New York-based abstract painter Matt Connors is an up-and-coming art world star whose minimalist work evokes and recalls the color-field artistry of such 20th-century past masters as Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Ray Parker, John Hoyland and Jack Bush.

Connors’ use of large blocks of solid color produces a refreshing boldness and an immediacy in his work that leaves a jarring yet familiar impression on viewers.

Formal Education and a Connection to Canada

Connors was born in 1973 in Chicago and received his bachelor’s in art from Bennington College in Vermont. He later went on to get an MFA at Yale, graduating in the same class as “body painter” Keltie Ferris and 2017 Whitney Biennial artist Tala Mandini. He appeared in group exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles and had his first solo show at former Chelsea, New York, gallerist Jeff Bailey’s vaunted new home in Hudson, New York, in 2005.

Further solo shows in Athens, Greece, and Berlin, Germany, soon followed. Connors has also become identified with New York’s hip co-op-like Canada gallery, which has gotten positive write-ups in W magazine and The New York Times. So far, Connors has had three solo exhibitions at Canada and been in one collective show at the downtown space. He’s one of a few loyal artists who offered pieces to the gallery on loan before it opened at its present location on the border of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“Atemporal” Work That Takes Itself Seriously

Connors’ work is deceptively simple and powerful. Clean edges in many of his works contrast with more organic shapes and brush strokes, and in multiple places, colors seep into one another and become layered. His pieces have a half-contemplated, half-impulsive quality.

Art in America writer Nora Griffin says that “Connors’ work reminds us that time in the studio can consist of watching and waiting to make a move and that painting can be a passion of the mind as well as of the body and the emotions.” As Connors himself explains it, “Structural and color ideas and references can be kicking around in my brain and in the margins of my notebooks for years, but then will be executed in minutes. And they may not work and will then get painted over or cut out, or the back side of [them] will seem interesting and create a new idea and then that will begin another slow process that in the end will most likely be ‘finished.'”

Connors’ colors are often primary, and black finds its way into much of the work somewhere. References to particular subjects are sometimes apparent but not overwhelming. The forms of windows, flags, grids and circles can be seen, but typically there’s no relationship of one work to another except perhaps for their titles, which have obvious references in some cases to sexual dynamics or musical terminology. Generally, the style, technique and statement of the works take precedence over their subject matter.

Origin Points and a “Take It Or Leave It” Materiality

Connors typically uses colored pencil, acrylic paint and polymers in his work, but he has also produced brightly colored sculptural pieces from folded tissue paper and wood. While the majority of his works are on raw canvas, a substantial minority are in frames that are occasionally themselves colored, with contrasting mattes, becoming integral parts of his pieces’ overall compositions. Connors doesn’t limit himself to two dimensions; in more than a few cases, his works project off the walls while retaining geometric, rectangular forms. His theoretical, emotional and physical interest in materials has led him to use his canvases to stamp other works and transfer paint; in this way, his pieces are both art objects and tools. Connors describes this practice as “a kind of inward progression so that materials, processes, the studio and my own actions have all started to qualify for me as origin points in and of themselves.”

In ArtNews, David Salle has spoken of Connors’ references to his previous home in Los Angeles, claiming that the artist’s works contain that city’s “take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality” that “embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain — in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.”

Connors has played with leaving works unhung and positioning them on colored walls, creating interactions between his work and the environment in which they’re presented. Museum curator Peter Eleey says that this playfulness is an allusion to poetry that serves “to physically reinforce, in painterly terms, [American poet] Jack Spicer’s ideas about the interdependence of poems. ‘There is really no single poem,’ Spicer came to believe; he argued that ‘poems should echo and re-echo against each other’.”

Painting’s Return to Abstraction

According to director Bill Arning of the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, a 2015 landmark show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, which Connors appeared in, marked a high point of a return to abstract painting. It was the first large show of contemporary painters’ work that the museum had held in 50 years.

American artists that the show helped to put on the map in a substantial way included Connors, Richard Aldrich and Mary Weatherford, the latter of whose work Connors’ is sometimes compared and contrasted with. Connors was one of just 13 Americans whose work was shown, along with that of three Germans and a Columbian.

In Arning’s estimation, certain artists who appeared in this show are destined to have a longevity in the art world that will likely transform them into the new masters of abstract painting. “When shows like that are pulled together, what happens is that certain names dominate the playing field, and then it’s a contest between those players about who will have the most staying power and vivacity,” he says. Arning claims that the work of a few of these abstract painters is so powerful that even popular contemporary figurative artists such as Marilyn Minter or Cecily Brown are now borrowing scale, looks, techniques and feelings from them.

Writing in The New Yorker, art critic Peter Schjeldahl said that Connors’ and other works at MoMA proved that the medium of painting stands out against today’s “culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.” As opposed to digital creations, Schjeldahl argued that analog works like Connors’ come with an unavoidable “self-consciousness” and a “nonchalance” that, nonetheless, is comfortably grounded in modern art’s venerable 20th-century past.

Where to See Connors’ Work

Besides New York’s Canada gallery, other venues Connors has had multiple exhibitions at include Los Angeles’ Cherry and Martin, where he’s had three solo shows, and Berlin’s Lüttgenmeijer Gallery, where he’s appeared twice, going on to have a solo show at partner Markus Lüttgen’s new space in Cologne, Germany.

In the United States, significant galleries in St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit, Portland, Houston, San Francisco and Santa Monica have shown Connors’ work, while internationally, he’s appeared in group and solo shows in London, Vienna, Paris, Brussels, Glasgow and Antwerp. His work is in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Dallas Museum of Art. Connors has been profiled in The New York Times, ArtForum, Art in America and Frieze and has been the recipient of the 2012 Belgacom Art Prize as well as a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship Grant. In 2015, he was the Chinati Foundation’s artist-in-residence in Marfa, Texas. In 2012, Connors produced an award-winning monograph titled A Bell Is a Cup.

Currently, he’s represented by the André Viana Gallery in New York and São Paulo, Brazil, and the Xavier Hufkens Gallery in Brussels, Belgium.