Roberto Matta’s exile in New York during the chaotic and destructive years of World War II marked a seminal shift in the art world of the twentieth century, one that is regularly termed a “catalytic” moment in the story of Modernism. (1) Over the course of the war years Matta was joined in New York by fellow Surrealists, including the likes of André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, and Max Ernst and accompanied by a larger circle of prominent “artists in exile,” such as Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, and Fernand Léger. But it was Matta who would form the strongest and most influential link between the European avant-garde and the young American painters during the early years of WWII. Due to his comparable youth, his adept English skills, his breadth of artistic experience in France and Spain, and his unique Chilean heritage, the artist was able to negotiate various communities and initiate critical artistic dialogues with the rising New York School. The artist formed intimate, pivotal relationships with Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell, who remembered Matta as “the most energetic, poetic, charming, brilliant young artist that I ever met.” And while Matta’s paintings from his tenure in America were widely admired by the group, it was the artist’s drawings from this period that they found especially provocative. According to Motherwell, they are “among the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful work made in New York at the time.” (2)
Matta’s artistic oeuvre and its persistent, taut oppositions—structured architecture and vast cosmos, figuration and abstraction, scientific inquiry and invisible imaginings, social consciousness and interior reflection—all of these complex, sometimes contrary, impulses stem from an international education spanning three continents and a career rich with encounters and friendships stretching over seven decades of the twentieth century. Roberto Matta Echaurren was born in Santiago, Chile, reportedly on the notable numerical day, November 11, 1911. His parents were of Basque, Spanish, and French origin and he enjoyed a stable, upper-class existence in the otherwise inflated and depressed Chilean economy. Despite Matta’s conservative French Jesuit education at the Universidad Católica of Santiago, where he studied architecture, the youth’s sympathies lay with the country’s workers. He left the security of his family to join the Merchant Marines’ Compagnie Transatlantique in 1932; six months thereafter he arrived in Paris.
For the next two years Matta worked as an apprentice in the Parisian atelier of the architect Le Corbusier. The extraordinary opportunity, no doubt offered to the young man because of his impressive language skills, Classical education, and rigorous interest in the contemporary arts, allowed Matta to travel throughout Europe and to work on modernist, utopian projects like the Ville Radieuse. During this period Matta also initiated significant relationships with Spanish-speaking members of the European and Latin-American literati, such as Federico García Lorca, Rafaele Alberti (both members of the “Group of 1927”), Pablo Neruda, and Gabriela Mistral. In 1936, upon hearing the news of García Lorca’s assassination amidst the terror of the Spanish Civil War, Matta penned a film script composed of 162 intense, rapid scenes ripe with imagery of death, chaos, and psychological hysterics. The film was a tribute to García Lorca’s dark and cultic poetry and a foretelling sign of the cosmological themes that would dominate Matta’s visual art.
That same year, Matta shifted his attention away from the practice of architecture and he began to work on a group of drawings, which the British painter Gordon Onslow Ford described as “the most extraordinary landscapes, full of maltreated nudes, strange architecture, and vegetation.” (3) Recognizing Matta’s mutual fascination with unknown or imagined forms and worlds, it was Salvador Dali who introduced Matta to the work of Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealists. In late 1937, at the bequest of André Breton, Matta was asked to officially join the group and the following year he participated in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris. The artist was captivated by the Surrealist practice of automatism (or automatic drawing) and employed the practice as a “…method of reading ‘live’ the actual function of thinking at the same speed as the matter we are thinking ‘of’…”; however, Matta did not blindly consume the dictates of Breton or Freud. (4) Rather, the ambitious artist sought out interdisciplinary approaches to art, studying the scientific writings of Peter D. Ouspensky, which analyzed the limits of human perception, and the algebraic three-dimensional models constructed by Jules Henri Poincaré. In his own words, these scientific hypotheses and investigations allowed Matta “to use forms that were less known … to go into forms that had been revealed by the microscope.” (5)
But Matta’s greatest source of intellectual and artistic stimulation during this period came from Marcel Duchamp and, particularly, the transformative possibilities represented by the artist’s Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23). (Duchamp had just completed his capacious notes on the work in 1934.) Matta was intrigued by Duchamp’s term “passage” as a metaphor for the transition of time and space from the psychic realm to the material world. Furthermore, and most likely due to his architectural training, Matta was captivated by the work’s meticulous perspectival studies that hovered between the illusionistic glass surface and enhanced the metaphoric possibilities between the illusory and the figurative elements of the work. Onslow Ford also encouraged Matta’s spatial, perspectival, and temporal experiments and in 1938, following his British friend’s advice, Matta produced his first painting, Crucifixion. By 1938 the artist had adapted and transformed Duchamp’s theories, conceiving the practice of painting as a fusion between the artist’s psyche and the structured, built world around him. These first works in oil mark the advent of Matta’s mature career; he termed them “psychological morphologies”.
