- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

Visiting the exhibit of Chilean Roberto Matta’s work at the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas is almost as confusing as deciphering the meaning of this vanguard surrealist’s work.

The museum organized the show as a tribute to Matta (1911-2002) when he died two years ago, but unfortunately, it’s not as successful as it could be.

Titled “An Architect of Surrealism,” the exhibit confronts visitors solely with its name and not the customary introductory text. To my frustration, the lack of descriptive information continues throughout the show, though short quotes from his writings and those of his contemporaries are mounted sporadically.

One such quote, from Octavio Paz, is telling: “Matta is the dancer of the imaginary: he knows how to jump and how to fall. As soon as his days in New York are over, he goes back to his figurative painting: grotesque and terrible beings evoke science fiction characters as well as the Mexican pre-Columbian manuscripts.” (Paris, 1985). More of these writings should have been mounted as wall labels.

After all, Matta (this is what he called himself and how he’s known) is considered one of the greatest of the surrealists and an important bridge from surrealism in France to abstract expressionism in New York during the 1940s. Any discussion of his art and life is both challenging and rewarding, with the complexity of his styles, his travels and long life. Such an exchange is sadly missing here.

Although “Roberto Matta,” a small booklet on the exhibit, is available at the sales desk for $5, the text and illustrations are hardly elucidating.

Gone are the days when a museum could mount the work of a major artist and not illuminate that art with wall and text labels, a video, brochure or catalog.

Nevertheless, Matta admirers will find the show well worth visiting with its 30 fine paintings, drawings and prints. Washingtonians last saw major Matta paintings in 1992 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers.” It’s about time Matta’s art visits this city again.

Exhibit curator and museum Director Ana Maria Escallon presents the show chronologically and opens it with “Hermala II” (1948), one of the museum’s signature Mattas.

Matta emigrated from Chile to Paris in 1933 to work as an architect in Le Corbusier’s Paris office.

After meeting the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca in 1934 and surrealists Salvador Dali and Andre Breton in 1936, he threw over architecture to pursue this avant-garde kind of art.

Retreating to New York with other exiled surrealists at the advent of World War II, he exhibited successfully in the city’s major galleries. Matta also introduced automatist, spontaneous techniques to leading American abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Robert Motherwell. With the war’s end in 1945 and Gorky’s suicide in 1948, Matta returned to Paris.

He probably painted “Hermala II” just before he left New York. Miss Escallon emphasizes that the artist was well into painting what looked like extraterrestrial worlds at the time.

Describing the puzzling work — the curator says his titles are just as mystifying as his paintings — she maintains that the red fragment at left that spews red spikes out to the right embodied energy for Matta.

“By then, he was exploring ideas of cosmic creation and destruction, both from the macrocosm — that he located outside the body with stars and galaxies — and that of the microcosm — centered in the body. He had the idea that the body had energy inside,” Miss Escallon says.

“Contrasting is the black form to the right that, with its cubelike white form, embodies the night in which the red fragment floats. He liked to have everything moving in space,” she adds.

She points out that another high point of the show, and almost as mysterious, is the very large “Nude Hiding in the Forest” (1969). He repeats the cube form of “Hermala II,” a geometric configuration that goes back to his early interest in mathematics and underlies all of his work.

Also in “Nude Hiding,” Miss Escallon says, “… the artist shows his fondness for biomorphic forms and grotesque, totemic beings. In fact, the robotlike figures at right could be people in a science-fiction movie. They could be interpreted as the swirling white galaxies of stars that Matta envisioned in ‘the macrocosm.’ ” This painting and the artist’s “To Give Painless Light” (1960) in the next exhibit gallery could serve as sets for a science-fiction movie such as Stanley Kubrick’s pioneering “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which premiered in 1968. Was Mr. Kubrick aware of Matta, who long before had visualized the cosmic nature of space and its forces? That’s a question for film and art historians to answer.

Upstairs on the second floor, Matta’s “Verbo America” series of color lithographs holds sway on a more charming, humorous note. Here, by using imaginary Pre-Columbian painted codices with texts from several Latin American writers, the artist illustrates the comment from Mr. Paz that Matta’s people evoke “science fiction characters as well as the Mexican Pre-Columbian manuscripts.” It shows that Matta, when he desired, could superbly illustrate the poetry of his peers.

The Art Museum of the Americas could have presented a superb show of Matta’s works, but it didn’t. Many of the exhibit’s objects are in the permanent collection, and it’s inexcusable that the museum didn’t show all the works in a more scholarly and clear way.

The field is open for another Washington museum to organize a first-rate retrospective of this extraordinary man’s works. Let us hope they go to it.

WHAT: “An Architect of Surrealism”

WHERE: Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, through March 7


PHONE: 202/458-6016

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