Matta whose paintings are often titled with complex multilingual plays on words throws that negative single word at us as if to say “That’s all there is.” Painted in 1943 during the darkest weeks of the Second World War, Nada
seems to offer a foreboding sense of uncertainty represented by clashing and contradictory forces. Yet seen in the context of Matta’s body of work and current events, Nada
is actually a breakthrough painting. It marks a departure from the brilliant throbbing color and multi-dimensional spaces of his Mexican-inspired volcanic series, exemplified by The Earth is a Man
, 1942, and points toward the dark depths and iridescences of The Vertigo of Eros
, 1943-44. In Nada
the artist pulls down a dark curtain that leaves only peephole glimpses of distant light and color. There is no stabilizing horizon, only unbounded space and the suggestion of gravitational forces keeping galaxies in motion. Black and blue-black dominate, giving a sense of limitless depth and a field for the play of energies represented by thin lines scraped into the dark surfaces or painted in white over the final composition with electrifying effect.
While Freud had been the inspirational demi-god for the first generation of Surrealists, the growing awareness of atomic physics was changing the direction of some of Surrealism’s more recent recruits. “Einstein is more important for art than Freud,” Matta said as he drew small charts to demonstrate ways of representing time changing and space expanding. “Human energy is a system in expansion in the universe and the real is made of waves, oscillations, beams; the world is a nexus of vibrations,” he wrote in 1942. Marcel Duchamp who saw Matta often during their New York years wrote: “His first important contribution to Surrealist painting was the discovery of regions of space hitherto unexplored in the realm of art. Matta followed the modern physicists in the search for his new space.”
Matta’s background in architectural drafting, rather than in academic painting, and his exposure to Surrealist automatism were factors that enabled him to ignore the conventions of the Euclidian cube and develop a means to convey the new atomic reality. Nada
is pivotal in this initiative due to the over-all use of the canvas as a field for dispersed energies, as well as in the ambiguity of the spatial relations—are the brightly colored peep-hole vignettes moving into the distance or emerging toward the viewer through the amorphous blue-black surroundings? The viewer is left to contemplate the centrifugal motion of the shapes in this painting without finding an answer to the enigmas it presents.
Matta was not ignoring the psychological dimension so important to Surrealism. For him the mysteries of the unfolding atomic world were closely parallel to the mysteries of the human psyche; he avidly read such visionaries as Eliphas Levi, an early 19th
century clairvoyant who held that the material universe is only part of the total reality which includes many other planes and modes of consciousness. “One of the most important,” Levi wrote, “is the astral light, a cosmic fluid which may be molded by will into physical forms.” This “astral light” lends an eerie glow to Matta’s dark paintings of 1944. He and his close friend Gordon Onslow Ford were also influenced by the writings of Russian-born P.D. Ouspensky who taught that what we see is only a slice or cut through reality. He urged the artist “to represent that which lay beyond the prison house of sight, to reveal to others what they could not see.” Onslow Ford often reiterated that the vastness of the universe and the profound depths of the psyche were congruent and that the inner and outer worlds were the same.
How could limitless space be represented without resorting to comic book fantasies? In Nada
Matta virtually dematerializes the paint by sponging it on in a thin wash, then wiping it off, sometimes scraping it so the canvas texture shows through a transparent veil of pigment. Once in a while he leaves a small nodule of paint with a ridge that refracts light. Two different kinds of line are used for retreating and emerging movements in space; those made by scraping a razor through the dark areas to reveal the bare canvas and those made as a kind of finale, an emphatic thin line of white paint drawn over the surface and converging toward the “butterfly” shape at the center of the painting, as if traversing a magnetic field.
Hanging on the walls of the Pierre Matisse and Julien Levy galleries, surrounded by canvases that ran the gamut of realist and abstract styles derived from earlier modern and not so modern masters, these unorthodox Matta paintings made a forceful impact. Rosamund Frost writing in Art News saw him as “an isolated phenomenon.” A young editor of View
said “If you ask me who is the most talked about painter in New York, I say it is Matta.” Some of the younger American artists—William Baziotes, Gerome Kamrowski, Robert Motherwell, and for a time, Jackson Pollock—as well as, later, Arshile Gorky, were impressed by his charismatic personality and novel ideas and met for sessions in his studio where they followed some of his automatist practices. The sessions didn’t last very long. Matta felt that the Americans took the empty forms of the automatist method and ignored the significance of the results. Nonetheless in a 1963 interview Motherwell said: “It always seemed to me that those sessions were the beginnings of what later became known as Abstract Expressionism.”
Clearly there was no one on the scene so boldly experimental in conjuring a vision of the unseen as Matta, although in Mexico the former Surrealist, Wolfgang Paalen, was also responding to the theories of contemporary physicists. Just after Matta’s first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1940 Paalen exhibited several paintings that had a similar all-over distribution of floating forms and in 1942 Paalen’s essay, “Art and Science” appeared in his journal Dyn
which was published in Mexico, but directed toward a New York readership. Einstein’s theory of relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle had only barely permeated the public consciousness prior to the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945, but these two artists of sophisticated international backgrounds were impelled to address the problem of dealing with the expanded reality revealed by contemporary physicists. The uniqueness of Nada
is in the way it signals not only a new direction in Matta’s work, but a change in consciousness that eventually would become widespread.
Critic and art historian Martica Sawin has written frequently on Matta. Martica Sawin is the author of the book Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (MIT Press, 1995).