Artist Spotlight: Roberto Matta

Roberto Matta, “On the Edge of a Dream,” oil on canvas, 1956. © 2018 Roberto Matta/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of New River Fine Art.

Throughout his career, Chilean artist Roberto Matta explored the human condition through a signature artistic vision. Heavily influenced by the Surrealist movement in Europe, Matta blended its guiding principles with elements from figural painting and abstraction to explore three dimensionality. While living in the United States in the 1940s, Matta himself guided some of the most important abstract artists of the 20th century.

Though his contributions to the history of art are significant, the market for Matta’s work is still underdeveloped; however, the artist is gaining rightful recognition. Currently he is the subject of an exhibition at New River Fine Art entitled, “Matta: On the Edge of a Dream.” The show is a collaboration between the gallery and author Thomas Monahan, a close friend of the artist who wrote a book on his work used as the basis of the exhibition.

Later in 2018, Roberto Matta will be the subject of a major exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The exhibition, entitled “Roberto Matta and the Fourth Dimension,” will feature works currently on view at New River Fine Art.

Below, explore Matta’s work and his relationships with artists including Robert Motherwell and Andre Breton.

Early life

Matta was born in Santiago, Chile on November 11, 1911. After studying architecture and interior design at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Matta moved to Paris and worked as a draughtsman for Le Corbusier from 1934 until 1937.

Roberto Matta, “Les Séparés vivants,” oil on canvas. Sold for €570000 via Sotheby’s (october 2017).

Matta developed friendships with important artists and patrons including Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, and Andre Breton while living in Europe in the 1930s. Eventually, Breton invited Matta to join his circle of Surrealist artists. Like many artists, Matta fled Europe for the United States in 1938 to avoid World War II. Around the same time, he moved away from his background in architectural drawing and transitioned to painting.

During the 1940s, Matta relayed the concepts of Surrealism to early New York School artists and Abstract Expressionists. Though he eventually moved past these movements in favor of a more nuanced exploration of socio-political issues, “As the last great Surrealist and the artist who really gave birth to the Expressionist movement, [Matta is] a hugely important artist,” says Lisa Burgess, owner of New River Fine Art.

Matta and the New York School

Roberto Matta’s first one-man exhibition was at Julien Levy Gallery in New York City in 1940. Throughout the following decade, Matta was deeply interested in psychoanalysis, resulting in “inscapes,” or paintings that explore the subconscious.

Roberto Matta, “Explosive Moment,” oil on canvas, 1970. © 2018 Roberto Matta/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of New River Fine Art.

During the 1940s, Matta focused on the Surrealist notion of automatic response, or illustrating the unconscious beyond the rules of rational society. This involved explorations of dreams, time, and space. “When you look at his work it’s evident he uses glass walls that are the separation point between conscious and unconscious, or those thoughts that we keep inside and those we let the world see,” says Burgess.

While living in New York, Matta became intertwined with the New York School of painting and the Abstract Expressionist Movement. At the time, artists like Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Arshile Gorky were deeply interested in the ideas emerging from the Surrealists in Europe. “Because he was a multicultural person and spoke five or six languages,” says Burgess, “he brought those theories to the United States and was able to explain and discuss them with the early New York School artists.”

Motherwell, who spent the summer of 1941 learning from Matta, described him as “the most energetic, enthusiastic, poetic charming, brilliant young artist that [he’d ] ever met…he gave me a 10-year education in Surrealism.”

Matta’s Mature Style

When Matta went back to Europe in 1948, he broke with the Surrealists and moved toward a style all his own. “Focusing on something narrow, one school of thought, was not indicative of what Matta was about… He believed in absorbing influences from all around him. He never wanted to become stagnant, he always kept growing,” says Burgess.

Roberto Matta, “The Oppressors,” etching and aquatint, 1983. © 2018 Roberto Matta/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of New River Fine Art.

Many of Matta’s works also included biomorphic elements, which are abstracted forms that reference plants and human bodies. Other themes that present themselves in Matta’s work include Greek mythology and the cosmos.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Matta refocused on more overtly political themes and began to incorporate figures into his paintings. Upset with the status quo, Matta drew on events like the Rosenberg trial of 1954 for inspiration. “He believed that artists had a responsibility to comment on the human condition. He thought that you couldn’t paint the human condition without the figure, so he was reintroducing the human figure by the early 50s,” says Burgess.

The Market for Matta

Roberto Matta, “Réalité Nouvelle,” pencil and crayon on paper, 1956. © 2018 Roberto Matta/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of New River Fine Art.

According to Burgess, “For as influential as [Matta] was and still is, his prices have not risen to the level of the other 20th century masters, and certainly not the Abstract Expressionists.” Burgess believes this is partly because a catalogue raisonné has yet to be published. “It’s lagged behind, but I believe that will change.”

Matta’s Contemporary Legacy

Matta’s works have been on view at international institutions, including The Walker, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and La Reina Sofia.

Roberto Matta, “Let Any Flowers Bloom,” oil on canvas. Sold for $750,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2017).

The artist’s impact on the development of art in the 20th century is significant. Furthermore, “In addition to the influences,” says Burgess, “the work is fascinating and timeless. It is as current today as it was when he created it, whether it’s the 50s or the 80s. It is completely relevant today. You’re mesmerized by these works…They draw you in, they make you think, they take you on a journey.”

Did You Know?

  • Matta was introduced to Salvador Dalí by way of a letter from poet Federico García Lorca.
  • Since 1940, Matta has been the subject of nearly 400 solo exhibitions.
  • Matta has four children, all of whom are artists.
  • Matta was a major supporter of the socialist government led by Salvador Allende in Chile. A mural Matta created in support of Allende was painted over in 1973 following the overthrow of his government but was rediscovered and restored in the 2000s.