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Matta: Five Decades Of Painting

Pace Wildenstein: January 30 – February 28, 2009

This exhibition of fifteen oil paintings by Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren is the first major show of the artist’s work in New York City since a 1957 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The works, some of them quite large, are from the artist’s personal collection, and the show marks the beginning of Pace Wildenstein’s exclusive representation of the holdings of Matta’s daughter Federica and son Ramuntcho.

Matta, <i>Nil et Une Nuit</i>
1987 oil on canvas, 6'6"x 9'8.
Matta, Nil et Une Nuit 1987 oil on canvas, 6'6"x 9'8.

Born in Chile on November 11, 1911 (or 11-11-11), Matta is best known for his association with the surrealist movement, which he joined in 1937. He was introduced to Salvador Dali and André Breton by his friend, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and quickly became the favorite son. His paintings extended the possibilities of biomorphic forms (practiced earlier by André Masson and Yves Tanguy) with gestural swirls and unbridled inspiration, charting a new dimension of the imagination.

With the surrealist movement having begun in 1924, Matta represented “new blood,” a younger generation that entered into the elite avant-garde circle at a crucial time and participated with the movement’s founders in the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme held at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1938). That same year, Marcel Duchamp encouraged him to travel and settle in New York (as many others did) to avoid staying in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Matta had an almost instant impact on his new American artist friends, such as Robert Motherwell, Gordon Onslow Ford, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, and Arshile Gorky, among others. He applied “automatic technique” in his artwork by a colored stain and orchestrating the composition by directly tracing solid forms and infusing them with fields of color. He painted spontaneously, directly tapping into his subconscious. He was declared by Motherwell to be a “hypnotic proselytizer” who, on their joint trip to Mexico, expressed a desire to make a “palace revolution” inside the kingdom of surrealism, then ruled tyrannically by Breton.

The idea of “abstract-surrealism,” if such a thing could exist, probably started with Matta’s experiments and then mutated into “abstract-expressionism,” which was adopted by American artists and grudgingly acknowledged by Breton to be a uniquely American contribution as vital as jazz.

By 1940, Matta had his first one-man exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, followed by two other shows at Pierre Matisse (1941, ’42) and back again in 1943 at Julien Levy. He was prolific, sustaining at least two shows per year for a while, both at his usual galleries and also at Sidney Janis (1945, ’49). In 1948, he was expelled from the surrealist group for several years, accused of triggering Gorky’s suicide by having an affair with his wife. He was finally reinstated after due penitence in 1959.

As the visitor enters the Pace Wildenstein Gallery, the first work visible on the left wall is an alien/humanoid form with insect-like limbs, “Le cerveleur” (1949). Behind that wall are two black paintings punctuated by red, yellow and green spots peeking through the darkness of an apocalyptic void teeming with barely visible rhythmic lines. The spell it casts is soon broken by a series of large paintings with bright colors and swirling apparitions suggesting a psychedelic trip.

A large canvas that really impressed me is called “Interrogation humane” (1957) and represents a vertical docking port for alien airplanes that seems to be still under construction, with robotonic mechanisms from the Sputnik era busily assembling it. A second big work, “Vivre la Mort” (c. 1974) features conical shapes resembling the tips of Crayola crayons, or perhaps old spools of cotton thread, floating in a liquid world. These shapes and colors remotely recall Tanguy in the way they probe the unconscious universe where human fears and anxieties are distilled.

Yet another good-sized work (10 by 13.3 feet), which, like most of the large canvases, had been rolled up for decades in storage, is “Le Temp Space du Pissenlit” (1967), which translates as “The Time Space of the Dandelion” and employs a green, gray and yellow vortex of translucent spheres surrounded by exploding bubbles. The futuristic theme continues in “Untitled” (1967), populated with mechanical handles, pedals, gears and blue shades resembling broken otherworldly machines in the process of repair.

“Semeur de Incendies” (“One Who Spreads Incendiary Seeds,” 1967), offers humanoid figures with outstretched arms, some impaled on fiendish mechanical apparatuses similar to those described by Kafka in his absurdist work, “In the Penal Colony.” Penetrated by rods, these figures struggle in a limitless green vortex that swallows up their remains.

The title of “Nil et Une Nuit” (1987) is likely a triple pun: Nil as nothing, or zero, or the French for the river Nile, somehow making reference to the classic Arabic text Thousand and One Nights, complete with pictorial references to the mythology of those tales, such as a woman with a bird head and other half-animal, half-human creatures bearing gifts.

“Les Vent de la Vie” (“The Winds of Life,” 1984) is an abstract tableau of lines and pyramidal forms in blue, green and yellow. The morphology of swirls, osmotic growths and periodic precipitates conjures up its own subjective visions, not unlike the multicolored stains of automotive lubricating oil glistening on damp streets.

Matta once declared, “Time would be for us a medium comparable to gelatinous water, accepting in a rhythmical way transformations occurring with high or less high speeds.” What he called “psychological morphology” was a diagram of the transformations engendered by the energies radiating from a given object, from its initial aspect until it reaches its final form in the geodesic psychological realm.

Multi-leveled, multi-dimensional, with ghostly symbolic figures that stare mysteriously at each other, such works were often criticized and frowned upon by abstract-purist art critics. Yet, over time, Matta accumulated such an impressive body of work that his particular visionary language became the most recognizable among the surrealists, and an authentic and original contribution to the “dream generation.”

“The function of art,” he once said, “is to unveil the enormous economic, cultural and emotional forces that materially interact in our lives and that constitute the real space in which we live.” Pushing beyond the surrealists’ typically Freudian-inspired work, Matta sought to create an art that was not purely introspective, but instead spoke to a broader social context.

For this artist, painting held the potential to illuminate “emotional structure” through which viewers could perceive “how, when and where emotions act and react,” which in the end allowed them to begin to understand the reality of the world around them.


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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