SynopsisChilean-born artist Roberto Matta was an international figure whose worldview represented a synthesis of European, American and Latin American cultures. As a member of the Surrealist movement and an early mentor to several Abstract Expressionists, Matta broke with both groups to pursue a highly personal artistic vision. His mature work blended abstraction, figuration and multi-dimensional spaces into complex, cosmic landscapes. Matta's long and prolific career was defined by a strong social conscience and an intense exploration of the his internal and external worlds.
ChildhoodKnown primarily as 'Matta', Roberto Antonio Sebastian Matta Echaurren was born in Santiago, Chile on November 11th, 1912. The son of a Chilean father and Spanish mother, Matta grew up in a strictly Catholic, upper middle-class home. His mother was well read and highly cultured, fostering Matta's interest in art, literature and languages. He received a classical, Jesuit education, and enjoyed a comfortable childhood during a period of widespread economic hardship in Chile.
Early TrainingFrom 1929-1933, Matta studied architecture and interior design at the Sacre Coeur Jesuit College and the Universidad Catolica of Santiago. In his final year of school, Matta devised an ambitious architectural project called the "League of Religions." Signaling an early interest in both biomorphism and fantastical spaces, his building designs were modeled after suggestively posed female bodies. Not long after this project, Matta left behind his privileged upbringing and conservative education to join the Merchant Marines. He settled in Paris, France in 1935, becoming an apprentice Modernist architect Le Corbusier's studio. He stayed on to work with Le Corbusier for the next two years.
During this time, Matta established close friendships with several members of the Latin American literary avant-garde. His relationships with Frederico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral proved particularly influential. It was through Lorca that Matta was introduced to Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. Dalí, in turn, encouraged the young artist to show some of his drawings to André Breton. Sensing an emerging talent and common spirit, Breton bought several of Matta's drawings and invited him to officially join the Surrealist group in 1937.
The same year, Matta worked with the architects designing the Spanish Republican pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition. Here, Matta saw Pablo Picasso's seminal work, Guernica (1937). The work's mixture of formal abstraction and social consciousness had a lasting impact on the development of the Matta's own personal style and artistic practice. Equally as influential was Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her bachelors, Even) (1915-1923), which Matta also encountered around this time. He later referenced this work explicitly in The Bachelors Twenty Years After (1943), and he continued to reference Large Glass throughout his career. Duchamp's influence can be seen particularly in the complex multi-dimensional spaces and fantastical machines that define much of Matta's mid-career work.
Mature PeriodMatta's earliest works were abstract crayon drawings produced using the Surrealist practice of automatism. In these drawings, he referenced organic growth patterns, microscopic views of plants and the non-Euclidean geometry described by mathematician Jules Henri Poincare. Matta transitioned from drawing to oil painting in 1938, while working in Brittany with the British artist Gordon Onslow Ford. The works that Matta created around this time were the first of what he called his "Psychological Morphologies". In these paintings, Mata explored his subconscious mind through a language of abstract forms and constantly evolving, multi-dimensional spaces. Matta also referred to these works as "Inscapes", with the implication that they depicted the interior landscape of the artist's mind, interconnected with his external reality.
Matta was well established within the Surrealist group by the time that he was forced to flee Europe for America in the fall of 1939. When Matta arrived in New York City, he was the youngest and most outgoing of Surrealist emigres. These traits, combined with a shared interest in automatist art-making techniques, allowed Matta to quickly form relationships with several of the young New York School artists. Throughout the first half of the 1940s, , Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes, Peter Busa, Robert Motherwell and others met frequently with Matta to learn about his personal ideas about Surrealism.
In the mid-1940s, Matta's work changed dramatically. Responding to the continuing horrors of the Second World War, Matta expanded his artistic interests beyond his exploration of the subconscious mind. He moved towards a more active engagement with the world in a series of works that he called "Social Morphologies". Many of Matta's paintings from this period incorporate strangely menacing, machine-like contraptions and totemic human forms. He pitted these elements against each other in seemingly constant battle within a landscape of amorphous spaces and vaguely architectural planes. These works have a new emotional immediacy, reverberating with a formal tension created by the often violently oppositional forms.
Matta enjoyed increased professional and creative success in the mid-1940s. Yet, his new use of figuration and narrative created a significant intellectual rift with both the Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists. Matta's life was further thrown into chaos in 1948, when his close friend, Arshile Gorky, committed suicide. Many in the New York Surrealist circle blamed Matta, who had been having an affair with Gorky's estranged wife. Breton publicly expelled Matta from the Surrealist group. This action has been attributed not only to Matta's social infraction, but also to his increased interest in exploring social and political issues through his work.
Ostracized by the artistic community in New York, Matta returned to Europe in 1948. He moved first to Italy, and then, beginning in 1955, kept residences in both Paris and Rome. The Surrealists eventually invited Matta to rejoin their group in 1959. He declined their offer, preferring instead to continue his artistic explorations on his own.
Late PeriodMatta traveled widely throughout Europe, Latin America and Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. During this time, he became even more politically and socially engaged. Matta wholeheartedly believed that art could be a powerful agent for societal change. Much of his work during the next two decades was created in explicit response to contemporary events like the Civil Rights movement and the wars in Vietnam and Algeria. His paintings also became more narrative in the 1950s. They frequently featured totemic figures set within multi-planar environments filled with strange, science-fiction-like machines.
Beginning in the 1960s, Matta dedicated himself to political and social issues in Latin America. During this time, Matta also traveled multiple times to Chile. He strongly supported Salvador Allende's Socialist government, and the newly elected president even invited Matta to be Chile's cultural attache. The artist found great professional and spiritual fulfillment in his home nation until the rise of Pinochet's military dictatorship in 1973. Perhaps the zenith of Matta's engagement with Latin American cultural themes was group of works produced in 1983 titled, El Mediterano y el Verbo Americas. In this series of poems and paintings, Matta created an analogy between the Latin American and European cultural renaissances. He presented the idea of "America" as verb - constantly moving, evolving and changing.
