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.
When Gordon Matta-Clark returned to his hometown of New York City in 1969, armed with a degree in architecture from Cornell University, he was already skeptical of the profession for which he had trained. His suspicions were confirmed by what he found upon arrival. Plans for “urban renewal” were prioritizing the construction of skyscrapers like Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center—a monument to postindustrial aesthetics masterminded by billionaire financier David Rockefeller—while the city’s poorest districts were being left to crumble.
By the mid-1970s, the city’s housing and development administrator, Roger Starr, was openly advocating what he called "planned shrinkage," a policy designed to steer resources away from what he considered to be economically unproductive areas like the South Bronx and, by extension, their inhabitants. Convinced that these neighborhoods, largely populated by poor black and Puerto Rican residents, weren’t worth fixing, Starr proposed the withdrawal of city services in order to accelerate their demise. For Matta-Clark the implications of words like “renewal,” at least when used by officials like Starr, were clear: as the artist noted in a 1976 interview, "the city is just waiting for the social and physical condition [of the South Bronx] to deteriorate to the point that the borough can redevelop the whole area into the industrial park they really want."
Like the corporate property developers he openly reviled—in his words, they belonged to "an industry that profligates [sic] suburban and urban boxes as a context for insuring a passive, isolated consumer"—Matta-Clark took these blighted districts as his raw material. But revitalization was not his goal. In the building cuts he produced between 1972 and 1978, when he died of cancer at age thirty-five, Matta-Clark worked against the grain of his architectural training, sawing into abandoned structures and cutting away at their floors, walls, and facades. Rather than improving these decaying buildings in any conventional sense, Matta-Clark’s cuts served in part to magnify extant signs of neglect and disuse to the point of absurdity, serving as something like a funhouse mirror reflection of ’70s urbanism and its failings. Matta-Clark often used the term "anarchitecture" to express his approach to the built environment. First coined as the name of a short-lived group of artists he assembled to think through "metaphoric voids, gaps, leftover spaces" (the other members were Laurie Anderson, Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Bernard Kirschenbaum, Richard Landry, and Richard Nonas), "anarchitecture" could designate a set of projects, a theory of property and space, or a mode of working.
"Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect" at the Bronx Museum foregrounds the artist’s engagement with the borough, where he produced several formative works. Though these projects have often been overshadowed by more spectacular cuts Matta-Clark made elsewhere—for instance, Splitting (1974), an entire house in suburban New Jersey sawed in half—curators Antonio Sergio Bessa and Jessamyn Fiore argue that it was his encounters with the social and spatial conditions of the Bronx of the 1970s that laid the foundations for his practice.
In the series Bronx Floors (1972–73), Matta-Clark surreptitiously entered several empty residential buildings and excised rectangular segments from the ceiling and floor. Like Robert Smithson’s "nonsites," which Matta-Clark first encountered at Cornell, each of these floor works existed in two parts. While the voids remained uptown—at least until the buildings were inevitably demolished—the segments of sandwiched drywall, wood, and tattered linoleum were removed and exhibited elsewhere as sculptural fragments alongside photographs of the cuts.
For Matta-Clark, the appeal of the Bronx was partly pragmatic: these interventions could take place without permission because there was rarely anyone to ask. As property values plummeted, thousands of building owners stopped paying their mortgages and simply walked away. (Others set the structures on fire for the insurance money.) As the artist recalled in a 1977 interview, the buildings he explored in the South Bronx were "not part of anybody’s protective property motive," leaving them free for the taking. "The wild dogs, the junkies and I used these spaces to work out some life problem, in my case having no socially acceptable place to work."
But working in the Bronx also served a symbolic purpose. The scope of the borough’s devastation epitomized the failure of modern urban planning and the hubris of post-Corbusian architects like his professors at Cornell, who approached the rhythms of urban life as an abstract problem to be plotted out on a grid. "Work with abandoned structures began with my concern for the life of the city," Matta-Clark wrote in a 1975 artist statement. "The availability of empty and neglected structures was a prime textual reminder of the ongoing fallacy of renewal through modernization."
