Michael Bierut | Essays

The Man Who Saved Jackson Pollock

Brochure for Knoll Associates, Herbert Matter, 1946

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 1978 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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History

Comments [19]

"Even within the world of art and design, Herbert Matter is relatively unknown". And unfairly so:


Bite your FREAKIN TONGUE. The glory days of YALE School of Design is when Herbert Matter was teaching Photography (1952-1976). Along with RAND. And before RAND with Alvin Lustig.

Perhaps my introduction to Herbert Matter was twenty five (25) years ago. Industrial Design Magazine featured a series of articles on Prominent American Designer(s) in a series titled "Dialogs on Graphic Design. Featuring, Herbert Matter's New Haven railroad Identity written by Suzanne Burrey; titled NOTICE THE NEW HAVEN ? Certainly, one of my FAVS and among the BEST railroad Identities in History.

Not even TONY SPAETH can argue with me on that selection.

Armin Hoffman, wrote a wonderful Editorial Retrospective on Herbert Matter for Graphis Magazine. See Graphis 212

Among, Herbert Matter's many friends were not only Jackson Pollock, and Willem De Kooning. Friends also included Alexander Calder, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston.

Paula Scher brought back Matter's INIMITABLE STYLE with her posters for Swatch.

Herbert Matter's Greatest Accomplishment along with the Identities for New Haven and KNOLL were the Advertisements he created for Container Corporation THE GREAT IDEAS OF WESTERN MAN SERIES. Surpassed by NONE. As experimental as the Advertisement and Poster created by Eric Nitsche for General Dynamics.

In reference to Jackson Pollock. Strokes of Genius !!!!!!
Unbelievable find. Our Culture is enriched.

Aren't Desginer(s) and Artist HOARDERS by NATURE ???

No surprise the East Hampton Book Store were aware of the value of their artifacts.

I would've at least TRIED to FINAGLE them.

You could've said they were EMYR's. F is for Fake.

No disputing Herbert Matter's importance, but I did an informal poll and found that — after Paul Rand, predictably — there is a surprising drop off in awareness of mid-century graphic designers. And many who know of Matter tend to confuse him with Herbert Bayer, with whom he shared clients as well as a first name.

None of the news accounts of the Pollock discovery I read described Matter as much more than a bit player in the drama.
Michael Bierut

As an undergraduate student at Yale in the early 1980s, I managed to get into a graduate studio where I spent a considerable amount of time in the darkroom. Here, our principal task was to observe the elderly Herbert Matter while he instructed a group of us in the delicate art of the photogram. He asked for samples of items from our pockets: we pulled out keys and paper clips, the odd pencil or ticket stub, and Matter went to work, silently composing his still-lifes right there under the enlarger. But what I really remember was the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips: in spite of the length of the ash, it never contributed a speck to the photograms. Magic.
Jessica Helfand

Call me sensitive, but I too noticed the way the piece in the New York Times completely underestimated Matter (reinforcing the knee-jerk hierarchy of art over design). On the other hand, I wondered if it was a deliberate editorial strategy, so that they could hook their readers into the "mystery" of the Pollocks authenticity. If you do not know who Matter was, the existence of the paintings could seem dubious. But given who Matter was, and the circles he travelled in, it's not at all surprising that he would be in posession of such things: in fact, you would have to stretch quite a bit to come up with an explanation for why in the world a set of fake Pollocks would be found among his things.
Lorraine Wild

Michael—Strangely enough, your partner may be responsible for much of whatever fame Matter has among those designers who have trouble naming a graphic designer who worked before 1980 other than Rand. Paula Scher's Swatch posters and the (often irksome and, IMHO, usually silly) controversies surrounding them did more to widen the reach of Matter's posters than anything, probably more than required design history courses.
Gunnar Swanson

As a non-designer, I've always been delighted at the sight of the old New Haven Line trains (some of which still bear names, like The Danbury Hatter, if I'm not mistaken). As someone who married into a design family that still loves to tell Paul Rand stories, the Matter stuff was fascinating. And as a blogger, I say this is a terrific post -- blogging at its best.
Tom Andersen


Are we really that old ? Don't answer. I relish in knowing our ForeFathers, ForeMothers and Pioneers.

It is strange that Herbert Matter has earned his Lifetime Achievement Awards AIGA and Art Directors Club, and not widely known.

I'm more afraid Generation X and Y will only be aware of David Carson and Stephan Sagemeister.
Both Respected Designers in their own right. Many more Designer(s) exist for aspiring Designer(s) to Hitch their Wagon to their Stars. Past and Present.

Along with Herbert Bayer, and Herbert Matter was a Designer named Herbert Leupin, born in Basel Switzerland. Other Designer(s) named Herbert were Herb Lubalin, Herbert Pinzke.
Other Historically Significant people name Herbert working in Design. Herb Yager, Design Partner, and Herb Kessler, Account Manager.

Gunnar: We discussed this in private. Both agree, I love the Swatch posters Paula created. I've always iterated, I respect Paula more for asking permission to use the imagery.
Rarely practiced in our industry.

Clarification: The Industrial Design Articles, Dialogs on Graphic Design were written in the 1950s. I inherited them in early 1980s.

Lorraine: I was referencing, Michael running CON on the Proprietor of the East Hampton Book Store. Trying to Finagle him/her out of Herbert Matter's Originals. Using ELMYR and F is for Fake as a METAPHOR.

Pollock Matters; an exhibition with paintings, drawings, photography and documentary materials of Matter and Pollock's friendship opens in 2006 at Mark Borghi gallery.
Joe Marianek

nice post, MB.

