The Chilean-born Surrealist Roberto Matta is 86 and still going strong. Longevity may be among the artist’s lesser accomplishments, as we’re reminded by a rare West Coast exhibition of his work at Beverly Hills’ Latin American Masters gallery.
“Roberto Matta, Paintings and Drawings 1937-1959,” a museum-quality selection of about 40 drawings and paintings, samples Matta’s oeuvre from perhaps the heyday of his creativity.
Arriving in Paris in 1932, he worked as a draftsman for Le Corbusier. Helped by a letter of introduction from Garcia Lorca, he met Salvador Dali and Andre Breton, who invited Matta to join the Surrealist Group in 1937. He made a crucial contribution to the most abstract form of Surrealist art, so-called Biomorphic Surrealism, whose best-known master became Joan Miro.
Two large, colored pencil-and-crayon compositions from 1938 demonstrate Matta’s development. “Red Sun” is a fairly standard stylized figurative Surrealist composition with melting female figures in the accents of Dali combined with an organic composition suggesting Andre Masson.
By contrast, “Star Travel” takes a more universal abstract tack that became important when, in 1938, Matta joined the stream of artists leaving war-shadowed Europe for New York. There he became a critical mover in the development of Abstract Expressionism, inspiring everybody from Arshile Gorky to Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock. Artists were so impressed with Matta’s visual ideas that he touched even such California Modernists as Gordon Onslow-Ford, Lee Mullican and John Altoon.
The magnitude of Matta’s effect on his fellows was in some ways comparable to that of Picasso, and yet he remains far less recognized. I think there are two reasons for this, both of which are amply demonstrated by the exhibition.
First, Matta is an artist whose drawings are consistently more eloquent than his paintings. Because the pecking order of art gives paintings higher rank than drawings, doing the latter better is a drawback. (Pun intended.)
Second, Matta suffers from a bad case of virtuosity. To see his work is to imagine an ambidextrous spider simultaneously doing three heart bypass operations while weaving Penelope’s web. At the same moment, he is performing simultaneous translations of “Ulysses” into every known language while performing deep psychoanalysis on himself and laughing the whole time.
This kind of thing goes down very well if you’re Mozart. Among modern artists, however, such terpsichorean pyrotechnics are traditionally regarded with suspicion. Making things look easy is seen to reveal narcissism and a lack of sincerity. Frankly, I think it’s just a bad case of professional jealousy.
The standard put-down of Matta used to be that his art looks too much like science-fiction illustrations. Of course it doesn’t, but it does have much of the seamless perfection of today’s film special effects. Characters in drawings like “Sodomy” were well ahead of the game in depicting homoerotic sex. More important visually, he could make his figures look like everything from boneless protoplasm to gnarly old trees at the flick of a pencil. At the same moment, he always kept up a convincing illusion of three-dimensional space.
In short, Matta committed the sin of understanding all the hip Modernist ideas while still staying in touch with a historic genius like Hieronymus Bosch. To make matters even worse, he refused to take on the European mantle of artist-as-pompous-ass.
Matta has never looked better than in this exhibition. Because there probably have been better exhibitions, that’s an indication that the times have finally caught up with this unique artist.
* “Roberto Matta, Paintings and Drawings 1937-1959,” Latin American Masters, 264 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; through May 31, closed Sundays and Mondays, (310) 271-4847.