Mapping the Dimensions of Consciousness: “Matta – The Eye of a Surrealist” (A Film by Jane Crawford)


Visionary artist Roberto Matta (1911-2002) was arguably one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His high profile association with poet Andre Breton’s group of Surrealists only initiated his own personal evolution and style, which culminated in addressing the realm of the subconscious and the invisible. Thus, Matta is the patron saint of so-called “metaphysical art,” the graphic depiction of energies beyond the physical realities of everyday life.

“Matta – The Eye of a Surrealist” is a brilliant documentary by filmmaker Jane Crawford, which shows the artist exploring and simultaneously explaining the creative process. The film is also a cinematic retrospective of Matta’s life and his work with interview commentaries by art historians, curators and fellow artists.

Trying to explain his own personal creative process, Matta says, “If you start with a white thing [referring to a canvas or piece of paper], you are going to project things you already know. Make it dirty somehow and then you will start using hallucinations.”

These “hallucinations” are simply the power of imagination as when “people see in a cloud an elephant and begin to hallucinate to suggest something [to their mind.]” We make our own realities in other words, says Matta, and art is the expression of bringing the hidden into the visible.

The forms that Matta drew kept changing, so he called them “morphologies of my psyche”. An interview with Gordon Onslow-Ford, Matta’s lifelong friend explained their mutual interest in metaphysics, explored by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky in the early 20th century.

“His mind was a constant fountain of marvelous images. He was the greatest genius I have ever known,” says Ford in admiration of his friend

Indeed Matta was a cartographer of multi-dimensional space as Elizabeth Smith, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago explains.

For example, Matta’s painting “The Earth is a Man” is “a luminous landscape that seems to be pulsating, vibrating with energy” says Smith.

Matta’s depiction of intersecting dimensions and the poetry of painting is the overpowering impression of his work. “His paintings are like a living breathing organism,” Smith explains “rather than a static scene.”

Matta’s paintings exemplify the movement of energy that implies the shift from the macroscopic to the microscopic.

“We should one day represent what we don’t see,” says Matta, grasping at words to describe his own internal creative process. He refers to the energies that connect people and events, and the invisible flow of energies that makes our world. Matta is the cartographer of energy and the passage of time, as well as the transformation of time and space into a visual art form.

In his visit to New York, at the beginning of World War II in Europe, Matta became an influence on the so-called abstract impressionists like Motherwell and Pollock encouraging them to experiment with “automatism.”

“What caught on was the populist spirit, the technique of automatism,” Ford explains, “that you could paint freely. You didn’t have to go to art school. Matta and I were both interested in going through the surface to the world beyond.”

Later Matta was expelled by the Surrealists and the New York School artists shunned him, when he began to paint figurative representations of the horrors of the 20th century, in other words, a graphic depiction of the astral subversion of society. These images were violent, primal and erotic describing the mechanization of life, or as Smith puts it so succinctly, Matta created a “new mythology that dealt with society in crisis.”

“Matta, the Eye of the Surrealist” has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

URI DOWBENKO is an artist and the author of “Bushwhacked: Inside Stories of True Conspiracy” and “Hoodwinked: Watching Movies With Eyes Wide open. His website is

Interview with Jane Crawford, the producer and director of “Matta, the Eye of a Surrealist”

UD: How did you first get interested in making this film?

JC: I had been married to Roberto Matta’s son, Gordon Matta-Clark, who was also an artist. Gordon had died of cancer in 1978. I had, at that point, sort of left the art world to become a documentary film maker and met my second husband, Bob Fiore, who is a cameraman and film maker. We did the usual jobs. We did a lot of politics and for-hire stuff but then wanted to do our own projects, which, naturally went towards the art world. It was still too painful for me to consider doing anything about Gordon, but I really admired Matta’s paintings and realized that people didn’t know who he was or how important he was to the art scene in the United States.

In 1984, Bob and I arranged to go to Tarquinia in Italy, which is about an hour north of Rome where Matta had his studio. We filmed there over a period of several days. Matta was pretty famous for not granting interviews, and he did not like being filmed by anyone. But because I was his daughter-in-law, and I wouldn’t go away (I kept waylaying him) finally he relented. I had also gotten his daughter Federica Matta to help me pester him until he said yes. And then once he said yes, we had to arrange all kinds of games and surprises for him to keep his attention while we filmed.

UD: What do you think his reticence or reluctance was all about?

It had just been his way historically; he didn’t like giving interviews or doing books or cooperating, generally, with anybody. So we were very lucky in getting this material.

As I said, it was originally filmed in 1984. It was primarily self-supported. We were able to entice a few collectors to give us a little bit of money. But film was very, very expensive. And we would work on it for a few years, go way out over our credit limits and then have to stop for a few more years to pay the bills. And, you know, it is a true credit-card film. Finally, just about two years ago we were close to finished. We had, in the meantime, transferred everything to video because it was so much easier to edit and cheaper to finish. We filmed a couple more interviews with Martica Sawin and then Elizabeth Smith, who had curated the retrospective. And then Merrill-Lynch came in, heard about the project through Mario Paredes, who is head of the South American division. He’s Chilean and very much admired Matta, so Merrill-Lynch helped us finish the film.

UD: Do you know if anyone is writing a biography of Matta?

JC: He had a number of wives and a number of children. The estate has not been settled yet, so probably we won’t be done until the estate is settled. Germana, his last wife, has written a book which is very hard to get, which deals with his life through the 1940s. But a good book or catalog on his work would be wonderful. The museum retrospectives have put out catalogues, of course.

UD: Is her book in Italian or English?

