Roberto Matta’s Paint Game

Roberto Matta’s (1911-2002) paintings play out the recognizable against the unreal. Referencing morphology or alchemy, cosmology or science fiction his prominent involvement with the Surrealists during the 1930s, the Abstract Expressionists in New York during the 1940s and the influences of Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso are just as visible as the artist’s view on natural sciences turning into a dystopia or the dissolution of space. Like Suprematism, Futurism or Lucio Fontana’s Spatialism, Matta – who was originally trained as an architect – was strongly influenced by Einstein’s relativity theory, the time-space continuum and theories on magnet fields or black holes shown in the Triptych ET AT IT (1944): a cosmic space in which white contours set rectangular surfaces floating across a blackish background. Concentric lines forming holes were partly drawn with the finger into wet paint revealing both pictorial and material force as the drawings are done so as to push the underlying paint aside, showing the canvas. Rarely have the ideas of a space-time continuum coincided so explicitly with the material process of painting itself. This connection is already apparent in Matta’s early works such as Théorie de l’Arbre (1941). Here, softly modulated changes between outside and inside and various tones animate the painting as a continuum or evolution. These canvases remind of Salvador Dali but also of the American avant-garde’s interest in biomorphic forms for example by the early Barnett Newman or Georgia O’Keeffe.

André Breton expelled Matta from the Surrealists in 1948 under the pretense of blaming his involvement with Gorky’s wife for the painter’s suicide. But Matta had also distanced himself from the Surrealist endeavors through his increased interest in the sciences. The group’s impact however remained visible in his approach, for example, when experimenting with fluorescent colors and black light already in the 1940s, which led to a series of later large-scale abstract canvases. The later Les métaux fondus reviennent au feu de la terre (1988) is to be seen in front of changing black light emphasizing Matta’s concentration on the transformations of appearances between figure and ground. Matta used neon colors already in the early Seventies in works such as No title (Les Oh! Tomobiles) (1972/73) or La Commune de Paris et la Révolution française (ca. 1975) which also take up influences of Pop Art and graffiti. His use of reproduction techniques led to some extraordinary black and white paintings. For Autoportrait des complexités de l’être (1999) Matta enlarged illustrations of Erich Heckel’s 19th century volume Art Forms in Nature linking biology to architectural forms echoing Matta’s proposal of an architecture based on the human figure in his architectural manifest of 1938.

In the extraordinary Explosant fixe (1974) – the title refers to Breton’s definition of the Surrealist convulsive “anti”-beauty and to Pierre Boulez’ composition of 1971 – flowing patches of extremely thinned luminescent color evoke Morris Louis or even Sigmar Polke while indefinable technical forms seem to prefigure Neo Rauch’s later odd environments. At other times Matta built forms out of chance occurrences such as splashes of dried paint setting him apart from the Abstract Expressionists’ all over field of automatic gestures. In La matière noire (1992) Matta used decalcomania, a technique that Max Ernst had famously employed to generate new forms by pressing a surface on top of fluid color and then removing it. The result is a violet-orange-pink plane with the uneven contours that still remind of geographical delimitations. The shape remains strangely exclusive in the pink, sprayed background, covered, too, by shoe imprints – possibly Matta had walked over the canvas – and in contrast to a large unfolded Archimedean body in the middle. The reference to this non-Platonic form demonstrates once again Matta’s thinking about space and depiction: Static angles are lost and matter might be folded in any way. Like his amorphous forms space, too, cannot be traced back to its geometrical origin as object of any cartographical knowledge.

Considering the proclaimed “deaths of painting” during the 20th century, Matta’s oeuvre constitutes an impressive counterpoint of anti-form, anti-space, anti-aesthetic in painting. His aesthetics overcomes the heritage of ideals through painterly processes whilst the reluctance to give in to either figuration or abstraction puts a firm belief in the energy of painting itself forward, accentuating, too, painting’s survival next to postmodern art or indeed on the medium’s strong presence in contemporary art since the 1980s. Nicolas Bourriaud’s suggestion of a contemporary Appropriation art that evades a postmern eclecticism and instead proposes an aesthetic of a free game comes to mind. Matta might have been the first on the turntables.


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