Born Roberto Antonia Sebastian Matta Echaurren in Santiago, Chile, to Basque parents, he grows up in an upper middle class family. Graduates from architecture school in 1933 and settles in Paris in 1935. Apprentices with modernist architect Le Corbusier. Frederico Garcia Lorca introduces him to Salvador Dalí and also meets the British artist, Gordon Onslow Ford, who becomes a lifelong friend and introduces him to André Breton, who, upon seeing his work, invites Matta to join the Surrealists. He continues to explore his subconscious with a symbolic, abstract language and calls these ever changing internal landscapes, Psychological Morphologies or alternately, Inscapes. Matta, along with other surrealists, flees Europe to New York, during World War II. Young, dynamic and approachable Matta quickly develop relationships with and mentors the American artists Gerome Kamrowski, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes, Peter Busa, and Robert Motherwell. Spends the war years (1939–1949) primarily in New York but travels to Mexico. Attracted by the "untamable nature" of what he sees, his imagery becomes more chaotic yet contained within a defined cosmos, symbolizing his belief in the fundamental unity of all things.
In the mid 1940's, he expands his focuses of man’s relationship to himself to the relationship of man to technology in a more societal context; he uses ancient Mexican symbolism to highlight the alienation he sees brought on by industrialization. Breton expels Matta from the Surrealists because the work has begun to explore not just the inner reality but reality in the context of the outer social and political themes. Several significant retrospectives of his work are held in his lifetime, including at the National Gallery in Berlin in 1970 and another in the Pompidou Center in Paris. Dies in Italy, where he had lived for many years, in 2002.