PRINT September 1965

An Interview with Matta

Q. When did you first arrive in New York?

A. October or November, 1939.

Q. Where had you been before that?

A. Paris.

Q. You were working professionally in Paris?

A. Yes, you know, I came from architecture. I never painted—I made some drawings—but when I started painting, it was through necessity, of trying to find an expression which I call a morphology, of the functioning of one’s thinking, or one’s feeling. I used the expression for that kind of work, which was, somehow, for the first time, of psychic morphology. This question of expressing directly on the canvas my state of feeling was symptomatic of control. It was very much in line, according to Breton, with what he thought could be a Surrealist painting. But I had no idea myself that I was being a Surrealist. It was just expressing—when I made some of these pictures—the psychic morphology of desire, of contempt.

Q. You were immersed in the Surrealist ambience, without being . . .

A. Yes, but how shall I say, it was a different thought from that of the time. To a certain extent one could say that Miró had done things like that. With a great preoccupation with esthetics, while this was trying to be as free, as close to the real feeling as possible, with a minimum of control. No time to compose.

Q. Automatism?

A. Yes, but automatism had a dose of control . . . pretended to be a language. I felt different when the morphology was of something desperate, of something longing for, you know. Do you understand me?

Q. I understand that you were taking away certain inhibitions.

A. No, you see, I don’t know if you are familiar with morphology, the science of morphology. That is, to follow a form through a certain evolution. For instance, from a seed to a tree, the form is constantly changing under certain pressures, until it arrives at the final form, and then disintegrates. Now, the growth in the change of a form, which concerns any organism, or even mineral, or—how should I say—a stone which is exposed to accidents. . . . This notion of morphology relates to how one’s feelings were formed, transformed, through life.

Q. They were natural and biomorphic in their orientation, weren’t they? What forms were chosen were not mechanical.

A. They were my forms. They were whatever I had in storage in my memory. I was trying to use forms that were less known . . . I was trying to go into forms that had been revealed by microscope. Instead of the bones of man, I would use the articulation of the wing of the fly.

Q. How did the situation appear to you when you got to New York?

A. I never thought of myself as a professional painter; I looked at things mainly as: how a man, with the means he more or less invents, tries to convey how difficult it is to be. To be a man, to be an artist. And I found them experimenting with plastic things. But, as far as form goes, there were such things as—Bob Motherwell who was painting something like Chirico’s horses; Pollock was painting more in the Picasso world, you know; and Gorky was painting in some kind of heavy Miró way; Baziotes was painting like Picasso, too.

Q. Did this interest you?

A. What interested me was to see if everybody could apply the system that to me was fascinating at the time, to use morphology about my psychic responses to life. And everyone would invent their own morphology, and express this question. I tried to infect them with this idea, as something very good, something in which they could find wealth in their own terms.

Q. You were so convinced that you talked, and discussed these things with them?

A. Very much, saying that we didn’t have to make images in terms of Picasso; that’s old fashioned. I was very young, and in those days, very brutal. And very, how you say, strict, severe, against.

Q. How did they react?

A. Well, we used to meet, in my studio on Ninth Street—Pollock, Motherwell, Gorky—and I used to say, we had to find new images of man. There was a certain amount of scepticism, and it didn’t last very long. But people agreed that maybe something could be done differently. And I must say that one of the first that started doing something in that sense, was Pollock. He started using many different images of man, and in serial fashion. I took Peggy Guggenheim to him—this was over a period of a year and a half. And then Peggy gave him a contract, and when people would ask me, I thought that he was interesting in that sense. But he was very inarticulate; whereas someone like Bob Motherwell was more interested in the theory of all this, somehow.

