- Composition abstraite
- 12 by 8 7/8 in.
- (30.5 by 22.5 cm)
- Painted in 1941.
Pierre Matisse Collection, New York
Estate of Maria-Gaetana Matisse, New York
Sale: Christie's, New York, Latin American Sale, November 17, 2004, lot 25, illustrated in color
Acquired from the above by the present owner
As art historian Martica Sawin notes elsewhere in this catalogue (refer to Lot 15), Matta's work was deeply concerned with the representation of reality as perpetually in transformation. Whether it was through his biomorphic landscapes or his psychological morphologies, Matta devoted much of his practice to depicting physical and inner worlds in constant change and upheaval. Indeed, Matta seemed to view the transformative aspects of life as one of the core conditions of both humanity and nature.
By 1941—the year this work was executed—Matta was already firmly installed in the New York art world in many ways serving as a bridge between the European exiled artists' community and the members of the burgeoning New York School. For example, the series of lectures presented at The New School for Social Research by fellow surrealist artist Gordon Onslow Ford, and well attended by numerous New York artists, often highlighted Matta's work to illustrate key surrealist principles, such as the practice of automatism which would have an important impact on the work of the American Abstract Expressionists. During these early years in America, Matta was increasingly inspired by the physical terrain he encountered, particularly fascinated by nature's explosive power which he then ably rendered in an abstract surrealist idiom of organic forms set against a featureless background.
That same year, Matta traveled for the first time to Mexico with his wife Anne, fellow artist and friend Robert Motherwell, and Barbara Reis (daughter of the North American collectors and surrealist patrons Bernard and Becky Reis). The group remained in Mexico for three months that summer residing in the southern town of Taxco. It was on this trip that Motherwell produced his iconic drawing series, the Mexican Sketchbook. For Matta the experience further solidified his interest in expressing the transformative potential of the cosmos and the struggle between chaos and creation. Commenting on his trip to Mexico and its impact on his imagery, Matta noted, "My work began to take on the forms of volcanoes; it was the way I handled flame that led me to this. Everything I saw was in flames, but from a metaphysical point of view I was speaking from beyond the volcano . . . . I painted what burned inside of me and the best image of my body was the volcano. Strange to say, a few months later, I was witness to the birth of a volcano. I was in Erongaricuaro, on the shores of the lake which saw the development of the [pre-Columbian] Tarasco. . . around thirty kilometers from there, a peasant tilling his field noticed a wisp of smoke rising . . . . The following day the ground had risen up by thirty meters. Today it is a volcano called Paracutín."1 While this experience may have triggered childhood recollections of the destructive forces of nature in his own homeland of Chile, a country prone to seismic activity and earthquakes, Matta was clearly moved by this occurrence and jolted into creating imagery that would somehow evoke the overwhelming sense of vulnerability and upheaval.
In works from that period, including Composition Abstraite, Matta painted overtly volcanic and incendiary imagery often characterized by a bluish melting sky and a yellow seething earth oozing organic and embryonic pulsating forms seemingly in the process of metamorphosis simultaneously evoking regeneration and destruction. The presence of a black tubular organic form whose unwieldy extremities spread out over much of the pictorial surface further imbue this composition with a sense of mystery and foreboding. Reminiscent of the looming monstrous creature in Salvador Dalí's 1936 painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), Matta's imagery inevitably conjures references to the horrors of war and the tumultuous world events unfolding at that time.
1 As quoted in Valerie Fletcher, "Matta," in exhibition catalogue Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers, Diego Rivera, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam, Matta (Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in association with Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), pp. 243, 245.