Matta was the subject of several significant exhibitions in the later half of his career. Most notably, he received retrospective shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1957, the National Gallery in Berlin in 1970 and at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1985. During these years, Matta broadened the scope of his artistic practice. He began adding clay to some of his paintings in the early 1960s, and over the next thirty years experimented extensively with printmaking, tapestry, ceramics, furniture making and sculpture. Many of Matta's works from his final decades exhibit a lightening of tone and color, and a turn towards more timeless, mythological and mystical subject matter.
In his last years, Matta split his time between France, England and Italy, where he operated a studio, gallery and pottery school. He continued to travel, work and engage with contemporary political concerns until his death in Civitavecchia, Italy in 2002.
LegacyThroughout a long and fruitful career that spanned six decades and multiple continents, Matta established himself as one of the central figures in the Surrealist movement. Yet, while he certainly shared stylistic and intellectual similarities with the Surrealist group, he was never able to completely reconcile his strong social conscience with its necessarily inward-looking practices. Instead, Matta balanced his interest in the human psyche with an active engagement with the external world. In the process, he provided early and crucial inspiration for the Abstract Expressionists. Matta's artistic legacy was also a deeply personal one, as four of his six children became notable artists as well. Most celebrated among his progeny was the contemporary artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who followed in his fathers footsteps by creating socially conscious work with a distinctively architectural bent.
Below are Roberto Matta's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Frederico Garcia Lorca
Jules Henri Poincare
Years Worked: 1936 - 2002
Quotes"I am interested only in the unknown and I work for my own astonishment."
"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."
"I am very interested in chance. For me it is best of things .. Chance rolls on and never stops. It is like the random button on a CD player. The numbers continually roll over and do not stop, as if they are caught in a sphere. They turn and turn and then stop by chance on a track. We are like these numbers. We are rocked and bombarded from above and below, from right and left. We are a target and bombarded on all sides "
"I was interested in other spaces to do with forms drawn from non-Euclidean geometry and the idea of entering these spaces. These structures do not rely on the sense of space, as we know it. It is a space without limits and which transforms itself in time - a mutant space. "
"Resistance is in each of us. We resist by exercising our creativity. That is true poetry - when we seek new comparisons, other ways of looking and conceiving of things."
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
BiographyTransmission: The Art of Matta And Gordon Matta-Clark
Matta: Surrealism and beyond
PaintingsRoberto Matta: Paintings & Drawings, 1937-1959
Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the 1940s
ArticlesArt: Matta Paintings And Drawings Of 1937-47
By John Russell
The New York Times
November 27, 1981
Matta: Five Decades of Painting
By Valery Oisteanu
The Brooklyn Rail
Matta: The Early Years, 1937 to 1959
By Martica Sawin
Latin American Masters
By Hans-Ulrich Obrist
Websites about ArtistMatta and Psychological Morphology Artist's statement
Matta: An Art Gallery
Artist in Popular CultureMatta: The Eye of the Surrealist
Directed by Jane Crawford
Surrealist music track by Brian Eno
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|Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
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|Salvador Dalí was a Spanish Surrealist painter who combined a hyperrealist style with dream-like, sexualized subject matter. His collaborations with Hollywood and commercial ventures, alongside his notoriously dramatic personality, earned him scorn from some Surrealist colleagues.
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|The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
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|Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting, and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
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|Yves Tanguy was a French painter and one of the key figures of French Surrealism in the early 20th century. Having never received any formal training, Tanguy was a self-taught painter who became best known for his highly imaginitive landscapes and detailed precision.
|Frederico Garcia Lorca was a Spanish poet, dramatist and theater director. Prior to Spain's Civil War, Garcia Lorca was heavily involved with the country's avant-garde arts movement, and personally close with Salvador Dalí. Once the Civil War began, Garcia Lorca mysteriously disappeared and is thought to have been executed by the Nationalists because of his homosexuality.
|Gabriela Mistral was a Chilean poet and intellectual, and the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was also an education reformer and an advocate of feminism and women's issues.
|Jules Henri Poincare was a late-19th-century French mathematician, philosopher and physicist. A pioneer in many fields, including applied mathematics and celestial mechanics, Poincare's theories helped lay the groundwork for modern chaos theory.
|Peter D. Ouspensky was an early-20th-century Russian philosopher. In his teachings he promoted his "Fourth Way" of self-development, in which a person learns to co-exist with others and be in harmony with his physical body, emotions and mind.
|The International Style was a style of modern architecture that emerged in the 1920s and 30s. It emphasized balance, the importance of function, and clean lines devoid of ornamentation.
|The Mexican Muralists were active in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the 1930s. The large-scale works, executed in Mexico and the US, were frequently done in a figurative, allegorical style, and dealt with political, social, and radical themes.
|Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
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|Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
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|William Baziotes was a first generation Abstract Expressionist painter who worked in a Surrealist, lyrical style.
ArtStory: William Baziotes Page
|Peter Busa was an American abstract artist and former student of Hans Hofmann. Busa's vast range of work was influenced by the likes of Gorky, Graham and the neo-primitivism of Picasso. He became a leading member of the artist group known as Indian Space Painters, who incorporated abstraction and Jungian ideas of the unconcious into Native American imagery.
|Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and was a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
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|Gordon Onslow Ford was an English painter and sculptor. At the invitation of André Breton, Ford visited Pairs and became a member of the French Surrealists, joining the ranks of Breton, Tanguy and Ernst.