Jan Matulka occupies an important place in the history of American modernism: as a painter, he was one of the first to explore the strategies of Cubism, while in his role as a teacher, he promoted abstraction and other forms of vanguard painting to a younger generation of artists.
Born in Vlachova Brezi, a small town in southern Czechoslovakia, Matulka was the eldest of six children, and the only son, of John and Maria Matulka. Artistically inclined as a child, he spent about two years studying art in Prague before emigrating to America with his family in 1907. When his parents separated shortly thereafter, Matulka and his siblings remained with their mother in the Bronx, where they endured years of financial hardship.
Matulka attended the school of the National Academy of Design from 1908 to 1917, working under traditional academic painters such as Francis Coates Jones and George Willoughby Maynard. An excellent student, he received a number of prizes, including the Joseph Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship, which provided him with the opportunity to travel to the Southwest and Florida during 1917-1918.
Matulka’s style of the 1910s reflects a variety of influences ranging from Realism to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. However, by the time of his return to New York in 1918, he was beginning to incorporate elements of abstraction into his work. He continued to move in this direction after making his first trip to Paris in 1919, during which time he studied all types of avant-garde painting, but especially Cubism, a style that would permeate his art for the remainder of his career. During this period, his progressive inclinations were reinforced by his association with other abstractionists, notably the Synchromist painters James Daugherty and Jay Van Everen.
Matulka was most prolific during the 1920s and 1930s, painting figures, still lifes, urban scenes and landscapes. Throughout the early twenties, his paintings were acquired by three prominent Czech collectors: Tomás Bata, Jan Masyrk (a diplomat and son of the Czech president) and Jindrich Waldes. Their patronage and support allowed him to take extended trips to Paris between 1920 and 1925.
In 1925, Matulka attended Eugene Fitsch’s etching classes at the Art Students League (although he is believed to have studied informally with Fitsch as early as 1923). Fitsch introduced Matulka to lithography, a medium he would use with great success. During that same year, Matulka had his first solo exhibition at the Artists’ Gallery, a cooperative, nonprofit space in Manhattan. It was around this time that he began producing illustrations for the New Masses, a magazine with Communist leanings. His renderings of working class subjects reveal his talents as a draftsman as well as the more satirical side of his art and personality.
Matulka taught drawing at the Art Students League from 1929 to 1931. His emphasis on vanguard aesthetics provided an alternative to the conservative approach espoused by other League instructors, such as Kenneth Hayes Miller, who opposed his teachings and philosophy. Indeed, Matulka influenced a number of younger artists who would go on to work in a non-objective manner, including David Smith, Dorothy Dehner, George McNeil and Irene Rice Pereira. Smith described him as “the kind of teacher that would say--‘you’ve got to make abstract art’ ” and declared “it was from him that for the first time I learned Cubism and Constructivism.”1
Matulka’s fortunes began to decline in the mid-1930s, due in part to the loss of his job at the League and to the effects of the Great Depression. Although poor health began to take its toll on the artist during the 1940s, he continued to paint, experimenting with surrealism and the gestural style of the Abstract Expressionists.
Matulka died in Queens, New York in 1972. Eight years later, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. co-organized Jan Matulka, 1890-1972, a major retrospective exhibition which assessed and highlighted the artist’s role in the American modernist movement.
Matulka is represented in leading public collections throughout the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., among many others.
ŠThe essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC. It may not be reproduced without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.
1.David Smith quoted in Jan Matulka, 1890-1972, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980).