Jan Matulka


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Painter and printmaker. Adept in a number of modern styles, he functioned as an important intermediary in transmitting European modernism to his American students and colleagues. Originally from Vlachovo Brezi, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), near Prague, he arrived in the United States in 1907. He soon began his art studies at the National Academy of Design and in 1917–18 used a fellowship to travel widely, particularly through the Southwest. He numbered among the earliest modernists to appreciate that region's landscape and its Indian and Hispanic cultures. Upon his return, he began to work toward abstraction. At first, he fractured motifs, often figures, into brightly colored planes, related to synchromist color abstraction. By about 1920, some of his work was completely abstract, consisting of precisely drawn forms interlocking in dynamic two-dimensional patterns. In the 1920s, Matulka spent considerable time in Paris, where he kept a studio until 1934. He also returned many times to paint the landscape in the region of his birth. In these years, he began to incorporate realistic elements into compositions that continue to emphasize abstract structure. Often these depict urban environments in hard-edge, patterned compositions that compress depth to a shallow space. Although these resemble contemporary precisionism in their subjects and clean construction, Matulka generally placed greater emphasis on abstract pictorial energies. The work of Fernand Léger provided an important model. In the same period, Matulka also painted landscapes, which depend structurally on Cézanne's method but often aim for more dramatic, expressionistic effects, as in the watercolor White Oak (Hirshhorn Museum, c. 1923). In the 1930s, as much of his work responded to surrealism, he also worked for a federal art project. Matulka strongly influenced many students through his teaching at the Art Students League and in his studio. As interest mounted in a renewal of abstract art in the late 1930s, he aided the full assimilation of earlier European painting necessary to the emergence of abstract expressionism. Perhaps because he did not suppress his wide-ranging interests in favor of a recognizable signature style, his work failed to attract much critical or financial support. Nevertheless, at his death in New York, he remained highly esteemed among leading artists.

Subjects: Art.

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