The passing of a century since an artist’s birth isn’t the best reason for a solo exhibition—what do calendar numbers have to do with esthetic experience? But it’s not the worst, either. If the artist is problematic, as is Roberto Matta, the announced centennial prompts us to look again, to reconsider and perhaps to see something we might have missed. Matta, who died in 2002, lived to be 91, and to celebrate his centennial, the Pace Gallery installed some 14 large paintings—many of them huge on a beyond-Clyfford-Still scale (try 13 feet high and 27 feet wide) in its Chelsea headquarters. Several of the works, according to the press release, “have never been on public view outside Europe.”
Why is Matta problematic? Because he falls into that crack between Surrealism (of the Miró/Tanguy automatism variety, not the Dalí/Magritte spooky-dream kind) and Abstract Expressionism, where only an absolute, tragic genius like Arshile Gorky could really thrive. Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren started out as an architecture student in his native Chile. Feeling hemmed in by the prospective profession, he left for Paris at age 22. There, he fell in with André Breton, who introduced him to just about everybody who was anybody in avant-garde circles. Inspired, he drew and drew, eventually taking up painting and emigrating to the United States in 1938. For 10 years, Matta’s biomechanical forms whirlygigging around in an indefinite, misty space, and mightily influencing the likes of Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell, constituted one of the most energetic bodies of painting in modern art. It was also among the most oddly optimistic, considering that World War II took up a big chunk of Matta’s best decade
Alas, at the time of Gorky’s suicide in 1948, Matta was having an affair with Agnes Magruder, Gorky’s wife. When Matta returned to Paris that same year, Breton—known not just kiddingly as the “pope” of Surrealism—had Matta excommunicated from the movement for moral turpitude. (He was rehabilitated in 1959.) In Europe, Matta’s painting got surer, prettier and more sci-fi illustrative. In 1966, he showed five big paintings in an “open cube” formation (one on each of three walls, and two on the ceiling) at Alexandre Iolas in Paris, an exhibition that probably represented the height of his ambition to raise painting to the level of a cosmological “fourth dimension.”
The paintings at Pace are from much later—the 1980s and 1990s—when Matta had traded in most of his straight, sometimes perspectival lines for curved ones, when his color got richer, when his forms started to wander rather than explode. Some see a late efflorescence in all this, others a moderate decline (though certainly not in physical ambition). I’m on the fence, although I lean toward Matta’s earlier, more rigorous work. But whatever one’s verdict, this exhibition performs a public service—a museum-quality explication of an underexposed major modern figure. Thank goodness, then, for the convention of centennial exhibitions.
Photo: Matta: Comment une conscience se fait univers (peut être), 1992, oil on canvas, approx. 10 by 15 feet; at Pace.