Inspired by the horrors of the Vietnam War Burn, Baby, Burn (L'escalade) was Matta's (Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren) response to what he saw as a connection between the violence of the war and the racial division that spurred the Watts riots in 1965. The title is drawn from a phrase coined by a local radio personality, Magnificent Montague, who would utter his trademark "Burn, Baby! Burn!" whenever he was particularly moved by a piece of soul music. During the rebellion in Watts, rioters borrowed the radio host's cry for the arson that characterized those seven days in L.A.
Compositionally, Burn, Baby, Burn is a work of frenzied, exuberant energy. The horizontality of the canvas encourages the viewer's eye to move from one point to another. In this painting, Matta presented an apocalyptic plane, with echoes of a futuristic vision. Indeed, symbols of the future are prominently depicted on the canvas: satellites implode on the left, a speeding vehicle can be found at top, and a group of black heads—quite similar to movement as depicted by the Futurists of the early 20th century—are clustered at the bottom right.
Despite its representation of a calamitous scene, the canvas also communicates hope: the bright, phosphorescent green is a symbol of a better future. Burn, Baby, Burn is a depiction of both destruction and the possibility for peace.
This year marks LACMA's 50th anniversary. We're celebrating all that we've done while looking forward to what's in store for us in the next 50. Check back every week on Unframed to find a highlight of an artwork from LACMA's collection, which features over 120,000 objects that span time, the globe, and all cultures. This is 10/50 of the series.