A Question of Originality

Jan Matulka's oil on canvas: Still Life with Mandoline and Pears (circa 1925)

The Lowe Art Museum's latest show, "Jan Matulka: Global Modernist," presents the work of a fine artist and a reputed teacher. What I find interesting is by recognizing Matulka's contribution to the art world, this exhibit consequently examines the problem of originality within American modern art.

What did originality mean from the standpoint of the avant-garde? According to Renato Poggioli, antagonizing mainstream ideals was a key factor. Even if the idea was to eliminate the past altogether (as Filippo Marinetti recommended in his belligerent 1909 manifesto of Futurism), in reality it was sufficient to decisively confront tradition.

Being original during such times meant devising a vocabulary personal enough (even within a given current or movement) to clearly separate one's work.

In fact the history of early American modern art was greatly affected by this dynamic: mixing modern European influences such as Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, et cetera, with autochthonous vocabularies that represented the budding optimism generated by America's urban and natural landscapes during the Twenties.

This is why it was customary for American artists during the period from 1918 to 1929 to visit Europe (particularly Paris). Matulka was no exception. Born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1890, Matulka studied art for two years in Prague before coming to the United States with his family in 1907. From 1908 to 1917 he attended New York's National Academy of Design, where he became the first recipient of the Joseph Pulitzer traveling scholarship.

In 1919 Matulka traveled to Paris; there he was exposed to Cubism, the principal trend of the times. This new style gave the Czech artist the opportunity to move away from the Impressionistic methods taught in American schools. It was during this period that Matulka's art took a turn.

His drawings were clearly influenced by a pre-Cubist Pablo Picasso (notably the portraits of Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, and Max Jacob). Jean Cocteau labeled the Spanish painter's technique "à la Ingres," because of its clean and suave manner, similar to that of Neoclassical French painter Dominique Ingres.

Matulka's Portrait of Lida, a lovely study of his wife's face, is executed with seamless lines. Seated Nude, Two Standing Nudes, and Two Nudes (all from 1921) display a confident stroke and exude a curved sensuality.

Nature mort became the favored genre among all painters at the beginning of this century. During his conversations with American writer Gertrude Stein, Picasso described still life as his favorite medium with which to experiment (much of the analytic and synthetic Cubism evolved by exploiting the still-life genre).

This is perhaps Matulka's weakest area of expertise. Arrangement with Phonograph (1925) -- a collage combining a mandolin, an African mask, a phonograph, and partially closed French doors revealing a sliver of night sky -- exhibits an excessive amount of exotique Parisien. Still Life with South Seas Mask (circa 1929) is also too visibly mesmerized by Picasso's stylistic spell.

I was fascinated and taken aback by Still Life with Mandoline and Pears, which today could be viewed as Paul Cézanne appropriation, and Still Life with Classical Head (1935) is finished in the manner of Giorgio de Chirico's scuola metafisica movement.

How could Matulka, an informed artist who taught and defended the American modern masters (someone who also operated studios in Paris and New York during the Twenties), not realize that these paintings -- as attractive as they may be -- were derivative? Did he know? Stuart Davis, a New York painter and one of Matulka's contemporaries, wrote in 1941: "I paint what I see in America ... I don't want to copy Matisse or Picasso ... I don't make paintings like theirs, I make paintings like mine."

I doubt Matulka didn't care. Perhaps for a time his heart was just too closely tied to Paris, which prevented him from fully developing a personal American style. Take Evening, Casis, and Boat Scene in Central Park, all from 1921. The differences between them are very subtle, but it's obvious the latter is no more original than an à la mode French sailor's postcard.

In her catalogue essay about the exhibit, Whitney Rugg leaves Matulka's lack of recognition in New York open to debate, a sort of mystery. Then she defends Matulka's "fluid transitions between media" as a pluralist approach informed by trends in Eastern European Modernism.

Yet when Rugg names Matulka alongside other early American Modernists, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley, she fails to differentiate their specific contributions. Dove, Hartley, and O'Keeffe (as well as other early Modernists such as Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler) developed individual styles throughout the Twenties.

Hartley mixed Expressionistic influences with experimental abstraction to create luminous landscapes that influenced Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana. Dove was considered quite experimental (as his 1925 Goin' Fishin' series proves) when he combined collage with nineteenth-century Americana, and consequently inspired the work of Robert Rauschenberg. O'Keeffe's paintings exhibited an economy of detail and a skillful refinement. They were representative yet sensuously abstract.

Rugg fails to note Matulka's best work is found among his interpretations of modern American cityscapes. The lithograph series Arrangement -- New York and his New York Harbor/Paris (1925) -- Cubist-like renditions of New York -- resonate with optimism, coherence, and simplicity.

In Trees (1925), a grayish oil painting showing bare trees in the dark, Matulka's economic rendering is startling, using a skillful blend of hues ranging from brown to purple. The piece elicits an ominous mood.

Even in the late Forties, as Abstraction began to take sway in America, the chameleonlike Matulka shifted his language surprisingly close to the work of his friend Arshile Gorky. One can see he dabbled here and there, searching for his own center.

Labeling Matulka as a global painter baffled me. Was he global because of his origin, his stylistic references, or both? It's odd because his pictorial influence is French through and through.

Someone may retort I'm laboring the issue of originality in the context of this man's work. Yet given the era in which he lived, individuality was integral to the manner in which Matulka's art was received and the way it was and continues to be re-evaluated.

Also showing are Robin Griffiths's sculptures, which catapulted me into a veritable time warp somewhere between an apocalyptic world clinging to life by its fingernails and a past desperately hoarding its own recycled junk. In addition, his art radiates a sort of mad scientist craft and joy. My advice is to see "Before the Storm Hits" at Dorsch Gallery.

Some of Griffiths's best pieces possess this part outdoor-furniture, part sculpture quality. Walk around and take a seat on his massive Scorpio Chaise, made with ipe wood (the piece is actually comfortable and stately). Stop by Prow, a gaunt, very tall three-legged wooden piece -- which has already broken once in transit. It's a gem; battered and barely repaired, it resembles the gait and pride of a fighter.

Surely the show's tour de force is Curtain of Detritus, metal mesh affixed to an iron bar secured to the gallery's ceiling, filled with a veritable pile of debris: chipboards of different sizes, coils, small television sets, PC fans, tubes, rolls of cable, a broom, a pedestal, among other objects. It seems as though we're glimpsing Griffiths's back-yard junk (patiently accumulated over the years) frozen in time, as it flies, propelled by a gust of stormy wind.

Then there are walls filled with all sorts of sketches, notes, letters, and storm printouts, with no particular order other than to say, "This is me, Robin Griffiths." It works. And whether you like it or not, few artists can get away with that.

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