You always seem in the right place/ right time. I wish someone besides the stretched-thin Heller compiled Matter-like monographs. THere was a guy here in NY- Irving Oaklander- who sold vintage design books.. but I believe he passed.
felix sockwell

there are actually quite a few generation x'ers (im one of them) who have taken an interest to 'mid-century' european modernists, and more beyond the superficial, stylistic level. i admit to having confused herbert matter with herbert bayer, but i believe it is an understandable mistake to make as the names are so similar.

there was a book on knoll published maybe in the 70s or 80s and designed by massimo vignelli that shows a great deal of the work matter did as a consultant/graphic designer for them. quite a lot of it is very inspiring, especially a catalog he did for a chair, in which the cover consists of several pictures of a boy sitting on the chair in various positions.

matter is part of a larger wave of european intellectuals who came to america as a result of the rise of facism and WWII. you see certain americans taking hold of european dogmatism and pushing it forward in an american, corporate context (like paul rand or chermayeff and geismar, for instance). i think the confusion in an american's take on moderism is that it is a set of constricting rules and a tradition, whereas for europeans, i believe it was an attempt to be ahistorical, a break from the past, and an assertion of the idea of universality through the use of basic, 'whole', geometric forms. this of course is a superficial analysis.

my philosophical take on it is that we are not done with modernism yet. our contemporary life is immersed in it. while post-modernism in graphic design broke completely free from (or attempted to at least) the idea of univeresality and celebrated subjective expressionism, the ideology of modernism still shapes our everyday lives. i think the challenge for younger designers today is how to settle or accomodate both of these strands, the dichtomy that exists between modernism (which in its 20th century sense is completely done) and the discoveries of post-modernism and the reality of living in a diverse, global culture.

Although I have no doubt that this means nothing. To me "longtime associate" is code for gay lover. The MSM often does this when it doesn't want to "out" someone. (See all the obits on Ismail Merchant, the longtime lover of one James Ivory, but you won't read that anywhere but the gay press.)
I'm sure that's not what they meant in this case, but that verbiage is always suspect to me as a gay man.


Irving Oaklander is alive and well. At least he was alive in 2004. Last I was in contact with him. Steve Heller, referred me to Mr. Oaklander. His archives is amazing.


It's important to note that Eugene Thaw and Ellen Landau (nee Pollock-Krasner Foundation) are sharply divided on the authenticity of the "Pollock" paintings. Thaw who is the hold out on "authenticity" agrees that the provenance seems likely.

In contrast to Lorraine Wild's comments above, hoping something is true doesn't make it so, regardless of its likelihood.
E. Tage Larsen

I have no interest in the authenticity or inauthenticity of those "Pollocks": all I said was that given who Matter was and what he was engaged in (not to mention the kind of no-baloney guy he was), that it's difficult to invent a reason why he would be in posession of fake Jackson Pollack paintings. Designers' archives are very interesting subjects, but many people do not really recognize how designers work, how they are often at the nexus of some fairly complex transactions. Stuff can get buried, but saved for many, many reasons, which is why it often takes so long for descendants to unravel what's left.
Lorraine Wild

I never knew Herbert but I did have the opportunity to work with Mercedes on one of her last exhibitions. My affection for her, her work, and by extension her family, has little to do with the fact that these works won't be represented in future amendments to the Pollock's catalogue raisonné, per Eugene Thaw.

Art fraud hangs on the technique and adequate story. That these works have a great story isn't contested. Though Pollock is sort of a veneer here to discuss Herbert Matter, it shouldn't be minimized that "the existence of the paintings could seem dubious" - when, according to some experts, these paintings do seem dubious. There is no point in attempting to prove something through consensus when we can wait for additional research.
E. Tage Larsen

Michael, I am glad you are restoring attention to Herbert Matter.
As you know, I was lucky to work with him for many years.
When I got the assignment to design a new Corporate Identity for Knoll, back in 1966, the first thing I did was to hire back Herbert Matter to be the photographer for the whole project. I really liked him very much, I liked his modesty, lack of pretenciousness but above all his talent and open mind. The two of us got along extremely well. He liked what I was doing, appreciated my sense of composition in setting up the shots, and then he will do his part as photographer shooting with an enormous wooden camera. I love the idea that he stored the Pollocks somewhere in the house rather then displaying all of them around the house. I have no Polloks, but I do the same, keeping Art in a closet and enjoing them one at the time.
He was a very remarkable person, a real artist, very Swiss, he reminded me of Giacometti. He knew everything but never showed off, like the real wise man he was. His work really deserves more attention the it has gotten.
Massimo Vignelli

Hello, Massimo!
So, like me, you obviously cannot imagine Herbert Martter hiding fake Pollocks in his house? That's what so bothers me about this mystery, it just does not seem like him to have harbored anything false....
Lorraine Wild

Nobody as smart as Herbert and Mercedes "forgets" that they left $10 million dollars worth of Pollocks in a box.

But that's only if you have an interest in the authenticity or inauthenticity of these "Pollocks."
E. Tage Larsen

I recently wrote a book entitled "The New Haven Railroad in the McGinnis Era" that features (among other things) Herbert Matter's design work for the New Haven and Boston & Maine railroads. The book tells the complete story (or at least as complete as my research permitted) of the corporate image design programs implemented by Matter and others on both railroads. It is profusely illustrated (500+ photos) and includes many images of Herbert Matter artwork, equipment designs, advertising items, etc.
Marc Frattasio

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