New York

Roberto Matta, La Question, 1957, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 × 116". © Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Roberto Matta, La Question, 1957, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 × 116". © Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Roberto Matta

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Roberto Matta, La Question, 1957, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 × 116". © Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

“Matta in the 1950s and 1960s” was a curious assortment of Roberto Matta’s works, not all commensurate with each other: eleven drawings, all wax crayon and graphite; six oil paintings; and a figurative bronze sculpture. The sculpture, titled L’Impensable, 1959, portrays a human body stripped bare to metal bones, all spindly and surrealistic like some of Picasso’s earlier works. The drawings and paintings abruptly contrast. The former were full of luminous empty space, at times thinly toned with atmospheric color. A central field of fitful markings might form caricatures of human figures, sometimes copulating, sometimes painting, as they do in La Banale de Venise, 1954. There was also usually a sense of rapid, unstoppable, nervous movement—and in places the scenes were humorously simple, as in Et Sinon Allez Etudier, 1970, with its circus-act horses, and Posauitide, 1963, with its comically absurd figures. In La Vérité de la Vie Aliène L’Existence, 1960, there are oddly impish aliens, impulsively drawn.

The paintings, such as Untitled, 1957–58, and Untitled, 1965, came across as more richly colored, even when shrouded in gray, as these works often are. The ominous gray—a sort of twilight—was alleviated by luminous patches, fragments of light struggling to break though an oppressive fog, restlessly alive in Brownian-like movement. La Question, 1957, is typical: A gray scene—a sort of geometric wilderness or institutional environment—is partly illuminated by an amorphous patch of lurid red. In Le Temps Space du Pissenlit, 1967, ruby red, crowned by a bizarre green growth with hints of sunny yellow, similarly erupts from gray. In Le Vin des Fleurs, 1969, the colorful light has dispersed across the picture plane. Both Le Temps Space du Pissenlit and Le Vin des Fleurs are majestically large—tours de force, in which the life force, signified by the flourishing green, triumphs over threatening death and decay. The paintings are manically chaotic and uncontrollably turbulent—whirlpools of luminous curves.

It is customary to accept Duchamp’s assertion that Matta was exploring “regions of space previously unexplored in art,” and it is even more routine to speak of Matta’s works, along with those of many others regarded as seminally modern, as “representations” of spacetime—that is, as influenced by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Matta himself says that he was exploring a region “made of oscillations, waves, beams . . . a nexus of vibrations.” But there are other strains in his practice: The particular drawings and paintings in the exhibition were characterized first of all by their mix of geomorphic and biomorphic forms, and by shadowy gray and ruptures of light. They depict a nightmarish Manichean struggle, with an uncertain outcome. The flowers defiantly blossom, but they are small, and float in a sea of murky, shadowy green that seems likely to reclaim them. It is as if Matta were a kind of gnostic, possessed by the demiurge and desperate to be saved by the light, which suddenly appears in miraculous flickers.

Donald Kuspit