The Future Did Not Have to Be Luxury Condos: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark
In the film "Day’s End," the artist Gordon Matta-Clark rides a whale-size piece of corrugated metal as it is hoisted away from the wall from which he just cut it. He’s a young man, age thirty-two. The feat was filmed in the summer of 1975, in Chelsea’s abandoned Pier 52 building, where Matta-Clark attempted to make an "indoor park." His silhouette, against the sunlight streaming in from his new view of the Hudson River, is heroic.
The exodus of middle-class whites and the manufacturing industry had left New York City sliding toward bankruptcy, and it was at this crucial point of economic transition that Matta-Clark turned his training in architecture toward art. He used the tools of construction, demolition, and scale to grip the edges of the city’s rupture and pull it into refined shapes, making urban decay (and possibility) more conspicuous. Of his choice of locations, he said, "The determining factor is the degree to which my intervention can transform the structure into an act of communication."
Move ahead forty years and the city’s debris is from new development, which has seized vacant space throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. But the underlying inequalities that Matta-Clark addressed in his work remain. It’s fitting that “Day’s End” is currently screening in "Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect," an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The Bronx has become the contemporary battleground where the ideas that motivated Matta-Clark—gentrification, displacement, who decides a city’s future—are being disputed.
Matta-Clark was the son of two artists and grew up in downtown Manhattan, in the fifties and sixties. The activist Jane Jacobs was defending the neighborhood against Robert Moses’s vision of urban renewal, which had already cleaved the Bronx in two in order to build the Cross Bronx Expressway, devastating and displacing communities. Just before Matta-Clark left for college, the nineteenth-century cast-iron loft buildings of SoHo were slated for demolition for Moses’s next project, the Lower Manhattan Expressway. But the urban planner Chester Rapkin’s study of the area revealed that the lofts were not obsolete but filled with factories that employed the city’s low-income minorities, and he, along with Jacobs and other activists, convinced the city that moral imperative and economic interest should leave the lofts intact.
In the years between Moses’s retreat and Matta-Clark’s return, in 1969, SoHo’s buildings were increasingly vacated, and unexpected tenants moved in: artists. The historian Aaron Shkuda, in his book, "The Lofts of Soho: Gentrification, Art and Industry in New York, 1950-1980," writes, "SoHo artist groups posited a new postindustrial future for New York City that did not rely on slum clearance or urban renewal," and, in the process, "established a new role for artists in the contemporary metropolis: as property developers, urban ‘pioneers,’ and small business incubators."
Matta-Clark embodied all three personae. In 1970, he helped open 112 Greene Street, a collaborative gallery and performance space, in a former rag-picking factory. A year later, he, Caroline Goodden, and Tina Girouard founded FOOD, often referred to as SoHo’s first restaurant, to provide jobs, healthy meals, and a community space for the artists living downtown. In the Bronx Museum show, a 1972 film charts a day at the restaurant. A long-haired man brews coffee, Goodden haggles at the Fulton Fish Market, gumbo bubbles on the stove, and, after closing, another man bakes the next day’s bread.
Beyond the physical innovation of the restaurant’s open kitchen, in which about three hundred artists worked over the years, Matta-Clark made space at FOOD for artistic experimentation and performance. On Sundays, meals were hosted by individual artists, including Yvonne Rainer, Donald Judd, and Keith Sonnier. Matta-Clark himself devised the “Matta Bones” dinner, in which necklaces made from the remains of animals were given out as souvenirs to those who had eaten them. His widow, Jane Crawford, once said that Matta-Clark “had cooking all through his mind as a way of assembling people, like choreography."
"One of the earliest times I can remember using cutting as a way of redefining a space was at FOOD Restaurant," Matta-Clark said. The renovations of that space and 112 Greene Street gave him the idea for what would become known as his "building cuts," and he soon made his first foray, with trips to abandoned buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He photographed from disorienting angles the odd windows that he opened, and even took cross-sections of the buildings to exhibit at 112 Greene Street, under the title "Bronx Floors." The remains of wallpaper and molding around his dissections emphasized what the artist said of a later work: "The shadows of the persons who had lived there were still pretty warm."
Matta Clark’s earliest art had dealt more directly with those people who were forced out. "Garbage Wall," made of trash, chicken wire, and plaster, and "Glass Bricks," made of melted beer bottles, proposed more durable alternatives to the cardboard architecture that he saw the homeless constructing. By 1976, he stated that he hoped his art "would no longer be concerned with just personal or metaphoric treatment of the site," but would finally be "responsive to the express will of its occupants." In 1977, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, to set up a resource center that Lower East Side youth would design and build, becoming empowered to alter their own environment. But just a year later Matta-Clark died, at age thirty-five, a victim of pancreatic cancer, and the center was never built.
