Some people have it rough. Born into the East Coast cultural aristocracy in 1913, Mercedes Matter began life as a beloved and privileged artistic prodigy. Her father was Arthur B. Carles, a pioneer American abstract painter who studied with Matisse, showed at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery and exhibited work in the legendary Armory Show. He was also an unrepentant bohemian: long-haired and bearded, a lifelong alcoholic and womanizer. Her mother, Mercedes de Cordoba, was a Parisian correspondent for Vogue and a favorite model of photographer Edward Steichen. Her uncle Pedro was a star of Broadway and early Hollywood, and her aunt Sara was a famous fashion photographer and illustrator. Her father started her painting at the age of 6, and she spent her early teens touring the art capitals of Europe. After attending the progressive girls' school Bennett College in Millbrook, New York, she moved to Manhattan and began studying with Hans Hofmann at the Art Students' League.

Matter (then going by the name Jeanne Carles) and Hofmann (33 years her senior) became close friends — briefly lovers — and maintained a close relationship until Hofmann's death, in 1966. Matter is said to have lured Hofmann back to painting after a two-decade hiatus, and casually instigated the summer painting retreat that evolved into Hofmann's Provincetown school. She became the lover of another student of Hofmann's, painter Wilfrid Zogbaum. Fudging paperwork, Matter qualified for the WPA dole and became an assistant, translator and lover to Fernand Leger, who was in America designing WPA murals along the Hudson River. In 1936 Matter was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists Association, became the lover of Arshile Gorky, and was arrested at a WPA demonstration and thrown in jail. There, she met Lee Krasner, who became another close — though not lifelong — friend, joining Hofmann's painting class and modeling jewelry for Matter's close friend Alexander Calder.

Through Leger, Matter met and began working for Swiss graphic designer and photographer Herbert Matter, who, as an artist for Condé Nast publications, was largely responsible for translating the photomontage innovations of the dadaists into the visual vocabulary of the cultural mainstream. They, too, soon became lovers. In 1941 they married, but by some condition of Herbert's Swiss citizenship, they were forced to move to Santa Monica and work for Charles and Ray Eames for the duration of World War II. Upon returning to Manhattan, they found themselves at the center of the burgeoning New York school — Krasner was now married to Jackson Pollock, and both Hofmann and Gorky were seminal figures in the emerging language of abstract expressionism. The Matters were among the Pollocks' closest friends, and Mercedes was part of the inner circle at the Cedar Bar and the first woman member of the Artists Club, forming close friendships with Philip Guston, Bill and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, critic Harold Rosenberg, and composers Morton Feldman and John Cage, among others. Herbert joined the Yale fine-art faculty, and Mercedes went on to found the Studio School, a small but influential atelier-style institution in the original home of the Whitney Museum.

All this biography is a roundabout buildup to the big question: “Mercedes who?” It's hard to imagine a more advantageous entrée into the nascent Art World, and with close friends like these, you'd have to be a pretty lousy artist not to make some kind of dent. Which seems to have been the prevailing public perception — where there was any at all — of Mercedes' role in the AbEx pantheon: important educator, but otherwise a socialite dabbler. A small but cogent traveling retrospective — currently on view at the Weisman Museum at Pepperdine University — gives the lie to this misassessment. Beginning with a pair of startling small works painted at the age of 8 (!), “Mercedes Matter” traces the artist's steady evolution — incorporating and synthesizing Postimpressionism, fauvism, expressionism, cubism, Hofmann's principles of spatial composition with pure color, the loopy, automatist compositions of the early New York School, and the innovations of her AbEx peers — through to her bittersweet blossoming in the late '90s after the death of Herbert and most of her contemporaries (Mercedes died in December 2001).

The work itself is remarkable in its formal accomplishment — trembling on the brink of pure abstraction, but structurally grounded in landscapes, occasional figurative studies and, most predominantly, still lifes. At their most complex, these barely pictorial tabletop arrangements possess a shimmering geometric intricacy that pushes the origami-like triangulations of Franz Marc to the threshold of incoherence. Matter's mastery of Hofmann's trademark “Push/Pull” color theory, quite frankly, exceeds that of the master himself. Her gradually increasing incorporation of white space (including raw canvas) is convincingly described in the impressively unwieldy catalog as a sort of exorcism of the influence of Hofmann and her father (also a renowned colorist), culminating in her final series of monochromatic charcoal drawings on canvas.

This exorcism metaphor is the key to Matter's puzzling anonymity. In letters and other biographical material included in curator Ellen Landau's insightful essay, Matter's abject infatuation with her father's talent and the glittering world of cultural sophistication into which she was born is spelled out repeatedly. “I am getting so that I can't draw at all and get so ashamed when I think how disappointed Daddy will be when he asks to see something I've done,” she wrote to her mother in 1929. “I'd rather show him nothing than any of my work these days!” With a handful of exceptions, this seems to have been her S.O.P. until her late breakthrough. Attached to Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis galleries — arguably the two most important dealers of her era — she was unable to commit to a solo show, feeling the work wasn't ready.

In the context of the market-driven art world we have all come to know and love, such persistent nonparticipation appears downright pathological. And yet it doesn't seem to have inhibited or impaired Matter's will to create. In fact, it appears to have nurtured her independence from prevailing fashions — her stubborn adherence to unironic representation (however tenuous) and her insistence on the primacy of drawing would have scuttled her currency throughout most of the late 20th century. Instead, they became the foundation of her philosophy of art, and the curricular emphasis of the Studio School. At a point in time when the role and structure of art education are once again the center of growing public debate, her emphasis on sustained physical work to train the visual and kinesthetic senses is a welcome corollary to the prevailing discourse on “cross-disciplinary research models” and the slide-library genocide.

Ultimately, though, this overdue surprise is testimony to the irrepressibility of the hardwired human need to create visual art, and to the irrelevance of the critical and market establishments to the creative spirit's ability to survive and flourish. Matter was able to produce a body of work equal to and surpassing many of her better known peers, outside the hydroponic glare of celebrity, nurtured by the collegial support of her community and her sense of place in art history conceived as a continually shifting geometry of influence; the artist as perpetual student and, if the fates demand it, occasional teacher. It's the work that matters.

Mercedes Matter: A Retrospective Exhibition: Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu; through April 4.

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