New York

Matta

Jackson/Lolas Gallery

Of all the major styles that appeared for the first time in the 20th century, the most enduring has been Surrealism. While early Cubism and Abstract Expressionism may claim the grandest modern gestures, more artists have made Surrealistic works more persistently, and in the widest range of media, for what is now more than fifty years. The fact that Surrealism stands at the intersection of so many of the preoccupations of modern life may have something to do with this. It is as disjunctive, it wrenches reality as powerfully, as any of the abstract modes, while remaining as scrupulous about the details of the daily world as rational, secular culture requires. Beyond this, Surrealism in its various forms is read as if it has (though it actually may not) a direct line to the mysteries of the psyche. This last aspect of the style is the one for which it is best known, and probably held most dearly to heart by a time that has substituted inward for heavenward voyaging.

If Surrealism is thus the most versatile of modern styles, it has also been one of modern art’s lowest common denominators, and has produced some of the most nonsensical work. A case in point is Matta’s pictures. About half of the objects portrayed in each of these cartoonlike paintings are recognizable. What you can discern are flaccid bodies, parts of animals, assorted vaginal and penile shapes, and lots of stuff that looks like machinery as rendered in cartoons—machinery that swells and pulsates as if really made of flesh. These items Matta collages together crazily, to make up the kind of mysterious, chaotic violence that is such a venerable Surrealist theme.

The curious thing about these pictures is how their violence and, in one case, morbidity (Death in the Afternoon, 1966) is countered by their cartoonlike, comical quality. It is as if the absurd element in, say, Dali’s watches has been pushed here to its fullest extreme. The mysterious, psychic violence which so much Surrealist work has claimed to represent, and has taken so very seriously, Matta turns nearly into slapstick. The epicene figure on the right side of Death in the Afternoon, whom one presumes to be a victim of the ambiguous cataclysm that fills most of the picture, might as well be a reclining nude or simply someone taking a snooze.

All of this constitutes some satirical poking at Surrealist tradition and its often heavy handedness—Matta makes quite overt all the lugubrious allusions of paintings like Dali’s. No decaying breast-shaped mountains; Matta’s penises and vaginas float around right in the sky. Ridiculous though these gestures are, there is something praiseworthy in the impulse behind them. One senses that Matta knew how preposterous is the notion that blunt sexual symbolism stands for psychological insight, or even any kind of psychological reality. His genital slapstick suggests, among other things, that psychological reality is rather banal, and not the epic nightmare that much Surrealism would have it be.

Leo Rubinfien