Convict the impossible is an intense portrait of sorts of one of Roberto Matta's vitreurs, those totem/robot hybrids that populate his paintings on and off from 1945 on. Although usually the vitreurs inhabit large-scale, multi-figural paintings, there are also stunning examples of single-figure studies such as La Femme affamée, 1945; Jittering the Feelings, 1946; and St. Michael is the Beast, 1948, Milwaukee Art Museum. These studies possess a savage, iconic power and are infused with a troubling sense of anxiety that reflects both the political and personal maelstrom the artist was experiencing during this period of his life. Feeling more and more at odds with the North American values held by his New York colleagues, yet excommunicated from the surrealists in Paris, Matta suffered from a sense of frustration and isolation that would only be exacerbated in 1948 when he became involved in an affair with Arshile Gorky's wife Mougoush, which would lead to Gorky's tragic suicide.
In this 1947 painting Matta is an artist at the top of his craft, handling paint in a nuanced and complex manner that is the trademark of his best work. With a seemingly effortless bravura he layers veil upon veil of color to create a surface where limitless depth and aggressive plastic form co-exist in potent proximity. This push-pull tension serves to animate the painting with a psychological centrifugal force that radiates out to pull the viewer into its emotional vortex. The shifting and prismatic planes of yellow, mauve, aqua and black act as a psychic portal that allows this monster of the deep to materialize, in all its confrontational hideousness. For an artist deeply involved in myth and the occult, this painting is an invocation of a demon brother meant to terrorize, admonish and warn us of what lurks in the dark corners of consciousness.
Matta was not alone in his dark vision, in England Francis Bacon had recently completed his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, ca. 1944 and the surrealist Wifredo Lam, with whom he was showing in galleries in New York City, had embarked upon a series of powerful figures that reflected the orishas summoned in Afro-Cuban Santería rituals. Looking at the sculptures and masks of Oceania and American Northwest Indians, Matta borrows their daring projections into space in order to communicate a sense of danger and hostility. The "head" of this quasi-human, nightmarish creation is surmounted by a series of cruel, weapon-like spikes that announce its antagonistic intentions. Stuffing fingers that resemble mechanical claws into its yawning red maw, it recalls Francisco Goya's phantasmagoric Saturn Devouring his Children, 1819-23.
From the center of this mouth stares a single eye and it is interesting to speculate on what meaning this had for the artist. In an interview with William Rubin around this time Matta stated: "My vision of myself was becoming blind for not (being) one with the people about me, and I sought to create a new morphology of others within my own field of consciousness." Was Matta referencing a Cyclops, that primordial race of giants from ancient Greek mythology from whom descended the blinded and enraged Polyphemus of Homer's Odyssey? Could it refer to the myopic vision of New York art critics who blindly rejected this strain of his work? Or, more reflective of Matta's universalizing tendencies, was it a comment upon post-World War II society's refusal to examine its appetite for violence?
Susan L. Aberth, Ph.D., Annandale-on-Hudson