New York


As an heir to the automatic writing/drawing techniques developed by the Surrealists, Matta expresses the precepts of his oeuvre most succinctly on paper. His first works of art were drawings made in 1937, and it is in this body of work that one witnesses the germination of his surrealist experimentation. The intimate format coupled with the control provided by a hand-held stylus make drawing the perfect vehicle for the automatic gesture. Automatism unifies form and meaning and was considered the ne plus ultra of authentic expression. In 1941, André Breton described it as “the essential discovery of Surrealism.”

The 42 works in the exhibition “Matta: Drawings, 1937–1946,” trace the genesis of this important Surrealist’s artistic project. The earliest of Matta’s drawings look to Surrealism for both their vocabulary and formal devices. They share an affinity with the biomorphic forms situated in fantastic landscapes from the ’20s by Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson, and Joan Miró. In Both of You, 1937, Matta chooses the traditional theme of the Crucifixion, and, although the composition echoes the Renaissance arrangement of figures surrounding Christ, the physiognomy of the angst-ridden mourners is plainly Surrealist. Enlarged hands are wrung together in exaggerated gesture of despair, heads animated by distorted features, and the eyes bulge from their sockets in a manner clearly indebted to Picasso’s Guernica, painted in the same year.

As Matta’s career developed, he diminished the figurative emphasis of his compositions, while maintaining their evocation of pain, anguish, and pleasure. By the time Matta emigrated to New York from Paris in 1939, his drawings rejected any semblance of recognizable body types, and any residue of figuration is entangled in the web of gestural lines and bursts of jewellike iridescent color. Here, he invents a dyadic balance between atmosphere and figure where the body merges with space and form with void.

Matta explores the emotional effects that various drawing materials and techniques can produce. The pen or stylus is the locus where mind and body merge, and his figurative imagery is a direct response to the bodily activity of drawing. The paper’s surface is the membrane that registers the embroidered traces of scarification, and the pen is the blade. Pencil marks dust the surface disappearing and reappearing in a delicate, dancelike rhythm. Scumbled areas and erasures dissipate the linear elements, and, when areas of color are needed, Matta rarely resorts to a brush but accumulates individual lines, which congeal to create broader areas.

By 1943, Matta’s figuration was more evocative than descriptive, and the drawings from that period reveal a tenuous balance between sexual repression and erotic exuberance. In Untitled, 1943, two frenetic figures in the act of sexual intercourse are enmeshed in a bird’s nest of pencil lines. Above them, three figures are locked in a physical tangle that appears much less friendly; the facial expressions reveal grimaces and bared teeth, and the penises are so pointed that they look more like weapons than objects for sensual pleasure.

The theme of sex and torture is not only psychic but also grounded in the political reality of World War II. Living in New York as a celebrity with other international artists in exile, his lifestyle must have seemed inane. In Le Colonel et la Principessa (The colonel and the princess, 1943–44), an image of an exuberant congregation of figures at a cocktail party at the time of war includes assorted dignitaries—a colonel, a princess, and “Peggy” (Guggenheim?)—raising martini glasses in a celebratory toast. All ten figures are naked and in the midst of an orgiastic sexual episode. An inscription reads: “Midtown-Cock-tail Party (à la Seurat).” Matta’s self-conscious inclusion of the war as a subtext is introduced in the inscription “Le vice des peuple guerrier.” Here the misspelling unites the two similar words guèrir (heal) and guerre (war) to produce the unstable phrase “the vices of people fighting/healing.” A dyadic balance between the combative orgiastic frenzy and the violence of war is conjoined as a couple unabashedly copulates, martini glasses in hand. Dots of red ink mark the red pit of a martini olive, the open orifices of a figure’s mouth, anus or penis, and fleck the skin’s surface like stains of blood. As the figures come together, pleasure merges with violence in a single stroke. The bodies are not just naked but peeled open to display their innards. Matta shows the animalistic component of the human psyche that exists regardless of conditions in the larger world.

Kirby Gookin