“In the spring of 1938 we went to Switzerland, to a chalet in the Alps that belonged to one of my relatives.[i] We lunched at the resort; then a guide, carrying our provisions, led us on skis to the top of the peak. Matta lost one ski down a ravine. I went on with the guide and Parajito (Ann Matta). We spent three weeks there. I had paints and a clean canvas and I said to Matta to try it—he was working in colored chalks—but he said no, he couldn’t dirty the brushes. Then he took a palette knife, squeezed bits of paint from the tubes on it, made gestures on the canvas, and spread the paint out with his fingers—that was the beginning. He would make gestural strokes with the palette knife, let the paint run on, even splash it on, then would look at it and work on the edges with brushes; it was begun fast and then he would work on it for months.”
Onslow Ford’s description of his friend’s early excursion into oil painting sheds light on the unconventional, improvisatory genesis of Fleureur. Apparently a coat of flat black paint was first applied to the canvas and over this a palette knife spread dabs of colored pigment, scraping the paint in such a way that the colors appear layered; the jewel-like strokes of color seem to both lie on the surface and to pierce it with vista-like openings. The dimly perceived transparent veils of a bluish tone near the edges may have been brushed on using a thin wash of paint over the opaque black ground to give an illusion of receding into deep space. Rather than reproducing on canvas or paper something seen in the external world, Matta sought to escape the “prison house of sight,” and to convey the sense of a four-dimensional world extending infinitely in time. “I am not a painter, I am a montreur” [one who makes visible] he liked to say.
This concept of the artist’s role ran parallel to that of the Surrealists as articulated by André Masson: “The backbone of the Surrealist attitude is: Beware of the visual sensation; appearance is an illusion.” Matta’s process was akin to the Surrealist practice of automatism in that a work was started without preconception, often with a random gesture. No wonder that in 1937 poet André Breton, recognizing Matta’s affinity with Surrealism, invited him to become a member of his avant garde group.
When Matta used the term “psychological morphology” for a series of a dozen or so paintings from 1939 (he also called them inscapes) Breton asked him to write out an explanation of the term. The written explanation read in part:
“The optical image is only a theoretical cut in the sequential morphology of the object...I call psychological morphology the graph of transformations resulting from the emission of energies and their absorption in the object from its initial aspect until its final form in the geodesical psychological medium,..The conception of a psychological time medium in which objects are transformed leads one to compare it to a Euclidian space in rotary and pulsating transformation in which the object at each risk of interpenetration can oscillate from point volume to moment eternity, from attraction repulsion to past future, from light shadow to matter movement.”[ii]
Fleureur may well be the earliest of these “psychological morphologies” since the others are more sophisticated in the painting techniques used; instead of being spread on with a palette knife, the paint is applied thinly in translucent washes that create complex spatial fluctuations. It stands at the pivotal point when Matta discovered that painting could be a means of representing a state of perpetual transformation that was for him the true reality. Here he achieved the tantalizing ambiguity that became his hallmark, a quality that draws the viewer continually back to contemplate the ever-shifting relationships.
[i] Although Onslow Ford remembered the trip as taking place in 1938, the correct date may well be 1939, judging by the date of his “transparent mountain” paintings which he said he did during that trip, as well as by the dates of Matta’s “psychological morphologies,” The author’s interview with Onslow Ford quoted here took place in 1985 in Inverness, California.
[ii] Excerpted from a typescript of Matta’s original statement in French provided by Gordon Onslow Ford, together with his translation.
Critic and art historian Martica Sawin has written frequently on Matta for museum catalogues and he is an important figure in her book, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (MIT Press, 1995).
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