Matta-Clark didn’t witness the massive crises that the city would soon endure in the AIDS and crack epidemics, nor the money about to pour into the art and real-estate markets. Not long after his death, the rents rose in SoHo and artists decamped to nearby neighborhoods. In 1984, the arts magazine October published Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan’s "The Fine Art of Gentrification," which ridiculed artists, and the parade of gallerists trailing them, for their role in the influx of wealth and the cycle of displacement. "The art world functions ideologically to exploit the neighborhood for its bohemian or sensationalist connotations while deflecting attention away from underlying social, economic, and political processes," the authors wrote. "They approach the neighborhood with dominating and possessive attitudes that transform it into an imaginary site."
Matta-Clark’s reputation remains well preserved for his good will, but the art historian Douglas Crimp, in his recent memoir, points out that the artist’s own "imaginary sites" weren’t always abandoned. Matta-Clark got away with "Day’s End" because police and dockworkers tended to avoid the gay men known to go cruising at the piers, the same men whom Matta-Clark locked out when he took possession of the building. A closer look at a photograph of the FOOD storefront reveals the sign above, painted with the words "Comidas Criollas," a testament that Matta-Clark’s business was not, in fact, the first restaurant in SoHo.
In today’s New York, the "urban pioneers"—those who are most transforming the cityscape—are not artists but real-estate developers and land speculators. The city has come to rely heavily on the private sector to build affordable housing, incentivizing developers to reserve a percentage of affordable units in market-rate buildings through promises of rezoning and tax breaks. The Bronx has come under pressure as speculators turn their attention to its neighborhoods. But in a reversal of the sixties, when urban renewal in the Bronx served as a warning to downtown Manhattan, today’s Bronx residents have been cautioned by the rapid development of other boroughs.
"The Bronx that exists now is because of that community that maintained it by becoming entrepreneurs and doing what we needed to do to survive," the Bronx resident Carmen Vega-Rivera told me. In 1981, she moved to the borough from the Lower East Side, where she was born and raised. Over eight years, she served as a curator and associate director at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, helping to secure its current location, in a former synagogue on the Grand Concourse. When she moved, she had faith that the neighborhood would improve, "but the change that I’m seeing right now," she said, is "not for me, nor is it for my children."
In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg began rezoning portions of the Bronx and its waterfront; the City Planning Commission has recently approved Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning plan for an industrial stretch of Jerome Avenue. The plan claims to answer the community’s need for affordable housing, but it downplays the destructive economic impact of luxury apartment buildings on auto shops and local businesses, the same omission that Rapkin identified in Moses’s SoHo plan. What the city is promising won’t address the dire local need for housing: only twenty per cent of units are reserved for households making a third of the area’s median income, which for a family of four is $28,600 or less. Half the community occupies that income bracket. The area is already among the most severely rent-burdened in the city; the risk of displacement and homelessness is catastrophic.
Vega-Rivera is clinging to her apartment in the building that she has lived in for thirty-seven years. She organized her neighbors against their landlord’s flagrant negligence, and, even though the building went into foreclosure, the imminent rezoning coaxed an investor to buy it for twenty-eight million dollars. The fear now is that the investor will force out the tenants who endured terrible conditions. "I’m on a fixed income. My husband’s going to retire," Vega-Rivera said. "Where am I going to go when I feel the pressure?" "Poor people and people of color tend to be invisible when the discussions are entirely about economic development," Tom Angotti, a professor emeritus of urban policy and planning at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, told me over the phone. "Now people are saying, ‘We struggled through the years of abandonment, we stuck with the city, we put roots down here. We don’t want to be pushed out.’"
Just as Jane Jacobs’s philosophy of the “urban village” has often been reduced by urban designers to a recommendation for building height and sidewalk width, the work of Matta-Clark should not be aestheticized in hindsight, nor should it be lamented as possible only in the context of a burnt, abandoned city. The films Matta-Clark made of his works’ progress show that his interest was not in the mystery of the feat but in undoing perceptions of fixity. He wanted to create a narrative for change, to alert fellow-citizens to the ways that urban space is imagined and discarded, imposed, and taken.
Matta-Clark seemed aware that he was a seed of development; he made a nod to the complicated nature of ownership in his work when he said that “Day’s End” was cut into the shape of a "pie-slice." When someone criticized his work as complicit in urban renewal, he defended it by saying, “I don’t try to make destruction into a beautiful experience.” He argued that what he was doing was "taking a situation at the last minute and trying to put it back into an alternative sort of expression." But he could not predict that his short lifetime lay on the brink of the city’s accelerated growth, a concept that has come to be equated not with the commitment of residents but with the destructiveness of wealth. The “last minute” to which he referred has in the intervening years gathered a new meaning. SoHo’s came and went decades ago, but the Bronx’s is now.