JC: There are many books, but none of them are complete. Her book is in French, Italian and English. It’s trilingual. Sort of. If you know the titles of his films, he really combined words. It’s hard to deal with Matta in any single language because he played around with so many languages. He’s versatile.

UD: I want to complement you on this. I think you’ve done a wonderful job on this film. I was so impressed with the film. The only thing I’ve seen recently that’s in that category is “How to Draw a Bunny” about Ray Johnson.

JC: Ray Johnson was fabulous. You make these films in this kind of netherworld and then you send them out into the void.

We’ve made a number of different documentary films and films for artists and with artists. There are three films about Robert Smithson that are a part of the Robert Smithson retrospective, which started at the L.A. County and is now at the Dallas Museum of Art and coming to the Whitney. And the first one, Bob Fiore, my husband, made with Robert Smithson. It’s spiral jetty, which I can’t remember what the date of that was, around `71, I think.

UD: Bob is a documenatry film maker?

JC: Yes, we always joked that any artist’s film that you see late `60s, early `70s, where the camera work is done by Bob Fiore. He was the only one who was a professional cameraman. And he was friends with all the New York artists. So if anybody needed a cameraman to film something, particularly Richard Serra or Robert Morris or Keith Sonnier, Joan Jonas, they would call Bob and he would film.

UD: This is artists in action kind of films?]

JC: Yes. Or just projects by artists. There’s one up at the Museum of Modern Art right now by Joan Jonas. We’ve also made a small piece for Richard Serra, pieces on Robert Smithson. I made two: one called “Run Down” and another called “Sheds” that were about Bob Smithson’s work utilizing vintage material that his widow, Nancy Holt, shot at the time. I’ve made films about those.

We’ve also done a series of films on the wines of Burgundy and the wines of Bordeaux. Those were four hours each. They’re sort of encyclopedic and a lot of fun to do, as you can imagine. And I’m working now, after 25 years, on a film about Gordon Matta-Clark, and on another film about the artists of the `70s, who came out of the Soho, and what an impact they’ve had on the art world.

UD: So this is your primary focus — art-oriented documentaries?

JC: Yes. mine is. Bob and I both come out of the art world, and I prefer to stay in the art world. Bob works as a documentary cameraman and does a lot of news reportage for “60 Minutes”, “Prime Time Live” and “Dateline” and so on. He’s done a lot of programming for NET, PBS, music programs, and all kinds of things.

In fact, there was a film that just came out called “Festival Express” about the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin and The Band, and a bunch of people who were on a train cross-country in Canada, and they would stop and perform concerts and then get back on the train. And Bob did all the photography on the train with the various bands. That was just released this year, but it was actually filmed in the late `60s.

UD: There’s a big trend for that, kind of historical looking back. I think the fact that video is so much more accessible than bulky 16 and 35 cameras and so on.

JC: That’s right. He and I have a 2-man crew now. We can go out and shoot so economically, then edit the work at home. And it’s NHD; it’s quality good enough to be broadcast on television.

UD: You both did the editing on this Matta film.

JC: He contributed a lot of ideas– because he’s really instinctual. He’s got a wonderful sense of film. I edited it mostly with another couple of editors–Amy Kalafa and Alex Gunuey. I’m sort of the nuts and bolts, doing the daily stuff.

Did you know Bob also made “Pumping Iron” with Arnold? He was the director and the DP. There’s another one: “Greetings,” Roberts Di Niro’s film, I think. That was Brian DaPalma. That was funny because both Bob and Brian were really young film makers at the time. And you look at it and see all the film making rules they broke, it’s really funny. Bob was the DP on that.

I’ve stayed in the art world. I had originally an agency called “The Foundation of Art Performances and Projects” that worked with non-object artists back in the `70s. Artists who would do performance, projects, and installations, like specific projects.

UD: Is that how you met Gordon?

JC: Yes, actually it is. I was asked to interview him regarding an installation project. And he had come up with the idea that he wanted to dig down through the floor of the gallery and over, you know, make a tunnel next door and come up in the garages in the building next door, which happened to the be the Chase Manhattan Bank. Tthat was one of his unrealized projects.

UD: I try to glean from these various stories about him. Twins that died or committed suicide? All these wild stories.

JC: Yes. Gordon was a twin. And the other either fell or jumped out a window. He was hearing voices at the time.

UD: Did it have something to do with living under the shadow of the old man’s fame?

JC: Gordon’s brother Sebastian just had been born with a problem. He’d really been different all of his life from other children. And I think Gordon felt guilty about that, responsible for his brother. But he was the strong, healthy one who had friends and was good in school and was outgoing, where his brother was had a hard time his whole life.

UD: There are all these psychodramas and cryptic references

JC: Yes somebody needs to write a book about this. It’s amazing.

And then his children, in addition to Gordon, Federica Matta’s internationally known as an artist. She was Matta’s daughter by Malitta Matta, who was his fourth wife.

Federica is very successful making sculpture in the United States, painting and sculpture, mostly in France. And she’s done projects in Chile. And her brother, Ramuncho Matta is a successful musician. And there’s another brother, Pablo Echaurren, in Italy who’s a very successful painter.

UD: So there’s a whole dynasty kind of.

JC: — of artists. It’s very interesting. That was a very strong gene that Matta passed on to his children.

URI DOWBENKO is an artist and the author of “Bushwhacked: Inside Stories of True Conspiracy” and “Hoodwinked: Watching Movies With Eyes Wide open. His website is

For more information on Dowbenko’s books Bushwhacked & Hoodwinked.

Copyright © 2005 Uri Dowbenko. All Rights Reserved.


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