announcements and correspondence he received (our best way to date later works), he remained highly productive. His valor and steadfastness in the total absence of any critical support and sales of his art is the all too familiar tale for most emerging modernist American artists in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Whatever his fate in the art market, Matulka seems to have had highly cordial and mutually respectful relationships with some of the best artists of his time. His friendships and associations with Stuart Davis and other, European-born and much more renowned artistic innovators like Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham place him in refined company. Like all of these artists, he made his respectful and enamored homages to the work of Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Leger, and Miro. But the major difference between Matulka and Davis, de Kooning, Gorky, and Graham is that he was denied or simply lacked the talent and genius to fashion a final, truly original and personal style. He certainly showed more extensively in the 1920s and 1930s than many now much better known artists. In fact, Matulka's work was included, as recently discovered, at the Montclair Art Museum's 1932 exhibition of "Modern Paintings", in which a still life, possibly one now seen here over seventy years later, was shown. As they blossomed in the 1940s and, except for Gorky, the 1950s, Matulka dropped out and descended. His art faded just as they and other, American Abstract Expressionist artist assumed international importance. Matulka could not make the same giant leaps of his eminent colleagues to define a breakthrough, personal style, yet, earlier, as the art historian Henry Adams has asserted, "no other artist in this country so confidently mastered the language of cubist arrangement, or produced such a hopeful assertion of the creative possibilities of creative possibilities of modern art." (2)

Over the last twenty five years homogeneous style has become less a prerequisite for artistic production and acclaim, and Matulka's proficiency in and propensity for polyglot styles appears less confounding. We can respect, rather than question, the multiple aspects of his work that command our consideration. From the compelling, faceted depictions of Native Americans made on his trip to the American Southwest; his tightly composed and increasingly complex puzzle-piece abstractions of the 1920s and the 1930s, with the later examples' intriguing affinities with the so-called Indian Space paintings of Steve Wheeler, Peter Busa, Howard Daum, to the surrealistic phase leading into lyric yet crude linear interweavings that strongly suggested that in his fifties he was looking admiringly at Pollock and other emerging, expressionist artists.

As interest in Abstract Expressionism has grown spectacularly in the last quarter century, the global enthrallment which enshrined the generation which emerged after the Second World War makes us want to better understand and appreciate those who preceded them. Traditionally, we credit the community of European émigrés who fled to this country during the war. However, there are equally potent American sources. Consider the striking visual affinities between the work of Arthur Dove and the later paintings of William Baziotes and Helen Frankenthaler. Marsden Hartley's fierce and emotive surfaces are packed with and anticipate the vital and primordial energy of action painting. The web of lines and ideas in the art of Stuart Davis that are no less than fuel for the Abstract Expressionists than the conceptualists. It is no longer heretical to suggest that the reductive geometries of the earlier work of Theodore Roszak, Burgoyne Diller, or Sidney Gordin are predecessors of Minimalism.

Having left the 20th century, we can appreciate its entire sweep. With a more distanced and global perspective, we can reconsider artists on their individual merits. With less doubt and perplexity, we can derive pleasure and perceive meaning in the many-sided and muscular modernism of Jan Matulka.

Patterson Sims
Director, Montclair Art Museum

 

Notes:

(1) David Smith, "Events in a Life" in David Smith by David Smith, ed. Cleve Grey (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), p.24
(2) Jan Matulka: A Catalogue of Selections from the Estate of Jan Matulka (1890-1972), Henry Adams, Thomas McCormick Gallery, 1999, Chicago, page 46

While we correctly venerate museums for the role they play in researching, presenting, and preserving art, the equally crucial role of dealers in the identification, appreciation, ongoing support, and maintenance of the reputations and estates of artists of merit and cultural value should not be forgotten. In the preservation of Jan Matulka's art the role of Robert Schoelkopf and his euphonious New York gallery that so sadly closed with his death, the late private dealer Elizabeth Ives Bartholet, and more recently the efforts of Thomas McCormick in Chicago are to be saluted for the focus upon and understanding of Matulka's art that they have made possible. (right: Boat Houses, Gloucester, c.1931, gouache on paper, 12 x19 inches. Private Collection)

 

 

Also on View at the Montclair Art Museum

Indian Space Works from the Montclair Art Museum's Permanent Collection will also open at MAM on September 19th. Indian Space Works is an illuminating sampling from a group of American artists who sought to create a new, unique language of American art by using Cubist and Surrealist techniques in combination with traditional, Native American art forms and symbols.  The exhibition includes 1940's works by Will Barnet, Peter Busa, Richard Pousette-Dart, Steve Wheeler and Howard Daum.  Indian Space Works is curated by Twig Johnson and Gail Stavitsky. 

rev. 10/20/04

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