The Psychological Morphology paintings, later called “inscapes” by the artist, layered organic, amoeba-like shapes across a background of architectural dimensions or intermingled the harsh linearity of gray built environments with swelling mounds of rich desert landscape. In the May 1939 issue of Minotaure, the official journal of the Surrealists, Breton praised Matta as a promising young member of the group: “Matta is already at the peak of a brilliant pictorial tradition…. Every one of the pictures painted by Matta since last year is a festival where all of the games of chance are played.” (6)
In 1939, as war ravaged across Europe, Matta and his wife, Anne-Matta-Clark, departed France and settled in the artistic exile community of New York City. They would eventually share the company of Breton, Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, and Kurt Seligmann, to name only a few. Always a bit of renegade, Matta was one of the first European artists to foster relationships with the young group of American painters—Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, and Peter Busa—later known as the New York School. He found their youth and their vitality intoxicating: “they had a fantastic experience to report—the experience of America…. They knew a great deal! As a matter of fact, they knew more than we Surrealists knew about art history … in our case there was not so much
reference to those things.” (7) By 1940 his reputation was established in New York and he was invited to exhibit at the esteemed Julien Levy Gallery and in 1941 he participated in the School of Paris show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery.
Matta’s work changed significantly after the summer of 1941. Departing from the exclusive confines of his mind, his work would now turn outward to mourn the events of contemporary history. That summer he travelled to Taxco, Mexico with his wife, Motherwell, and Barbara Reis (the daughter of Surrealist patrons Bernard and Becky Reis) to visit Onslow Ford. Consumed by the landscape of Mexico, and specifically by a volcanic eruption that occurred, Matta began to explore violent, cataclysmic, and bold forms in his paintings. This transition was expedited by the escalation of the war and Matta’s first-hand experience of the mounting class struggles in Mexico. Describing Years of Fear (1941, Guggenheim Museum, NY), completed upon his return to New York, the artist stated: “The apocalypse of this war wreaked havoc on the emotional system… I had come across considerable class violence in Mexico. Everything in this painting is psychological…. How to picture the battlefield, not the physical one, but the one inside of us: fear against courage, criticism, and hate, suspicion and trust? An internal bombardment.” (8) The final years of the war and those immediately following brought forth a novel and consistent new tone in Matta’s work: a constant push and pull between the private struggles of the artist’s mind and the pain and anguish of humanity’s hardships.
Back in New York, Matta continued to glean success from critics and curators. His work was exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 1941 and in 1942 his work was included in Artists in Exile at the Pierre Matisse Gallery and in First Papers of Surrealism at Peggy’s Guggenheim’s Art of this Century. By 1944, Matta had secured a place alongside Breton, Tanguy, and Ernst as one of the preeminent Surrealists when he was included in the landmark exhibition (and accompanying book) curated by Sidney Janis, Abstract and Surrealist Painting in America. Nonetheless, Matta’s reputation as a Surrealist was balanced by his intimate relationships with the young New York painters. In fact, during the final years of Matta’s tenure in New York his work is exemplary of the mythic spontaneity found in Abstract Expressionism. Large scale paintings such as Untitled (Prime Ordeal) (1946, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) and Abstraction (1948, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design) present the viewer with aggressive amorphous forms that brutally penetrate and attack one another amongst large passages of vaporous, painterly backdrops or impulsive, sketchy blocks of dark matter.
