Roberto Matta, Untitled (c. 1983), oil on canvas, 74-3/4″ x 80-3/4″; courtesy Pace Gallery
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The Chilean painter Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren, subject of a dizzying exhibition at Pace Gallery, has a distinct hold on the history of 20th-century art.
Invited to join the Surrealists by ringleader André Breton, at the behest of Salvador Dalí and Federíco Garcia Lorca, Matta (as he is commonly known) became a direct link between European modernism and the American art scene. Matta was among the European artists who came to the United States at the onset of the Second World War. The Surrealist principles he espoused during a 10-year stay in New York, from 1938–1948, proved decisive for the developing oeuvres of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. The New York School is inconceivable without Matta.
What is almost as inconceivable (at least, for some of us) is that Matta’s life and career extended beyond the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Not a few veteran art world observers did double takes upon learning that Matta died only a few years back—in 2001 at the age of 91. The 21st century! Matta’s hold on history is less fixed than we thought. The uncanny thing about his expansive brand of Surrealism has always been how it presaged virtual space before the notion became a commonplace.
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Matta: A Centennial Exhibition is a rare opportunity to acquaint yourself with this discursive, eccentric and unclassifiable artist. The paintings are big—a couple are huge. Each is a slurry of pictorial tics gleaned from automatism, Futurism, graffiti, pictographs, high modernist dogma, post-modernist caprice and the loopier precincts of science fiction. Imagine Star Wars meeting Miró and Kandinsky in a back alley of the Aztec empire under the influence of hallucinogenics; then immerse it within a floating, fractured and bodiless space not unlike that which we encounter on our computer screen. A more quixotic painter you couldn’t come up with; Matta is a visionary of singular and contrary gifts. This is an exhibition that shouldn’t be missed.
© 2011 Mario Naves
Originally published in the November 28, 2011 edition of City Arts.