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Matta, 1912 – 2002

Photo by Tomassio Longhi, Matta (center) with unidentified friends, Tarquinia 1988.
Photo by Tomassio Longhi, Matta (center) with unidentified friends, Tarquinia 1988.

Probably one of the very last remaining Surrealist artists, Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren, otherwise known as Matta, died on Saturday at his home in Tarquinia, Italy, on November 23rd, a day after an opening of his new works in Rome.

Although often associated with the European Surrealists in exile during the Second World War in New York, Matta, according to some, was the most significant second generation Surrealist who contributed the only major artistic statement made by a new adherent to Surrealism during its final phase.

From a prestigious family that included notable diplomats and a former president, Matta was born in 1912 in Santiago, Chile, of mixed French and Spanish parentage. His restricted upbringing, having been raised as Roman Catholic and educated by French Jesuits who instilled in him a strong sense of traditional discipline and duty, eventually led to an explosive repudiation through his exposure of art in the early 1930s.

After studying architecture at Santiago’s Universidad Católica, upon the suggestion of Hernán Gazmuri, a painter who worked with Fernand Léger in Paris, Matta moved to Paris, where he became an apprentice in Le Corbusier’s Studio from 1935 to 1937. It was during this period that Matta realized that architecture was not a suitable medium for his restless temperament and imagination. Meeting Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda in Madrid prompted Matta to identify with their rejection of formalism in art and literature in favor of more emotive expression, especially the emphasis on the importance of intuitive experiences and associations which could be depicted through exaggerated metaphors in order to describe the inner and anguished world of desolation and turmoil.

By the fall of 1937, preceded his new contact with Salvador Dalí and André Breton by means of García Lorca’s letter of introduction, Matta became a member of the Surrealist group in Paris. He quickly assimilated the two crucial innovations of Surrealist paintings: the visual style referred as biomorphism and the working method called automatism. In 1939, the time of his arrival in New York at the age of 27, Matta was able to better adapt himself to the new possibilities and limitations of art life in New York than Breton and many of his older Surrealist contemporaries. In 1941, after a brief visit to Mexico where he had been impressed by the volcanic landscape, intense sunlight, and bright colors, Matta rapidly matured his work into a language, which he announced as "Inscape" or "psychological morphology." The paintings generally were painted by spilling washes of thin color onto the canvas, then spreading them with rags into the broader selected areas of the image, and with the brush he would accentuate detail in smaller forms. This process was inductive and improvisational— the accidental images that emerge through the spilling suggest some larger forms which at the same time give birth to the smaller and more elaborate biomorphic shapes.

Known for his verbal eloquence—he was one of the few Surrealists in New York who spoke English fluently—Matta in conversation as well as in his work generated considerable interest among the artists of the Abstract Expressionist School. This certainly held true in terms of his influence on the work of Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and particularly Arshile Gorky.

From 1941 to 1949, paintings such as The Vertigo of Eros, The Onyx of Electra, To Escape the Absolute, represent for Matta a new state of continuous evolution of opposing forces in which ever-changing forms are visual analogies for the artist’s psyche. In his invaluable survey monograph on Dada and Surrealist art, William Rubin argued that Matta employs illusionistic techniques only for the plastic underpinning of his metaphor, which consequently made his invention of a new spatial system as unique in 20th Century art as de Chirico’s.

By the mid-1940s, while taken by Duchamp’s ideas of change especially with The Large Glass, Matta also became interested in mathematics, physics, mineralogy, mystical philosophies and magic, a subject in which he shared with Kurt Seligmann who also wrote a book on magic. Thus within the constant flux of his broad interests and his increasing enthusiasm for Pre-Columbian art and North West Coast Indians Totems, Matta, a formally trained architect, was able to reconstruct in his work a synthesis of Euclidean and non-Euclidean space which in turn embraces the co-existence of geometric and organic forms that both suggest and deny three-dimensionality. What previously had been hallucinatory and nightmarish in their melting repertoire of forms, the new work became more figurative and narrative. Their imagery rests upon a cosmic unity of subliminal tension and the impression of perpetual change. In fact, Matta’s vision is not that dissimilar to that of José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher whose book The Dehumanization of Art denounces any art that denies nature and the significance of human presence. There onward, the element of figuration in Matta’s work became even more pronounced. This I believe is what makes his work so unaccommodating to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. In 1948, because of his growing disillusionment with New York and the personal agony produced by his involvement in Arshile Gorky’s suicide, Matta returned to Europe, shuttling between Paris and Rome, and by the mid-1960s he had permanently settled in Tarquinia.

As to his political partisanship, Matta was an ardent supporter of Socialist President Salvador Allende. He returned to Chile several times to work with students on many mural projects, until the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet took power in 1973, at which point Matta became persona non grata in Chile. He was even blacklisted as a communist in the U.S. during the ’50s, which added to the difficulty of his obtaining an entry visa to New York and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, both cities in which he exhibited his work through the 1970s and ’80s. In explaining his late work, I remember, while visiting him with his friend, the painter Nicolas Carone, he told us that "What I am doing now is not that different from Leonardo who discovers imagery through the accidental spots and stains on marble surfaces." If I recall it correctly, there was a repeated process. Whatever canvas happened to be on the floor as a drop cloth would be the next painting on the sliding wall in his studio.

In Matta’s case, despite the multitude of humanoid activities in a more complex and claustrophobic labyrinth of space, suspended between a violent and orgiastic void, the last paintings reveal more and more of his working process. There are even unpainted areas, from what had been on the floor—remnants of his footprints and all sorts of histories. To quote him directly and lastly: "I’m not really a painter. I’m only interested in learning the technique of painting to demonstrate my ideas."


Phong Bui


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