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It's difficult to think of another Latin American artist who has left deeper footprints on art history than Roberto Matta. When he died in November 2002, his native Chile declared three days of national mourning for the prolific master. But it was far from home where the peripatetic Matta burst onto the world stage, living first in Europe and later America during his formative years. One of the 20th Century's major artists, Matta during his lifetime (1911-2002) achieved an international stature few from his region could claim.
At Gary Nader Fine Art, "Roberto Matta: A Retrospective" brings together some 50 canvases spanning from the '30s to the '90s in a superb, can't-miss, museum-quality show.
Most of the signature paintings have been culled from private collections across the hemisphere and are complemented by Nader's own holdings, priced in the half-million to $2 million range.
The works hang chronologically in the capacious first-floor galleries, allowing visitors to experience the artist's evolution, beginning in the late '30s when he created his famous works plumbing the psyche.
Several of the paintings in Matta's Psychological Morphology series convey a sense of how the Chilean artist sought to represent the human psyche in visual form and invented a visual language to evoke the subconscious. A seminal figure of the surrealist movement and abstract expressionism, he was inspired by Freud's writings and the psychoanalytic notion of the mind as a three-dimensional space.
In an early work from his monumental 1938-39 series, the artist created diffuse light patterns using dusky-gray and sky-blue hues for the backdrop. The canvas vibrates with a palpable tension. Organic salmon and coral tones shimmer in the center, suggesting a craggy rock formation. To the side, limpid pools of sallow yellow float in the foreground as a gnarled, leafless tree rises at the center. It's a prime example of Matta's early experimentations with surrealism that first brought him critical attention.
This work and others from the series reflect how French surrealist André Breton and his premise of "pure psychic automatism" influenced Matta. The concept defined the surrealist movement and the Chilean's experiments, conjuring ethereal states of mind on the canvas in a startling spatial universe that became his trademark.
Matta, who had trained as an architect in his homeland, left Chile after becoming disillusioned with his profession.
In 1933, he traveled to Paris, where he worked for two years as a draftsman in the Paris studio of Le Corbusier. While later visiting relatives in Madrid, Matta met Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda, who introduced him to Salvador Dali and Breton. Impressed with the young artist's drawings, Breton invited him to join the surrealist group in 1937.
Matta, inspired by Marcel Duchamp's theories of movement and process, soon began to develop and explore an imagery of cosmic creation and destruction.
Crucifiction (Croix Fiction), created in 1938, marks the moment Matta's creative anxieties took root. The painting depicts what appear to be pockets of charnel-house viscera hovering amid tenebrous twilight tones interlaced with gassy wisps of opaque smoke. It is a haunting vision fraught with psychological tension and the artist's distinct perceptions of reality.
The works from the '40s signify a distinct shift in Matta's approach to both subject and iconography and are more figurative in nature. Created after he immigrated to New York to escape World War II, they are more aggressive and darker, melding man and machine into totemic, self-destructive creatures. The figures reflect Matta's growing concern over the horrors of war and the human condition.
Two examples at Nader include 1945's La Femme Affamée (Hungry Woman) and 1947's Convict the Impossible. The first depicts a corrosive abstract woman whose menacing snout is reminiscent of a Venus flytrap. Her skin glimmers with an unsightly sunflower-yellow pallor as she is trussed in a metal collar and utters a primal scream no one can hear.
By contrast, the second painting takes on a more sinister vibe. The solitary, insalubrious, multihorned male figure is even more machine-like. His skin exudes the decrepit patina of livor mortis as he cannibalizes his own arms with a wheat-thresher-like maw until they are left a quivering mess.
Along the same lines, but now with the figure abstracted further, 1949's Sophyte que je m'utile seems to delve deeper into the psyche, depicting a ghostly figure with a dark, blood-oozing wound where electrical wires have been inserted.
In the '50s, Matta's compositions became more cluttered, echoing his increasing interest in the sciences and pre-Columbian figures.
Link of Contradiction (1954) features a radioactive swirl of light and shadows steeped in chalky gray and smoldering reds and oranges as robot-like forms tinker mindlessly in a smoke-billowing foundry.
The pre-Colombian figures appear prominently in works such as 1960's Maternité, in which an obviously pregnant mutant salutes another hybrid.
In his later paintings from the '70s and '80s, Matta began experimenting with a bolder, more luminous palette, and his compositions teem with Gumby-like humanoids and figures. The works also take on a more mystical and futuristic veneer.
A journey through Matta's artistic production reveals not only his influences but also the influence he, in turn, had on other artists.
For anyone seeking a one-stop primer on the work of an artist whose vision captured and surpassed the violent century he lived through, run — don't walk — to this provocative and rare gallery show.
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