What's a Matta?

This retrospective of one of the 20th Century's most underrated artists is a must-see

One of the former -- a massive, fiery, highly sexually charged piece called X-Space and the Ego(1945) -- is in the catalog but will be displayed only in the Chicago version of the show, unfortunately. But two of the latter are at MAM: The equally imposing How-Ever (1947) is a roughly 7-by-12-foot, densely cluttered composition that includes dozens of Matta's unearthly creatures, some of which appear to be performing an operation on one of the others. It's a disturbing but mesmerizing image.

The smaller, less complicated Wound Interrogation (1948) is, to my mind, an even more compelling piece. Four of the large totemic aliens are positioned around a sort of examining table, with one of them manipulating the fleshy wound of the title, which has thin protuberances extending into the far reaches of the room.

Although Matta never completely abandoned some of the stylistic and technical elements we see at work in "Matta in America," over the next decades, his imposing creatures and their environments gradually metamorphosed. As early as the 1946 painting Untitled (Prime Ordeal) and again in 1948's Red Flower Totemic, the jagged biomechanical aliens have all but vanished, leaving behind maybe a few skeletal remnants and bloody, fleshy slabs that have more in common with some of the early work of Francis Bacon.

The Bachelors Twenty Years After (1943) is a striking example of Matta's  innovative style
The Bachelors Twenty Years After (1943) is a striking example of Matta's innovative style

Details

On display through June 2. Call 305-375-3000.
Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami

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I can't muster as much enthusiasm for most of Matta's work after the 1940s and early '50s, but I'm also still baffled that, despite his influence on so many other better-known artists, he remains relatively obscure, with a worldwide reputation that seems uneven at best. The short but cogent William Rubin essay in the catalog acknowledges this and speculates on possible explanations, including "his peripatetic life, split since the forties between Italy, France, and England -- a pattern of life not destined to anchor a career. But more than anything else, however, the tangential role generally attributed to Matta's art in America as well as in Europe after 1930 reflects the fact that, since its beginnings, his enterprise has been directly opposed to the premise of the various vanguard styles that have held the field since Surrealism dissolved in the late forties."

Rubin cites other views of Matta suggesting that he is an artist for the ages: "No other picture from the early 1940s in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has been on view as long or as continuously as Matta's Le Vertige d'Éros -- indeed, except for loans, it has been on the walls since it was purchased in 1944, shortly after it was painted." (The picture, unfortunately, was not made available for this show, although it appears in the catalog.)

He also quotes Marcel Duchamp, who once referred to Matta as "the most profound painter of his generation." High praise indeed, and this retrospective reaffirms it.

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