What's a Matta?

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

Normally, my jurisdiction as art critic for New Times Broward-Palm Beach extends no farther south than North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, the inclusion of which I've managed to justify because no other South Florida museum consistently features such vital, cutting-edge art. (The Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth is beginning to give MoCA some competition; that's a story for another time.)

But when I heard that one of my favorite artists, Roberto Matta, was the subject of a major retrospective at the Miami Art Museum (MAM) in downtown Miami, I asked my editor for special dispensation to cover it. After all, Matta is the only remaining living artist with strong links to both the surrealists and the abstract expressionists, and although the prolific artist is represented in major collections all over the world, it's extremely rare to see more than a few of his pieces in any one location, particularly in America. The last similarly ambitious retrospectives of his work were at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1985 and at the Reina Sofía in Madrid in 1998.

"Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the 1940s," organized by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, lived up to my expectations and then some. The show, which started out at the L.A. MoCA and will move to Chicago after it finishes its Miami run, is in South Florida for only a few more weeks, so if you want a good sense of one of the most influential yet underrated artists of the past century, now's the time to get it.

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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The exhibition features more than two dozen oil canvases, including some of the monumental ones from the late 1940s; ten are being displayed only in the MAM version of the show. Also included are nearly two dozen drawings, executed in various combinations of crayon, ink, graphite, and colored pencil.

The show is accompanied by an exceptional catalog with a meticulously researched essay by curators Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Colette Dartnall and a wealth of photographs and stunning full-color plates. A brief essay by William Rubin, from the catalog for the Centre Pompidou show, is here presented in English for the first time.

Matta -- who was born Roberto Sebastian Matta Echaurren in Santiago, Chile, with the marvelously memorable birthday of November 11, 1911 -- lived in Paris, where he worked with the architect Le Corbusier, from 1935 until 1939. Then, like so many European artists, he fled the continent in reaction to World War II and took refuge in the United States.

The resultant shifting alliances and cross-pollinations among the older Europeans, primarily surrealists, and the younger American artists, who came to prominence with abstract expressionism, forever changed the face of modern art. Matta was in the thick of it all. Among the many artists he associated with are such surrealists as Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, and Max Ernst, who paid homage with a 1948 oil called Mattamatics. (Most of the surrealists eventually "disowned" Matta.)

Matta's American cohorts included Jackson Pollock (who was roughly the same age), Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, and the Armenian transplant Arshile Gorky. The catalog includes reproductions of works by the latter three that succinctly highlight their affinities with Matta.

The early Matta drawings presented here are full of strangely deformed biomorphic shapes that often seem to float, disconnected from one another, in flat, otherwise empty spaces. Sexual imagery ranges from subtly suggestive to fairly explicit. Most of these pieces are of interest primarily as hints of what's to come. One breathtaking exception is Dark Light (1940), a sort of alien landscape populated by equally alien creatures rendered in a mixture of tempera, gouache, and ink on black paper in a surprisingly expressive palette of pinks, grays, and blacks.

The early paintings add various geometric shapes to the organic ones. Matta was fascinated with the biological discoveries made possible by the microscope, but he was equally drawn to mathematics, and many of his oils have the feel of a dream world being explored by a scientist. The catalog, in fact, quotes him as saying, "Painting has one foot in architecture, one foot in the dream." Change architecture to science or math and the statement is equally valid.

Easily the most impressive of the early-'40s oils is a 1943 piece called The Bachelors Twenty Years After, which alludes to Marcel Duchamp's masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). Duchamp's elaborate biomechanisms seem to have come unhinged and run amok, and the thin cracks that spread through The Large Glass when it was once damaged in transit have, in Matta's reinterpretation, become a series of orderly concentric circles and spidery lines that reappear in his work for years to come.

By the mid-'40s, Matta began introducing elongated, often-contorted figures into his work -- creatures that might be characterized as the unholy offspring of the totem-pole carvings found in various tribal cultures and aliens from outer space. In some pictures, they appear to be engaged in bizarre sexual encounters, while other images suggest scientific experiments.

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.

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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