NEW YORK, May 22 (Reuters) - Chilean artist Roberto Matta's "La revolte des contraires" led Christie's Latin American art auction on Tuesday, selling for $5 million and setting a record for the artist viewed as a seminal figure bridging surrealism and abstract expressionism.
"It is a long overdue recognition for the artist, who is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century," said Virgilio Garza, Christie's Latin American art chief.
The Tuesday evening auction totaled $23 million and set records for a dozen other artists.
An oil on canvas, the 1944 "La revolte des contraires" is a vortex of canary yellow rhomboids, rippled by undulating black lines and pocked by eruptions of prismatic colors.
"The lines serve as a skeleton of the painting; the thin washes create an ethereal feeling, almost like it's levitating," Garza said. "The outburst of colors are almost volcanic."
In Matta's eyes, the painting represented a mental landscape, he added. "It is surrealism through abstraction."
"The liquid drip in the painting is part of his breakthrough," he said of Matta, whose students in New York included Jackson Pollock, who won later renown for forsaking brushes for drip painting.
For a Latin American artist, the $5 million price of "La revolte des contraires" ranks as the third highest sold at international auction, Christie's said.
Only Rufino Tamayo's "Trovador," sold for $7.2 million at Christie's in 2008, and "Roots," a painting by Frida Kahlo sold at Sotheby's in 2006 for $5.6 million, have fetched more.
Among other artists who set auction records on Tuesday was Brazilian Candido Portinari, whose 1950 oil on canvas "Navio Negreiro" sold for $1.14 million.
Portinari is a towering figure in 20th century Brazilian art and his work is considered a national treasure, Garza said.
In "Navio Negreiro," he stylizes the deck of a ship as a geometric maze, confining masses of slaves mainly to the edges of the vessel. Between them are minuscule blood-red men, who appear to be overseers with their arms raised.
Also setting an auction record was Argentine Emilio Pettoruti, whose "Concierto," a 1941 oil on canvas, went for $794,500.
Influenced by Italy's Futurist movement and Cubism, Pettoruti was a founder of the Argentine avante-garde, Christie's says.
"Concierto" shows the brilliance of sunlight, portrayed in butter-yellow-hued triangles, spilling into a darkened room with a tabletop cluttered with a vase, open book and wine bottle topped by a black cork.