Well, you see, at that period, when they sort of started on this question, I had some kind of trauma when I realized what the war was, and the concentration camps, and I went one step further in my understanding. I tried to use, not my personal psychic morphology, but a social morphology. Using the totemic images involved in a situation which was more historical: the torture chambers, and so on. I tried to pass from the intimate imagery, forms of vertebrae, and unknown animals, very little known flowers to cultural expressions, totemic things, civilizations, you know what I mean? I was still being under the laws of morphology, but this time not so much of the forming, let’s say, of an organism, which was symbolic of myself, this time it was the formation of cultures confronting each other. Battlegrounds of feelings and ideas, fighting to see if something would come out of these clashes. I would use what I had in hand; I would use perspective. To them, that sounded backward. This question has never been clear. I claim that I am still doing the same things, that I am consistent, while they thought for a while, that I had gone back, so to speak, to Surrealism. They ceased differentiating the different elements that were important, and it ended in a whirlpool—very pathetic, very dramatic. A whirlpool in which the “I” and the world were just clashing, so to speak, almost cosmically. Involving violence in the use of paint. The development should have gone more towards differentiating more what clashes—do you understand me?

Q. Yes, this is very interesting. The question is, you talk about the violence of paint, but your own work was not violent in its handling?

A. Yes, but I thought at one point that the introspection transformed itself into world introspection. I should try to use this vision to try to get into what’s going on in the world of which I was part. And not only what the world was doing to me. I had all sorts of propositions, for example. I had propositions of—the morphology of meeting—the man meeting with another man in which the effect of the meeting changed the form of the one met, etc. Even today, I’m working in that direction.

Q. But, they saw your paintings fairly recently after that?

A. I think I was a little bit excluded; no, one of the last things that Gorky said to me was that he wanted very much to get into this kind of creature, this kind of character, this kind of differentiation. He realized that in this kind of cosmic, pulsing matter, that it was important to differentiate and explain a place for man in it. Not being anthropomorphic, necessarily, just some kind of a difference between the whole and the one, the container and the contained, so that one could start a language.

Q. Did you begin to notice during the forties changes in the painting done by these Americans, and if so, what kinds of changes?

A. Well, in the case of Pollock, who came from what we call “magazine painting”—painting from reproductions, from Masson and Picasso, you know, he started to make something very personal, and his characters became at first “personnages,” and this precipitated and accelerated until it became a whirlpool, a one-world. But I would say that he too felt the necessity at one point to differentiate again. This whirlpool started again—saying what is “one,” what is non-one, and what happens to this one in a world where everything is together, or where things start separating again, or that have identity. But then, in my understanding—well, this is very subtle to say—he went back again to an image, of the nude, if you like, as an image. But this brings us back to Expressionism again, and what we want is something else: the place of man in all these ideas we have of making a society. Man as the target of life and nature.

Q. And did you think that these painters were responding to these ideas?

A. Well, everyone developed it in his own direction in art. But I think it was a very definite need at the time.

Q. It answered a need?

A. In my case, it came from nowhere. Only a need. But maybe I was riper before then, because I was in Europe, where it was easier for an artist to get information. This imminence of tragedy and war, etc. These things were like rain catching up with a man who is running.

Q. During these years, what were the social relations between you and these other painters?

A. Very good. I saw Motherwell very much. Pollock was more . . . fermé. A closed man. Gorky I saw a great deal. Baziotes was a dear friend. There were others as well.

Q. How about the Europeans? Masson was there too?

A. Yes, Masson lived in Connecticut. I personally didn’t see very much of him. I always saw Marcel Duchamp.

Q. What does the term Abstract Expressionism mean to you? Does it seem appropriate?

A. I authentically believe that modern art aims at giving an image of what happens. Let’s say that the Renaissance managed to give an image of how we see what happens. And perspective was one of the devices to give—how it looked. Surrealism’s function was to give an image of the real functioning of thinking, without esthetic or moral prejudice. And that picture of Marcel Duchamp in which he implied that he could picture change, that painting which was called, “Le Passage de la Vierge a la Mariée,” started in me the notion that one can picture change, what happened between A and B in a situation. One had to develop a morphology which would be independent of retinal morphology.

Q. Yes, but how does this apply to Abstract Expressionism?

A. That’s what I’m driving at. The abstract is the sense that algebra is abstract—the development of a family of signs which are an abstraction of phenomena. And Expressionism, in my understanding, tries to express what happens. I believe that we could—for this is not something one can do alone—develop a non-Euclidian space, by which we could refer to the number of constants and variables which are in an event. We could arrive at giving an image of where we lived. To me, that is the objective of modern art. To make visible, to give a vision of, the structure of events. And naturally this would be a completely different art, of which Abstract Expressionism would be the first step.

