LACMA installs its monumental Matta


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‘Burn, Baby, Burn,’ the monumental, recently acquired 1965-66 painting by Chilean-born Roberto Matta (1911-2002) was installed the other day at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on the fourth floor of the building for Art of the Americas. It’s quite something -- all 320 square feet (more or less) of it.

That’s big. ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ is a portable mural. The word ‘mural’ derives from ‘wall,’ and it’s evident that Matta had a particular kind of wall in mind when he painted it. Only a public wall in a big lobby, commercial space or civic building (including an art museum) could accommodate a painting this huge. The canvas is not a picture painted to occupy a domestic environment.


I mention the vast size because it’s integral to the work’s content.

The painting’s subject is human violence and the horrific destruction being engendered by American society, both at home and abroad -- specifically the devastating 1965 Watts rebellion and the simultaneous sharp escalation of the Vietnam War. The colliding abstract forms evoke aggressive machines and verdant fields being overrun, charred rubble and bodies, death-heads and conflagrations, missile trails and entrails. The Miro-like atmospheric space of the picture goes from flaming red-orange through smokey gray and white to metallic silver, with earthy green restricted just to the lower right corner. With this big picture, Matta was plainly approaching painting in the way Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and even Rufino Tamayo did -- which is to say, as art designed to address viewers as citizens in a public place.

One New York artist who took Matta’s work to heart was Jackson Pollock, whose 1943-44 painting ‘Mural’ marked a watershed in the development of Abstract Expressionist painting. The melting forms and liquid color of the Abstract Surrealism Matta practiced when he fled Europe for New York in 1939 represent his greatest and most influential work. (The Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a terrific traveling show focused on this period, which opened in Los Angeles two weeks after the 9/11 attacks.) The New York School idea of a mural, however, was relatively modest.

‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ is twice the size of Pollock’s earlier ‘Mural,’ at roughly 8-by-20 feet, which was painted to cover the wall of a Manhattan apartment. (His patron Peggy Guggenheim commissioned it for the entrance hall of her town house on East 61st Street.) The Museum of Modern Art included the Pollock in a 1947 show called ‘Large Scale Modern Paintings’ -- but scale is relative. What’s large in an apartment or in the apartment-scale galleries at the old MOMA 60 years ago can look small in a large public space.

LACMA’s painting can easily be seen as an effort by Matta to push art out into the public conversation about pressing issues of the day. He had, after all, worked on Pablo Picasso’s display of the antiwar painting ‘Guernica’ for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition. ‘Guernica’ became a flash point for an international firestorm of objection to the horrors of civil war in Spain.

‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ appears to be in pretty good physical shape, with some flaking paint along the left edge and minor surface crackling here and there. (Maybe the big canvas was rolled in the past.) It’s installed on its own wall between domestic easel paintings by the four Mexican muralists. Needless to say, examples of the Mexicans’ murals won’t be turning up inside an art museum anytime soon. But with this installation of the big Matta, LACMA curator Ilona Katzew performs a savvy elucidation of major themes and aesthetic strategies in Latin American Modern art.

Given the violent trauma plaguing our world today, it’s big in more ways than one. Here are some details:


-- Christopher Knight