Artist: Roberto Matta (Chilean, Santiago 1911–2002 Civitavecchia, Italy)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 87 x 180 in. (221 x 457.2 cm)
Credit Line: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, and Gift of The Glickstein Foundation, by exchange, 2003
Accession Number: 2003.270
Rights and Reproduction: © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
In Paris, the Chilean-born painter Matta worked for the modernist architect Le Corbusier (1935-37), and in 1936 became officially associated with André Breton's Surrealist group, including Salvador Dalí, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and Yves Tanguy. Relocating to the United States between 1939 and 1948, he, along with many older European artists who sought refuge there on the eve of World War II, also brought their avant-garde ideas, which greatly influenced younger American artists. The nascent Abstract Expressionist group, in particular, was curious to experiment with Surrealist techniques and imagery. Matta, who was the same age as these artists, befriended several (including Robert Motherwell and Arshile Gorky), and ironically, although he was extremely influential, his own work never achieved the same level of recognition afforded his American contemporaries. Within a few years, he returned to Europe, via Chile, where he continued to make phantasmagorical compositions for the rest of his life.
Matta's enormous mural-size canvas Being With (Être Avec) was painted in 1946 while he was living in New York. Spanning a length of fifteen feet, the composition is a complex labyrinth of architectural structures seen from various perspectives and primitive humanoid figures contorted unnaturally and exploding with sexual exhibitionism. Such imagery certainly drew from his earlier familiarity with architectural design and Surrealist irrationality. Although physically removed from the horrors of the war, Matta's painting clearly expresses his distress at the state of the world. His Surrealist work of the late 1930s to mid-'40s looked within, depicting "psychological morphologies" that invented visual equivalents for various states of personal consciousness. On the other hand, his paintings and drawings of the mid- to late 1940s, such as Being With (Être Avec), which he called "social morphologies," attempted to address the broader societal crisis that the artist felt he was part of (or "being with"). This shift in outlook, and the introduction of figurative and narrative elements into his paintings (no matter how fantastic they appear), eventually led to Matta's alienation from the Surrealist group.