Roberto Matta (1911-2002)
Roberto Matta (1911-2002)
Roberto Matta (1911-2002)
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MATTA (1911-2002)

L'unité absolue

MATTA (1911-2002)
L'unité absolue
signed and titled 'Matta L'unité absolue' (on the stretcher bar)
oil on canvas
28 x 36 in. (71.1 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1942.
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
Robert Elkon Gallery, New York.
Private collection, Paris.
Estate of Catherine Schlumberger Jones sale; Sotheby’s New York, 19 November 1990, lot 38a.
Anon sale; Sotheby’s New York, 14 May 1996, lot 16.
Galeria de Arte Nader, Santo Domingo.
Acquired from the above by the present owner (circa 1996).
G. Ferrari, Matta: Entretiens morphologiques: Notebook No. 1 1936-1944, London, 1987, p. 242.
Post lot text
1 Roberto Matta, quoted in Roberto Matta: Paintings and Drawings, 1937-1959 (Los Angeles: Latin American Masters, 1997), n.p.
2 Robert Motherwell, quoted in Sidney Simon, “Concerning the Beginnings of the New York School: 1939-1943,” Art International XI, no. 6 (Summer 1967): 21.
3 Matta, quoted in Nancy Miller, “Interview with Matta,” in Matta: The First Decade (Waltham, Mass.: Rose Art Museum, 1982), 12.
4 Rosamund Frost, “Matta, Furious Scientist,” ARTNews XLI, no. 5 (April 15-30, 1942): 27.
5 William Rubin, “Matta,” The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 25, no. 1 (1957): 3-4.
6 André Breton, “The pearl is marred, in my eyes…,” in Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002), 184, 188.

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Lot Essay

“If we admit that we are entering a new world in which there are laws that we do not understand,” Matta once reasoned, “in such a world it is the task of the poet and the artist to represent this new physics where we must now live and which is revolutionary.”1 A precocious and charismatic talent, Matta was first drawn toward Surrealism in the late 1930s, intrigued by the radical possibilities of non-Euclidean geometry and psychic automatism. Against the apocalyptic backdrop of the Second World War, Matta left Paris for New York in 1939, landing just ahead of a wave of European émigrés, among them André Breton, Max Ernst, and André Masson. Matta served as an essential conduit between the Surrealists in exile and the emerging New York School, for whom his phenomenal landscapes and worldly presence “had an extremely important catalytic effect,” Robert Motherwell recalled. “He was the most energetic, enthusiastic, poetic, charming, brilliant young artist that I’ve ever met.”2 In L’unité absolue and other seminal works of these early years, Matta evolved an extraordinary iconography of the natural world—ecstatic, cataclysmic, atomic—and conjured new morphologies of mind and matter.
“When I arrived in the United States, I started talking about the earth,” Matta later recalled. “In these pictures I tried to show not landscape which is ‘sceney’—a scene of the earth—but the earth as something terrific, burning, changing, transforming, growing. The earth not just seen with the naked eye but with the morphological eye.”3 The searing incandescence of his work at the beginning of the decade relates in part to his experience of the Mexican landscape during the summer of 1941. Matta and his wife, Anne, traveled with Motherwell and Barbara Reis to Taxco for three months, paying visits to the Surrealists Gordon Onslow Ford and Wolfgang Paalen and immersing themselves within the indigenous landscape. The chance eruption of the Parícutin volcano during their stay stimulated new comparisons between one’s inner life and the volcanic forces of nature, and Matta’s paintings over the following year would project the sensational visions and revelations of a mind awakened to new consciousness.
Matta took New York by storm in 1942, participating in two important group exhibitions— Artists in Exile at Pierre Matisse Gallery and First Papers of Surrealism at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century—and opening his first solo show in New York. “Imagine a white hot furnace,” entreated Rosamund Frost in her review of his solo exhibition at Pierre Matisse. “Imagine the breaking down and reconverting of the essential substances of the world. Imagine these substances rendered explosively powerful reacting on, but not modifying, each other. Imagine a painter of thirty who has invented an idiom so outside of the run of experience that this seems the only line along which to approach his work.” Frost and others found “endless pleasure” in Matta’s mastery of his métier: “Like a juggler he tosses off his metals, gems, and crystals and leaves them spinning. More extraordinary even than the beauty of color is the way these colors pass through each other and remain uncontaminated. Even where it reflects a million flames, the paint is thin and silky, the textures a joy to the eye.”4
William Rubin, longtime curator at the Museum of Modern Art, also highlighted “the singularly inventive year of 1942” within Matta’s career, noting his invocation of “a vision of galaxies to suggest the infinity and mystery within man” and deep involvement “with mystical speculations.” L’unité absolue manifests what Rubin described as “the atmosphere of continuous metamorphosis that characterizes Matta’s first period,” its prismatic and phosphorescent colors giving form to “the cosmic structure of experience” within this new world. “His amorphic forms are engulfed in an endless series of transformations through vaporous, liquid, and crystalline states,” Rubin continued. “Here jewels of pigments pile up on one another, there they eddy away, melting into the open spaces.”5
A stunning example of this metamorphic flux, L’unité absolue embodies these new, hyperspatial horizons of Matta’s practice. Translucent planes radiate through a vast, horizonless space, their curving geometry interpenetrating the gleaming onyx ground. The molten, sulphuric yellow substrate at the upper left corner recalls the primordial landscapes of Listen to Living (1941; Museum of Modern Art) and Here, Sir Fire, Eat! (1942; Museum of Modern Art). Astral forms and a genital egg shape, a recurrent motif during this period, are suspended in swirling multidimensional space, infinite and combustible; they recall similarly labyrinthine passages in Years of Fear (1941; Guggenheim Museum) and The Disasters of Mysticism (1942; Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires).
“Matta’s prism, which is in fact composed of the prism of decomposition of solar light in free air combined with that of its decomposition through each of its cells, even goes so far as to correct itself by means of the scale of variations introduced by black light,” Breton wrote of this inky, interstellar luminosity. “Matta is he who has plunged into the agate—and here I am no longer designating by this term a particular variety of mineral but including all stones that secrete this ‘exalted water,’ this ‘soul of the water’ which, according to the occultists, dissolves the elements and ‘gives the true sulphur or the true fire.’” Recalling “the genesis attributed to ‘astral light,’ the medium of creation,” Breton concluded, “It is Matta who holds the star most steadily above the present abyss which has swallowed all the features of life that might make it priceless, an abyss that spares nothing now but human love, and it is probably Matta who is on the surest path to the attainment of the supreme secret: fire’s dominion.”6
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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