Et At It: Matta in a Duchampian Mode
Matta's first contribution to Surrealist painting, and the most important, was the discovery of regions of space until then unknown in the field of art.
--Marcel Duchamp, Catalogue of the Société Anonyme and the Dreier Bequest at Yale University: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1950
"Reality can only be represented in a state of perpetual transformation," Matta wrote as a young artist in 1937. In 1944 when he painted Et At It he was still grappling with the problem of conveying "perpetual transformation" through the conventional means of paint on canvas. From the moment he left his employ as a draftsman in Le Corbusier's studio, Matta's goal had been to give visual form to a world in flux. He persisted in describing himself not as a painter, but as a montreur--one who makes visible. In his earliest attempts to realize this goal he used devices from drafting, like topographical contour lines and warped grids, as well as scientific devices such as the three-dimensional models that demonstrated the theories of mathematician Henri Poincaré, and botanical microphotographs. After he moved to New York from Europe at the start of World War II his dominant imagery was an earth in upheaval, convulsed by volcanic explosions. Then in the summer of 1943, as he described it, he "passed from a sort of burning fire, mineral lights and that kind of thing into a space that was described by geodesic lines and waves." A major catalyst for this transition was Marcel Duchamp and his The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, or (Large Glass), which in 1943 was placed on view at The Museum of Modern Art where it was seen by the public for the first time since its debut at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926. In the interim it had been shattered and painstakingly repaired by the artist, with the consequence that its transparency was overlaid by a scrim of cracks that betrayed a material surface interlayered with the perception of what lay beyond, what was caught within and what was seen in reflection.
Years earlier Matta was first made aware that art might convey passage through time and space when he read an article on Duchamp in a 1936 Cahiers d'Art. As a refugee in New York in 1943 he was living close to Duchamp's 14th Street studio and they often met for lunch. The Large Glass was well-known to Matta who first saw it in the living room of Katherine Dreier's Connecticut home. He collaborated with Dreier on a booklet, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, An Analytical Reflection, published by the Société Anonyme and The Museum of Modern Art, in 1944. Matta's painted homage to Duchamp, The Bachelors Twenty Year's After, was reproduced in this brochure and shown the same year in the Whitney Museum's European Artists in America. It probably preceded the triptych Et At It which was first shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in March, 1945. The latter is one of the culminating works in a Duchamp-related series that Matta produced in 1943 and 1944.
Et At It may be seen as a sequel to two 1943 triptychs of similar dimensions, Prince of Blood and La Vertu Noire, (shown at Pierre Matisse in February/March 1944), both of which have a left panel considerably narrower than the one on the right. In each, the sum of the widths of the two side panels equals the width of the center panel, and these proportions are roughly repeated in the panels of Et At It, suggesting that Matta conceived of the latter work as a continuation of the earlier triptychs and a further exploration of the new ground they had broken. In the two 1943 works the amorphous drifts of color of his previous paintings are displaced almost completely by opaque color areas, floating black rhomboids and tetrahedrons, and linear constructions painted in thin lines or cut out of the black ground with a razor. In the following year, in Et At It, he painted the ground predominantly in black, over a reddish underpainting, which gives it an iridescent glow, and he used thin white lines to define planes that moved in contradictory directions, contradictory that is, if one looks at them expecting conventional one-point perspective. These planes seem to rotate in space, echoing the revolving motion of groups of concentric circles, incised into the paint with a razor; there are suggestions of pistons and mechanistic movement just as in The Large Glass, although it lacks the latter's specific narrative. The subject of the painting is best illuminated by the words Matta recorded some years later to describe his on-going preoccupation: "Human energy is a system in expansion in the universe and the real is made of oscillations, waves, beams; a world is a nexus of vibrations." (Was he a clairvoyant who foresaw string theory and the information age?)
The Onyx of Electra [electronics] which is contemporaneous with Et At It casts some light on the triptych by virtue of its portrayal of energy on the move, almost as if we were seeing the interior of a power station with a giant electrode sending out high speed linear energy. It is a portrayal in starker terms of the forces that electrify the darkness of Et At It. Also closely related is The Vertigo of Eros which shares with Et At It the rotating circles and suspended "philosophers' stones," or "astral eggs," but it is more evocative in color and more reflective of the erotic theme of the Large Glass. With these three paintings Matta appears to have found and mastered the means to transmit his sought after effect of perpetual transformation. However, he was not to build on these developments until later decades, as by the end of 1944 he had abruptly swerved in another direction, one which cost him the enthusiastic support of his New York audience. Responding to the revelation of the Holocaust and the ongoing violence of the war, he began to populate vast canvases with tubular humanoids or mecanomorphs in situations of torture and powerlessness. "Instead of my personal psychological morphologies, I tried to develop a social morphology, using totemic images" is the way he explained this change.
Given this background, one can understand the importance of Et At It as representing a culminating point in Matta's early—and some would say best—years, years in which he found the means to portray universal forces with a power and complexity hitherto unseen. It also testifies to one of those special interchanges in art history when a connection is established between two artists that is electrifying enough to spawn a new visual experience.
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Matta: Paintings 1944-1945, March 12-31, 1945, no. 6
Waltham, Massachusetts, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Matta: the First Decade, May 9-June 20, 1982, p. 66, no. 42, illustrated
Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers, June 11-September 7, 1992, p. 268, no. 89, illustrated in color
New York, Studio Museum in Harlem, Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries, December 6, 1992-April 11, 1993, p. 129, no. 67, illustrated in color
East Hampton, New York, Guild Hall Museum, The Surrealists and their Friends on Eastern Long Island at Mid-Century, August 10-October 13, 1996, p. 10, illustrated in color
33 7/8 by 97 1/8 in. (86 by 246.7 cm)
Germana Ferrari, Entretiens Morphologiques: Notebook Nº1, 1936-1944, London, Sistan Limited, 1987, p. 196, n.n.
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (1945)
William S. Rubin, New York (1950s)
Richard Zeisler, New York