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From the Top Floor of a Shuttered Museum

Matthew Cole in his studio (photo courtesy of Pelham Art Center)

This April, artist Matthew Cole won the 11th Biennial Alexander Rutsch Award for Painting from Pelham Art Center (PAC), chosen from among 730 submissions. It was solid recognition for 33-year-old Cole, but one year ago his situation was a bit shakier.

On the last day of February 2020, Cole flew from New York to Tucson, Arizona, where he was to be Artist-in-Residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art. But on arrival, the museum staff told him they had canceled the program due to COVID-19.

Cole, who had subleased his New York apartment, was unsure of where to go. The museum was understanding and gave him a month to make alternate plans.

But when the pandemic went from bad to worse, Cole stayed, living on the top floor of the shuttered museum until he could find other accommodations. “I had a bed and a studio, and all I did was paint,” he says. “It turned out to be the best thing.”

Three of the paintings in his Rutsch Award application— Quarantine, Arizona Stargazer and Chinatown—were painted in Tucson.

Cole’s prize includes a show at PAC (May 15-June 26) and $7,500. For this award cycle, in recognition of a tough year, the top prize was increased from $5,000 and, for the first time, the other seven finalists also received monetary prizes.

The Rutsch Award was established by the family, friends and supporters of Alexander Rutsch, an Austrian artist who spent his final years in Pelham. Alexi Rutsch-Brock, the oldest of Alexander’s three daughters and a member of the selection committee, says she loved Cole’s use of color. “The work is really stunning in person,” she says. “It comes across as very poetic.”

The people and objects in Cole’s pictures are often incomplete. People lack faces or limbs and flowers float above their stems. Cole

explains that he’s trying to capture the fragmented nature of memory itself. “A painting should only be finished up to a certain point, so the viewer has room and space to finish it in their minds,” he says.

Cole creates great depth and space in his paintings. When the PAC team visited his studio to prepare for his exhibition, Cole says they were surprised to see how small some of the work actually is.

Cole, who grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, says he doesn’t fit the cliché of the artist who started drawing as soon as he could hold a crayon. “I wasn’t taken to a museum as a child,” he says. “I didn’t get serious about art until college.”

As a teen, Cole harbored dreams of playing professional basketball, and several of his paintings feature basketball courts. One depicts glowing white lines on a black surface, while another features a wide plane of green that is broken by the shadows of nearby trees.

Cole attended Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University, where the program was highly focused on conceptual work like video and performance. “I came out [of the program] more confused than when I went in,” he says.

After graduation, Cole apprenticed with Vebjørn Sand, a Norwegian painter based in Tribeca. Cole says the seven years he spent with Sand allowed him to get back to basics. “It was maybe a more fruitful experience than school, more in line with my approach as an artist,” he says.

Currently, Cole lives in Queens and has a studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He planned to split his time this year between New York and Paris, where his partner lives, but COVID-19 intervened.

He recently completed his first mural for a new Rockefeller building on East 29th Street in Manhattan. “It’s four times larger than the largest piece I ever worked on,” he says. “It was just me on a scissor lift.” His career appears to be on the rise as well.

A version of this article first appeared in the May issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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