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Roberto Matta Echaurren, 91; Artist Bridged Surrealistic, Abstract Genres

November 26, 2002|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Chilean artist Roberto Sebastian Antonio Matta Echaurren -- known for Surrealistic images of cosmic wonderlands and apocalyptic dreams, executed under the name of Matta -- died Saturday in Italy, at 91. He had been hospitalized in Civitavecchia, near his home in the Tuscan town of Tarquinia.

An internationally renowned artist who spoke several languages, traveled widely and seemed at home wherever he happened to be, Matta came of age professionally while living in Paris during the turbulence leading up to World War II. Like many of his colleagues, he eventually fled to the United States, but he thrived on making connections between disparate groups of artists. Viewed as a bridge figure between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, he is often characterized as a cultural catalyst.

"He was the most important link between the European Surrealist artists and the young generation of American artists who would become known as the New York School," said Elizabeth A.T. Smith, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, who organized a recent traveling show of his work with Colette Dartnell, a curator at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. The critically acclaimed exhibition, "Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the 1940s," appeared at MOCA last fall.

"Matta was one of the youngest Surrealists in exile here during the war and one of the few members of the Surrealist circle who could communicate easily with artists of his own generation in New York," Smith said. "He was very influential in helping young American artists liberate themselves from the constraints of tradition."

Paul Schimmel, chief curator at MOCA, agreed: "His presence on the scene and his youthful exuberance provided a critical juncture between the old world and the new."

Born in Santiago on Nov. 11, 1911, of Spanish and Franco-Basque parents, Matta completed his early education at the French Jesuit College of the Sacred Heart, then studied architecture at the Catholic University of Santiago, graduating in 1931. He moved to Paris in 1935 and got a job in the office of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, but soon plunged into a new career.

On a trip to Spain, Matta met Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who introduced him to Surrealist theory. Lorca also gave him a letter of introduction to Spanish painter Salvador Dali, who was living in Paris. Through Dali, Matta met Andre Breton, the leading light of the Surrealist movement in Paris.

Swept away by the Surrealists' advocacy of delving into the subconscious to find intuitive truth, Matta in 1938 painted his first pictures and participated in the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris. He fled to the United States in 1939, settled in New York and soon became acquainted with American artists who would become major Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Arshile Gorky.

Matta's first show in New York took place in 1940, at the Julien Levy Gallery, a leading showcase for the Surrealists. Two years later, his work was featured in "Artists in Exile" at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. As his work evolved, he continued to plumb irrational sources, drawing inspiration from chance and accidental paint spillage as he created a world of biomorphic beings.

But his imagery grew more bizarre and threatening. While praising his work of the 1940s as highly inventive, critics often dismiss much of his later work as a sort of science fiction illustration.

"Matta's most powerful and persuasive moment as a painter didn't last long," Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote in his review of the 2001 exhibition at MOCA. "By the time he returned to Europe in 1948, at the ripe old age of 37, his work had already moved in a more illustrative direction....The work shows that an interest in imagery was usurping a commitment to discovering vital new ways of painting."

Nonetheless, Matta continued to receive recognition for his work. He was commissioned to create a large mural for the UNESCO building in Paris in 1956. Major retrospective exhibitions of his work were presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1957 and at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris in 1985. During an interview at the latter show, the artist described his point of view as an interest in "the phenomenon of capturing the spark produced in the act of understanding."

In his private life, Matta was a notorious womanizer who left a complicated trail of ex-wives and children. Married five times, he was the father of six children, including artists Sebastian and Gordon Matta-Clark, who both died in the late 1970s. Matta is survived by his wife, Germana Ferrari Matta, their daughter, Alisee, and three children from earlier marriages: artist Pablo Echaurren, who lives in Italy, and musician Ramuntcho Matta and artist Federica Matta, who both live in France.

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