The care with which Matta-Clark composed the photographic and filmic documentation that accompanied his building cuts suggests he knew that few people would experience his architectural interventions firsthand. None of the modified interiors survive today, but even during the artist’s lifetime, their audience was primarily limited to a few adventurous friends and patrons. Often shot at oblique angles, the photographs convey a sense of the extreme perceptual destabilization produced by the cuts. In Bronx Floor: Threshole (1972), for instance, the artist excised the area spanning an interior threshold so that the horizontal void carved from the floor meets the empty vertical frame of the doorway, resulting in vertiginous views into the spaces above and below. The camera’s tendency to flatten and distort space amplifies the effects of Matta-Clark’s disorienting structural manipulations, compressing the building’s features into a sequence of interlocking planes. In later works, he took this idea even further by creating dynamic photocollages that depicted his building cuts from multiple incompatible perspectives, as if to evoke the experience of moving around and through them.
The exhibition juxtaposes Matta-Clark’s Bronx building cuts with another extensive but less frequently acknowledged body of work that drew inspiration from the borough’s emerging graffiti culture. Included in the show are a series of tightly cropped black-and-white photographs capturing segments of spray-painted walls and train cars, over which Matta-Clark often colored in the vibrant tags by hand, as well as a segment from Graffiti Truck (1973), for which he invited Bronx residents to tag a parked van as they pleased, later cutting it into pieces with a blowtorch. In the past, the graffiti pieces have often been treated as curiosities ancillary to the more important cuts; here, the curators frame the two bodies of work as interdependent. As Bessa writes in his catalogue essay, the graffiti series "goes to the core of Matta-Clark’s idea of anarchitecture," suggesting that the cuts were strongly informed by the ways in which Bronx taggers made unsanctioned creative use of the streets and structures around them.
The exhibition ends with two of Matta-Clark’s most ambitious building cuts, positioning them as formal and theoretical elaborations on the ideas first explored in Bronx Floors. For Conical Intersect, created for the 1975 Paris Biennale, he tunneled through two adjacent seventeenth-century town houses slated for demolition as the Centre Pompidou was under construction nearby. For Day’s End, made earlier that same year, Matta-Clark broke into an abandoned warehouse at Pier 52 in Chelsea and carved large apertures into the sides of the building and through the floor, opening up views of the Hudson waterfront and allowing sunlight to stream into the dark, cavernous space. Alongside photographs and preparatory drawings, two gorgeous films show the artist at work as he performs the role of dissident contractor managing each site’s transformation.
In addition to anarchitectural cuts, Matta-Clark made building interventions of another kind, buying properties in SoHo and renovating them into exhibition spaces and live-work lofts. By the mid-1970s, loft conversions, unlike the cuts he made in the Bronx or at the Chelsea piers, were not only sanctioned but encouraged by city officials and other New York powerbrokers eager to see districts like SoHo reinvented. Yet the two practices were, in the artist’s own view, fundamentally linked: "Living in New York creates such a need for adaptation that raw, uninhabitable spaces constantly had to be transformed into studios or exhibition areas," he said in an interview a year before his death. "I imagine this is one of the ways that I became used to approaching space on an aggressive level."
Matta-Clark’s assistant Gerry Hovagimyan once described the artist’s intentions for Day’s End as a kind of insurrectionary reconfiguration of public space, like the barricades of the Paris Commune. But today, something else comes to mind. Pier 52 sits a block away from the High Line; the surrounding area is now home to some of the most expensive real estate in the entire city, its prices bolstered in part by the developer-friendly rezoning scheme that accompanied the High Line’s conversion from condemned urban waste to picturesque elevated park.
Not long after Matta-Clark completed Day’s End, it attracted the attention of the authorities, who threatened the artist with criminal charges. On the advice of a lawyer, he produced a statement explaining his intent, in which he described the derelict piers as "a veritable mugger’s playground" largely used by "a recently popularized sadomasochistic fringe." Given this debased state, he explained, he felt justified in his decision "to enter such a premises with the desire to improve the property, to transform the structure in the midst of its ugly criminal state into a place of interest, fascination, and value." Though we might forgive Matta-Clark’s rhetorical flourishes here as tactical, they also point to the ease with which the subversive thrill of the cuts could be redirected toward the sanitizing work of urban renewal, employed as aesthetic tropes by starchitects and corporate developers. If the High Line seems like a corruption of Matta-Clark’s urban vision, with its carefully placed beds of weeds and reconstructed decay used to market neighboring multimillion-dollar condos, it might also be its logical conclusion.
