review Roberto Matta en el MCA Chicago ('02)

otro review de la maleta vieja, cuando colaboraba con Modern Painters:

Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the
1940s’: Museum of Contemporary Art
Modern Painters 15 no3 Aut 2002

13 July - 20 October

IN 1939, FLEEING EUROPE AFTER the outbreak of World War II, Roberto Matta landed in New York, where for nine years he created a body of work which influenced the development of abstract painting in North America. 'Matta in America', co-organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, focuses on paintings and drawings created during this early period.

When I was sixteen, standing in front of a Matta painting was scary fun, like looking at a heavy metal album cover or watching Sigourney Weaver fight the mother queen in Alien. But now I'm thirty I'm confronted with a dilemma: how should one look at Matta's painting in 2002?

Truth be told, when compared to his contemporaries Pollock, Motherwell and Gorky, time has not been generous to Matta. His cartoon-like imagery and illustrative style lacks the visual strength to agitate ideas dealing with life and death, human nature and the subconscious. Although Matta's masterful ability in the medium of painting is not in doubt, the drama of the human condition is more appealing and convincing in a Vija Celmins painting or in the headlines on CNN.

Matta is more convincing when he intertwines abstraction and figuration in the same picture plane. In The Initiation (1941), the lower part of the painting has been dissected by two different perspectives. Both perspectives, in the shape of a white floor with black lines, lead the eyes to the edge of the canvas. The top left of the painting is dominated by a grey whirlpool, while on the right side a geometric structure creates a gravitational pull for abstract yellow spirits. The Initiation illustrates the cycle of life, death and the afterlife.

Matta is less interesting when working with recognisable figures. In A Grave Situation (1946), he depicts an elongated alien-like figure enclosed in a sort of office space. This figure seems to be in distress, screaming, while exploding furniture defies gravity around him. Matta once said: 'people need poetry ... it creates energy', but in a A Grave Situation poetry has been replaced by an obvious description of anxiety in the workplace and in city life.

Matta is triumphant when abstracting elements to form fluid forms and shapes. A good example is Psychological Morphology (1938), a masterful painting where a geometric structure, floating in the middle of the picture plane, stretches horizontally to form a green organic mass. Psychological Morphology addresses issues of the subconscious without being overly descriptive. To his credit, Matta keeps Surrealist clichés to a minimum.

It is easy to see why Matta was key in the development of abstraction. His use of fluid forms, spatial arrangement and his singular transition from figurative to abstract images are inherent to Abstract Expressionism. Speed is another influential gimmick in Matta's imagery, which he displays in the form of entangled webs of lines that appear and disappear within the picture plane in circular motions and shadows. This sense of speed and altered architectural spaces not only influenced an older generation but seems to be influencing a new batch of painters such as Haluk Akakce, Julie Mehretu and Laura Owens. That is a good thing.

Pedro Vélez