Unfortunately, Matta’s personal life was not as stable or as secure and his artistic ventures. In 1943 the artist and his wife, Anne, welcomed twin boys, Gordon and Sebastian; but the couples’ separation followed soon after. Then, in 1948 Matta’s life was dramatically unhinged when Arshile Gorky, a close friend and colleague of Matta’s, committed suicide. Emotional accusations and suspicious rumors circulated in the New York art world, many insinuating that Matta’s affair with Gorky’s estranged wife was an instigating factor in the tragic loss. Breton was especially indignant and he seized the opportunity to expel Matta from the Surrealist group—an act that many believe was retribution for Matta’s increasingly overt entries into Latin-American mythological symbols (such as the totem) and his insistence upon a social dimension to art making.
Unjustly excluded, both professionally and personally, from the New York art scene, Matta returned to Europe after a brief sojourn in Chile, ultimately settling in Rome and Paris. The 1950s were a period of prolific rebirth for the artist, a period of production when the artist mediated on intimate relationships, love, and political stability. In 1959, the Surrealists invited Matta to rejoin their fledgling troupe, but the perpetually independent artist declined. In the following decades Matta’s commitment to Latin America and its artistic renaissance drove the artist to travel throughout the region, collaborating with students on paintings, giving talks to fellow Latin-American artists, and participating in political and artistic conferences. He returned to Chile several times—where he was championed as the country’s most prominent artist—until the rise of Pinochet’s regime in 1973 when Matta refused to return. In the 1980s, Matta composed a series of paintings and poetry, El Mediteráneo y el verbo América, in which the artist visualized ‘America’ as an evolving verb that resists social stagnation and literal narrative.
Matta’s son, Gordon Matta-Clark passed away in 1978 after suffering from pancreatic cancer. Matta-Clark’s critical, highly celebrated artistic career was founded on principles similar to his father’s: architecture and theories of political and social resistance. Matta passed away in November, 2002. Speaking to the immeasurable importance of Matta’s role in the history of modernism, poet Octavio Paz stated, “The best way to define Matta’s unique position in that decade [1940s] is to imagine a geographical, historical and spiritual triangle: South America (Chile), Europe (Paris), and North America (New York and Mexico). More than three times, the three faces of our civilization. A triangle embodied by a person and a year.… A pivotal man and a pivotal date in the art of the twentieth century. Fifty years later we can ask: the dawn or the twilight of modern art? What does it matter? Is dawn not the twilight of morning and twilight the dawn of evening?” (9)
1) Elizabeth A. T. Smith and Colette Dartnall, “Crushed Jewels, Air, Even Laughter” in Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the 1940s (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art; Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art; Miami: Miami Art Museum, 2001), 11.
2) William Rubin, “A Personal Note on Matta in America” in Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the 1940s, 35.
3) Gordon Onslow Ford, Towards a New Subject in Painting (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1948), 11.
4) Quoted in Elizabeth T. Goizueta,”The Artist as Poet: Symbiosis between Narrative and Art in the Work of Matta” in Matta: Making the Invisible Visible, ed. E. Goizueta (Chestnut Hill, MA: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 30.
5) Max Kozloff, “An interview with Matta – These things were like rain catching up with a man who is running,” Artforum 4, no. 1 (September 1965), 23.
6) Quoted in Mary Schneider Enriquez, “Roberto Matta: International Provocateur” in Matta: Making the Invisible Visible, 32.
7) Quoted in Smith and Dartnell, 14.
8) Ibid., 17.
9) Ibid., 29.
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