Gordon Matta-Clark was the James Dean of postwar American art. Like Dean, he was a charismatic rebel who upended conventional notions about his craft, inspired countless younger artists, died at an early age, and left cult-like legions of fans who mourn his loss to this day. Matta-Clark’s audacious hybridization and redefinition of three mediums—architecture, sculpture, and painting—opened new modes of contemporary expression just as decisively as the maverick actor had done.
Much in the same way that Dean’s subversive remake of Hollywood stardom during the mid-1950s drew on his deepest psychological conflicts, two decades later Matta-Clark cut through derelict buildings with chainsaws to reveal their long-hidden interiors. He likewise saw the spray-painted graffiti that were appearing all over New York City not as vandalism but as a means for common people to reclaim their civic identity, and his arresting super-long photos of “tagged” subway cars presented them as a new kind of kinetic pop sculpture. This interest anticipated by several years the emergence of artists including Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who began as outlaw taggers but became stars of the 1980s art scene after being discovered by savvy dealers, as well as Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style, the first cinematic treatment of the downtown graffiti and hip-hop culture. In all, Matta-Clark sought to expose the failures of a rich but misdirected society that during the Vietnam War let its public responsibilities erode, which gave his seemingly destructive approach a sharply political edge.
Many reasons for this master troublemaker’s continuing grip on the artistic imagination are evident in the Bronx Museum of Art’s exhibition “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect,” which takes its subtitle from the subject’s own coinage for his contrarian occupation. Insightfully organized by the museum’s curatorial director, Antonio Sergio Bessa, and Jessamyn Fiore, co-director of the Matta-Clark Estate (along with her mother, Jane Crawford, the artist’s widow), the retrospective fully conveys the conceptual grandeur and raw physicality of Matta-Clark’s art, despite the fact that his most famous site-specific works no longer exist. Termed “building cuts,” those projects can only be revisited through photographs, videos, drawings, and fragmentary details, all of which are on view here.
By partially dismantling large-scale structures to make something entirely new, Matta-Clark defined an urban equivalent of Land Art, the massive earthwork installations created in remote settings during the 1960s and 1970s by Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Richard Long, and, above all, Robert Smithson, best remembered for his Spiral Jetty in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. (Smithson, who hired Matta-Clark as an installation assistant for the Cornell University art museum’s landmark 1969 “Earth Art” exhibition, was killed in a plane crash while scouting sites for an earthwork in Texas at thirty-five, the same age at which his protégé would die.)
Never was Matta-Clark’s genius more dramatically demonstrated than in Day’s End (1975), his unsanctioned appropriation of Manhattan’s abandoned Pier 52 on the Hudson River, which he stealthily turned into what he called a “sun-and-water temple.” This he accomplished by burn-cutting through the corrugated metal walls of the vast, disused maritime cargo terminal to create a series of painstakingly plotted, curved openings through which sunlight would stream to form veritable sculptures that had a cosmic aura that, doubtless, would have impressed the druids of Stonehenge.
The exhibition’s close proximity to the sites of some of the artist’s most important deconstructions in the South Bronx, epicenter of the urban squalor that accompanied the city’s 1970s fiscal crisis, adds particular immediacy to this survey. One highlight is Bronx Floors (1972–1973), a nearly four-foot-square chunk of wood, linoleum, and patterned dark-blue wallpaper preserved from one of his apartment-house demolition derbies, and later given to the Museum of Modern Art by the former husband of Matta-Clark’s first dealer, the risk-taking SoHo gallerist Holly Solomon.
