A few years ago, I opened the newspaper to find a story on the resurrection of a beloved graphic icon. It seems a group of railroad fanatics had come together to restore 16 locomotives to bear the black-and-red paint scheme of the long-defunct New Haven Railroad. And they were successful: today the trains are running in and out of Grand Central Terminal, bearing the striking logo that looks as good now as it did when it was retired in 1968.
I read the article with pleasure at first, and then with mounting exasperation. A half dozen names were invoked in the saga: the conductor who had the original idea to restore the trains; a trainspotter from the Bronx who spearheaded the effort; a couple of transit bureaucrats who moved the effort along; the president of the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association; even "a graphic artist from Queens, James C. Smith Jr." who was "brought in to adapt the New Haven designs." Everyone got some credit, it seems, except the genius who was the original author of those beloved New Haven Railroad designs, Herbert Matter.
These days, however, Herbert Matter is finally in the news. Except this time it's not as a designer, but as a particularly prescient packrat.
Last month, 32 previously unknown works attributed to the late Jackson Pollock were revealed to the world by Alex Matter, the 63-year-old son of Herbert and Mercedes Matter. According to the New York Times, these early "drip" paintings, "wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, were included with other artworks and letters that the elder Mr. Matter had left with other personal effects after his death in 1984." While their legitimacy is being disputed in some quarters, to many Pollock authorities the paintings appear genuine. If so, some experts suggest they could be worth up to $10 million.
In accounts about the discovery, Herbert Matter has been variously described as "a "graphic artist and photographer," "photographer, filmmaker and Pollack friend," and most frequently the all-purpose "longtime associate." To many readers, this might suggest a faceless hanger-on, hoarding the castoffs of his famous friends. Herbert Matter was anything but.
Matter was born in Switzerland in 1907 and studied in Paris with Ferdinand Leger. Working as a designer and photographer inspired by Man Ray and Cassandre, he secured his reputation with his iconic posters for the Swiss Tourist Office, and emigrated to the United States in 1936. There, Matter and his wife Mercedes established ties to the mid-century art community that were deep and profound. From their studio in Greenwich Village's McDougall Alley, the Matters maintained friendships with not just Pollack and his wife Lee Krasner, but Alexander Calder, Franz Kline, Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning, among others. His immersion in this world led to the design of books, catalogs, exhibitions and films, all informed by Matter's sympathetic imagination and sure sense of design. HIs friendship with Pollack began when the painter was largely unknown; there is speculation that the forgotten package of early work was put aside to form the basis of some never-realized publication.
What is striking today is Matter's ability to reconcile this level of cultural engagement with commercial projects of the highest order, which included not only his robust work for the New Haven Railroad, but corporate idenities for Knoll and posters for Container Corporation. His friend and fellow Yale faculty member Paul Rand put it well in a poem he wrote for a catalog for a 1977 exhibition of Matter's work. It begins:
Herbert Matter is a magician.
To satisfy the needs of industry, that's what you have to be.
Industry is a tough taskmaster.
Art is tougher.
Industry plus Art, almost impossible.
About 20 years after Matter's death, I nearly discovered my own treasure trove. On a rare trip to the Hamptons, I walked into a bookstore and almost fainted. There on the walls were displayed a striking set of about a dozen large illustration boards, each featuring a variation of an immediately recognizable design scheme, painstakingly rendered in black and red gouache. Composing myself, in my most blasé tone I casually asked the proprietor if he'd consider breaking up the set. Alas, at Glenn Horowitz Booksellers, they know their graphic design. "We would never sell these separately," I was cooly informed. "These are Herbert Matter's original presentation drawings for the New Haven railroad." Rats. The price was something like $20,000.
That East Hampton bookstore is an exception, of course. Even within the world of art and design, Herbert Matter is relatively unknown. And unfairly so: I would argue that Matter was as important a figure in the field of graphic design as Jackson Pollack was in the world of art. With Pollock's long-lost paintings finally seeing the light of day, it is a perfect occasion to bring some overdue attention to the designer who stored them away.