The Chilean Roberto Matta studied architecture in Santiago and in 1933 began to work in Le Corbusier's atelier in Paris. Traveling widely, he met Salvador Dalí in Spain, Alvar Aalto in Scandinavia, and was greatly impressed by Marcel Duchamp. He also worked on housing design projects in Russia, and was in London for a short time in 1936 working with Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy.
Matta made only drawings at this time, including Untitled. André Breton quickly noticed the fresh and spontaneous quality of these works and invited him to take part in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme of 1938. In 1939, Breton wrote, "One of our youngest friends, Matta Echaurren, can already boast of a brilliant body of work. In his case, too, nothing is directed, everything results from a desire to enrich the faculty of divination, in which he is exceptionally gifted through the use of color. Each of the pictures painted by Matta during the last year has been a marvelous game where all the elements of chance come into play, a pearl which becomes a snowball as it absorbs all the shimmering lights emanating from the mind and the body" (quoted in A. Breton, Surrealism and Painting, London and New York, 1928; rev. 1965, p. 146). Breton later compared Matta's use of color to Matisse's, and in fact the bright red, yellows, and blues of Untitled are reminiscent of Matisse's Fauve works.
The other titan of 20th century art, Picasso, had a more noted influence on Matta. Matta came into close contact with Picasso's Guernica when he was employed with the architects of the Spanish Republican pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937. He was greatly impressed by both its form and political impact. Significantly, Untitled evokes another painting by Picasso, Crucifixion of 1930 (fig. 1). The strong verticals, outlined forms, and primary colors are markedly similar, while several of the morphed and vaguely human forms of Matta's drawing also seem to reflect the tortured figures of Guernica. In addition, like much of Matta's work at this time, the forms of Untitled suggest clashing celestial bodies or a moonscape, perhaps a result of the artist's diverse interests, including science fiction illustrations and films, comic books and graffiti.
Matta went to New York at the outbreak of World War II. Speaking fluent English, he made contact with American artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko. His first show, held at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1942, had a powerful affect on the Abstract Expressionists. Matta's influence can particularly be seen in the work of Gorky, who soon adopted the older artist's biomorphic shapes, swiftly flowing lines, and bright colors, seen, for example, in the artist's untitled painting from the summer of 1944 in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, New York (Jordan and Goldwater, no. 285).
Matta's work, regardless of its sources and influences, clearly creates an interior world of its own. In 1938, around the time he drew Untitled, the artist wrote, "there must be walls like wet sheets that deform and marry themselves to our psychological fears; arms hanging among the interrupters that throw an abusive light on the forms and on their shadows, of a color susceptible to awaken the gums themselves as sculptures for lips. Supported on his elbows, our personage feels himself deformed in spasm in the corridor, staggering and taken over between the vertigo of the equal sides, and the panic of suction, dizzy when he finally realizes the efforts of the clock that strives to impose an hour on the infinity of time of these objects describing in woos or in life their existence of which he understands that it is perpetually menaces" (quoted in A. Vidler, "Architecture-to-Be," in Transmission: the art of Matta and Gordon Matta-Clark, exh. cat. San Diego Museum of Art, 2006, p. 61)
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, The Crucifixion, 1930. The Picasso Museum, Paris. Copyright 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York BARCODE 25238723
(fig. 2) Photograph 'Artists in Exile' BARCODE 20625429