Q. But did this term have any application to the painting as you knew it?

A. No. I think the point there is that one wants to grasp the abstract expression of events in a certain sense. You see, if one day, not only artists, but everyone has a picture of, for instance what’s going on here: I’m talking and you’re listening, but that is not what is going on. Rather, some “bulbs” in your understanding of what we are saying are opening. And I am throwing energy waves in your direction. Certain engineering or structuring of feelings or situations, and understanding those situations: to me, that is the object of abstract art. Except that this isn’t clear in the minds of artists. It will take generations for this thing to begin. In that period, some of Gorky, some of de Kooning, represented a beginning.

Q. What about the other painters, such as Newman and Gottlieb or Rothko. Did you have anything to do with them, or did you know of their work?

A. We are all living in the same century, and the same complex, the same continuum. All of this is going to become the material for the next generation. To use a symbolic morphology or symbolic logic. I picture, this non-Euclidian space, which might be compared to the space of temperatures in a room, of meteorological space, as a container developing the event in a way similar to wave lengths and heat-paths. We need to visualize history.

Q. Well, all right. But now, let me ask you something very specific. During the forties, the color in your paintings was very distinct, very individual. Did it seem to have any effect upon color in New York painting? The gaseous, phosphorescent tonalities you were using.

A. I think, to some of the painters, it was clear that I wasn’t referring anymore to outside experience. That I was abstracting the experience. They themselves started dealing with something that wasn’t outside the experience. These colors, that funny pink, had no reference to everyday life. (Except perhaps insects and certain flowers.) I was getting out of 57th Street, into some kind of social milieu, where there weren’t any windows or doors.

Q. What was the impact of such a key canvas of yours as the “Vertigo of Eros”? Was there any discussion about that?

A. When I did things, they tended to say “science-fiction,” although this was too easy, comfortable an explanation. The reference I was making once again, was to a non-Euclidian space, where all the ordinates and co-ordinates are moving in themselves, because the references to the “wall,” shall we say, of the space, are constantly changing. They are not parallel to a Euclidian cube, to which most previous painting has referred. Do you understand?

Q. I’m very confused. To whom does this apply? To Rothko? To de Kooning?

A. No. I think it applies to Pollock, to a certain extent, and to Gorky. I think de Kooning is involved inside, but is not aware of this need. He’s conscious that one can’t reproduce anymore what happens in a Euclidian cube, so he bombards a nude under the pressures and actions which come to surround it . . . But Pollock tried to give a picture of the world as a series of waves and shocks, actions and repulsions. Some of my pictures might be thought of as details that could be placed in a square inch of his pictures.

Q. But of course, New York painting took another direction. After all, there was Guston, Kline.

A. Ah, that’s “pure” painting. I’m not interested in that. That’s called “painting” it. What interests me is the “picturing.” To me, painting is a technique at the service of a certain consciousness. The awakening of a consciousness. That can be painted more or less amusingly. Now, they got tremendously involved in such questions as, “Does the picture exist?”, “Is the canvas a reality?”, “Is red really red, or is white more white than red is red?” They entered into some funny scepticism about what things are. And they went very far: there are pictures which are all red, or all black. Or pictures such as Rothko’s, where the four sides curiously create the space. All this, was to me, speculations about what is a picture. What is a painting. To be sure, this is interesting, but it is not an expressive abstraction of what really goes on in man’s experience.

Q. What finally happened in your relation with the painters of New York? How long did you stay, and when did you leave?

A. I left in 1948, when the thing was getting too “painting” for me. I was more and more involved in giving a material picture of history, of events. And all of that sounded, to them, literary. To me, it wasn’t literary at all, it was, how shall I say, it was the object. I mean, art always has been a reflection of the need to represent reality. Since 1948, although based in Europe, I’ve returned several times to the United States.