THE GREATNESS OF MATTA
In the prevailing philosophy of the Orient, the immeasurable (i.e. that which cannot be named, described, or understood through any form of reason) is regarded as the primary reality. . . . To Western society, as it derives from the Greeks, measure, with all that this word implies, is the very essence of reality, or at least the key to this essence, in the East measure has now come to be regarded commonly as being in some way false and deceitful.
. . . We proposed that a new notion of order is involved here, which we called the implicate order (from a Latin root meaning ‘to enfold’ or ‘to enfold inward’). In terms of the implicate order one can say that everything is enfolded in everything. This contrasts with the explicate order. . . in which things are unfolded in the sense that each thing lies only in its own region of space (and time) and outside the regions belonging to other things.
Wholeness and the Implicate Order(1)
In 1940, in a one-person show at the Julien Levy Gallery, “the most important commercial showcase for Surrealist art in New York,” as H. H. Arnason wrote, Roberto Matta’s unprecedently large canvases -- they were thought to be “oversized” at the time -- “had a momentous impact on American experimental artists,”(2) that is, the Abstract Expressionists, perhaps most noteworthily Jackson Pollock, who began to use similarly sized canvases four years later. Matta, along with Arshile Gorky, was the last painter “claimed for Surrealism by André Breton,” and continues to be thought of as a Surrealist, a sort of Abstract Surrealist. But whatever the “psychic automatism” involved in his paintings -- however profound and intense the feelings they express, however complex the unconscious fantasies invested in them, however bizarrely dream-like they may seem -- what seems more important today, from the viewpoint of painting, is their enormous size and grandeur. Their “cosmic” magnificence -- and, one might add, colorful munificence, that is, vitalizing fullness, in contrast, say, to the black emptiness of the Rothko Chapel -- remains a landmark in the modern urge to transcend the measurable world and engage the immeasurable that began with Kandinsky’s “mystical” abstractions. It was unconscious in them, and became self-conscious in Matta’s last abstractions.
The “cosmic mysticism” that James Thrall Soby admired in Matta’s Disasters of Mysticism (1942) -- a relatively small painting (38¼ x 51¾ in.) compared to the enormous Architecture du temps (un point sait tout) (14 ft. 11 in. x 21 ft. 9¼ in.), painted in 1999, three years before his death -- has been misunderstood, as Soby did, as a kind of representation of “the ever-changing universe of outer space,” or, as has also been suggested, an attempt to articulate the hallucinatory architecture of inner space, reminding us that Matta had “one foot in architecture and one foot in dreams” (his words), suggesting the correlation of outer space and inner space in his abstractions.
But the importance of the exhibition of his last paintings at Pace Gallery -- it commemorates his 100th birthday -- makes it clear, at least to my mind, that his paintings have only secondarily to do with outer and inner space. The exhibition traces, with canny discrimination, the steady enlargement of his canvases, showing how they make manifest the intellectual intention latent in Matta’s early intention of expressing “important emotion” (1953). In my opinion, he did not fully become conscious of the intellectual intention implicit in his art until it became clearly evident in his last paintings, that is, until he had worked through his own important “surreal” emotions (and with that his self-importance), discarding and transcending them in the process, to gain an important insight into the cosmos. The cosmic grandeur of Matta’s late paintings convey the immeasurability of the cosmos -- the emotion this “mystical” or “numinous” experience of its immeasurability arouses attempts to take its subjective measure, but is not equal to its reality.
I am arguing that Matta’s last cosmic paintings are less emotional than they seem -- that an emotional reading of them sells their intellectuality short. They are not about the “mindless” feelings of a surreally deranged and delirious self, but a “mindful” contemplation of a cosmos in which there is no self. Their ingenious mix of fluidity and form, the intricate friction and tension between the definite and indefinite that is the intellectual substance of Matta’s last paintings, is an uncannily precise “rendering” of the “dialectical” intimacy -- interdependence, as it were -- of primary and secondary reality. The former is conveyed by the illimitable atmospheric flux that informs Matta’s surfaces, the latter symbolized by the geometrical architecture that crystallizes or precipitates out of the flux. Matta was less a Surrealist than he was thought to be -- and than he thought himself to be -- but rather an explorer of the terra incognita of the immeasurable.
Whether organically amorphous or inorganically architectural, the forms in such huge masterpieces as L’homme descend du signe (1975), The Fall (Autoritratto d’ognnuno) (1991), Comment une conscience se fait univers (peut etre) (1992), Morphologie de l’ame (1996) and Montre qui montre le montreur (1997), are not simply surreally magical but struggle to take the measure of the cosmic space they exist in and emerge from. They fail to do so adequately -- they are failed signs of secondary reality, hieroglyphs suggesting its possibility. They don’t “actualize” reality, but are a sort of hallucinatory halfway house between the real and the unreal, which is why they look irreal. They spontaneously crystallize or precipitate out of the immeasurable, the primary reality which is Matta’s subject matter, evoked by his enormous paintings, which seems to expand infinitely as one looks at them. The secondary organic growths continue to grow, but they can’t fill the cosmic space, only mark it like tokens of its immeasurability, which grows on one, as the secondary architecture does, propelling its way towards our eyes, as though to give us some perspective on it, creating the illusion that we can measure the immeasurable. Both create transient regions of space -- space is protean in Matta’s paintings, always changing form, and with that evoking the immeasurable within its measurability, always nominal rather than foundational.
The word “measure” implies control, the triumph of human consciousness over cosmic matter -- the absolutization of consciousness as the measure of the universe (thus Pythagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things,” suggesting that consciousness is always able to take the measure of the universe, for measure is assumed to be imminent in all things rather than imposed on them from some intellectual outside) -- but in Matta’s last paintings man is not the measure of all things, and is not visible anywhere. What is visible is the endless enfolding and unfolding of forms, the endless enfolding and unfolding of the primary reality of the invisible immeasurable and the visible secondary reality of the measurable, comprised of complicated natural and simple geometrical forms, the former including human nature, the latter the basic building blocks of the cosmos, as the reasoning Greeks thought.
But, as Cosmos Mental (1991) suggests, the cosmos seems to be falling apart and coming together at once, disintegrating and integrating in an endless cycle. Undifferentiated and differentiated chaos is the measure and sign of the cosmos’ immeasurability. It has no basis, unless the mercurial dialectic of the implicate and explicate orders, evident in Matta’s last paintings, is one. It was generative of his inexhaustible creativity, as the fact that he continued to make great paintings until the end of his life indicates.
“Matta: A Centennial Celebration,” Nov. 7, 2011-Jan. 28, 2012, Pace Gallery, 534 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.