Matta Vision

Roberto Matta Echaurren was born in Santiago de Chile in 1911. He graduated as an architect in 1931, moved to Paris in 1935, and landed a job in Le Corbusier's architectural office. Then he switched to a different design. He befriended the inner circle of Surrealists in 1936, though by that time it was getting late: The movement had already made its most important contributions. Three years later, on the verge of world war, Matta -- along with the elite of the European avant-garde -- moved to New York. He was young and flamboyant and spoke perfect English. Without a doubt his exile seemed -- at first -- most auspicious.

"Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings from the 1940s" at MAM, which centers on these first years in America, the artist's strongest period, is a wonderful show. It takes us to a fantastic realm of freedom, fear, pain, beauty, and timelessness. This is the decade when Matta's expressionistic Surrealism matured to influence the development of many young American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, and Arshile Gorky.

It's too bad that to this day Matta's work is viewed in a mixed light, often labeled as a "bridge" between two great modern art movements: Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Matta was only a year older than Pollock, and never a star like Dalí or Max Ernst, but he managed a visibility some of his fellow exiles could only dream of. Matta's genius was in assimilating the styles of the Surrealist circle (mostly those of Ernst and Marcel Duchamp) in order to develop a powerful approach very much in tune with the times.

It was the Surrealists who had developed the idea of painting the unconscious, or subconscious mind -- Dalí would call his version a "paranoic-critical" method. After the events of World War II, Matta stepped up Surrealist psychotic illusions by swelling and imploding the space, adding warped planes, morphing figures, blocked-off nebulas in a hyper-baroque density never seen before. Matta labeled this technique "psychological morphology."

The exhibit at MAM presents Matta's important drawings from the late 1930s. These are remarkable pieces, still under the spell of Ernst's vegetal and monster images. Such visions are present in Horoscope, Sans Titre, and Untitled from 1938, which reveal an artist in transition.

After 1939 Matta increasingly adopted organic forms (sometimes jellyfishlike clusters), probably influenced by Duchamp's superimposition of transparent planes. Yet the difference cannot be more striking. Duchamp's post-Cubist approach to geometric transformations differs from Matta's visceral use of space, which is quite expressionistic. It is at this stage that Matta adopts Masson's style of dessin automatique, a painterly equivalent of stream-of-consciousness writing. Dark Light of 1940 is a sinuously bizarre grayish landscape, filled with pink embryonic forms set against a dark sun. It shows Matta in command of his craft.

One of Matta's main themes during the first part of the decade was geological imagery. Don't miss his Psychological Morphology, which the artist had referred to as "internal energies to obstacles created by the environment," or Rocks, a blue-and-yellow dense canvas from 1940, packed with delicately colored stalactite-like forms.

In New York Matta painted huge canvases at a time when few even dreamed of using such a format. Invasion of the Night is a bizarre-looking canvas, suggesting floating rocks in a cavernous space with insidious passages and burrows. The amazing Years of Fear is a potent piece, where the artist's hyper pulse becomes evident. The beautiful Feu comes alive with flashes of black, purple, celestial blue, and yellow. The Initiation resembles a gigantic room with luminous walls and more floating objects, whereas Inscape seems to be a view of a fantastic ceiling adorned with hanging mobiles. Compared to these, Nada appears impenetrable and claustrophobic.

Two masterpieces are The Onyx of Electra, a web of translucent membranes and electric fibers; and Children's Fear of Idols, a deep-ocean scape, or maybe a psychedelic take on a black hole.

Matta's style changed during the 1940s from geological abstraction to monstrous skeletal figuration. At the time this was not well received, but in retrospect we can see that Matta's art remained fresh and provocative. Now he manipulated the spaces like an interior designer, like the architect he was trained to be. A Grave Situation from 1946 remains an imposing image, evoking totemic awe in odd orange, yellow, and greenish coloring.

There are amazing similarities between Matta's style and Wilfredo Lam's primitive approach during this period (they knew each other and had exhibited together in New York in the early 1940s). Drawings such as Penser à la Table Permanente; the striking Famished Woman, a large painting of a canine-like monster constrained by a wooden slab; or How-Ever, a kind of humorous mummy chamber, show a Surrealist vocabulary very close to those modern Latin-American currents.

Matta's star dimmed in New York after this -- his turn to figuration was viewed as anachronistic. Following a brief stint in Europe, Matta returned to America and found his art-world status gone. As the years went by he was to feel increasingly excluded and marginalized. At the turn of this century Matta's work is respected, yet, for an artist of his caliber, not as much as those Americans he once guided. One gets the feeling that, though once a part of the inner circle, as a hybrid Matta always remained an outsider, and he paid for it dearly.

Indeed even physically he is alone -- all the idols of the avant-garde are gone, all but Matta, hanging on like a solid reminder that we're still inside an epoch. And so even more paradoxical his fate appears. It boils down to modernism's ownership of its movements and periods. Like Cronus, it has a way of devouring those children born in between times.

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Alfredo Triff