Matta-Clark was a son of the Chilean Surrealist artist Roberto Matta and the American painter Anne Clark. Matta had studied architecture and worked as a draftsman in the Paris atelier of Le Corbusier from 1935 to 1937. Even if one resists the temptations of psychobiography, it is difficult not to see an oedipal element in Matta-Clark’s vocational path. A few months after Gordon and his twin brother, Sebastian, were born in New York in 1943, Matta abandoned his wife and sons, who thereafter led what has blandly been called a peripatetic existence until, five years later, Clark remarried and resettled in Manhattan, with the film critic Hollis Alpert. Despite evidence to the contrary, Matta insisted that he barely saw his sons while they were growing up; in any event, it cannot have been a happy relationship. (Sebastian committed suicide in 1976 when he jumped from a window in Gordon’s SoHo loft studio.)
Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell, where he received his degree during the cataclysmic spring of 1968 and promptly rejected routine applications of what he’d learned there. He was especially disdainful of his father’s erstwhile employer, despite Le Corbusier being the twentieth century’s most influential master-builder. In a 1973 letter about a proposed “Anarchitecture” exhibition, he turned one of Le Corbusier’s catchphrases on its head by suggesting that the show include “AN [sic] MACHINE FOR NOT LIVING IN WITH AN EXTRACT FROM CORBUSIER’S VERSO UN ARCHITEC [Vers une architecture] SHOWING THE VIRGIN MACHINE HE WANTS US ALL TO LIVE IN.” Although there was already a nascent revolt among Postmodernist architects who opposed Le Corbusier’s mechanistic aesthetic, Matta-Clark’s family history gave his contempt a more personal edge.
Within a very few years, he single-handedly established a new genre of environmental art, in which he used abandoned buildings as raw material and radically transformed them into stunning found sculptures. A prime example was Splitting: Four Corners (1974), in which he took an unoccupied wood-frame house in Englewood, New Jersey, and made a two-story-high vertical incision from the roof to its raised masonry foundation, which caused the rear half to lean back slightly, although the whole did not collapse.
Despite distancing himself from the architectural mainstream, Matta-Clark kept an eye on what the leading avant-garde figures were up to, including Louis Kahn, whose concept of “wrapping ruins around buildings” was echoed by the artist. Clearly, the gigantic oculi that Kahn employed in contemporaneous buildings such as his Philips Exeter Academy Library of 1965–1972 in Exeter, New Hampshire, must have been known to the anarchitect, who made similar voids in several of his deconstructions.
Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect of 1974 in Paris aligned two circles of different sizes that he cut into parallel walls of a building being torn down next to the new Pompidou Center’s construction site. Those paired Kahnian apertures defined a cone-like volume of light that seemed to hover in mid-air while the half-wrecked relic briefly stood. This widely-publicized project resonated among experimental-minded architects, most notably Frank Gehry, who has often cited the huge impact that Matta-Clark’s work had on his own sense of how beautiful a building could be if its structural components were not concealed.
By any reckoning, Matta-Clark’s career was meteoric: it lasted barely a decade, until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1978. Yet for all the weightiness that surrounds the issues Matta-Clark addressed—power and poverty, permanence and decay, monumentality and intimacy—there remains a surprising lightness of spirit to his legacy, and a reckless élan still inhabits what we know, even second-hand, of his work.
In addition to their innovative artistry, James Dean and Gordon Matta-Clark were alike physically—slightly built, boyishly handsome, and mercurial in motion—which has further enhanced their mystique as doomed demigods. In a 2008 interview, Jane Crawford touched on this with a wistful memory of her first husband: “A lot of people have noticed that Gordon was a great dancer.… I would say that gravity didn’t affect him like it affects the rest of the world.… He danced through his whole life in some way.”
Back in the Bronx: Gordon Matta-Clark, Rogue Sculptor
The small Bronx Museum of the Arts regularly hits above its weight. It is doing so again with “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect,” a streamlined exhibition of the work of this insurrectionary artist. The show creates a remarkably full picture of an irrepressible and unfailingly D.I.Y. maverick who is revered as one of the prime movers in the juggernaut of Conceptual, Process and Performance art that emerged in the late 1960s and ’70s. With a range that few of his peers equaled, Matta-Clark contributed to all of these genres.
He and his twin brother, John Sebastian, were born in New York to the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta and Anne Clark, an American artist and fashion designer. The parents separated shortly after their birth, and the boys were raised primarily in Greenwich Village by their mother. Matta-Clark (1943-1978) studied architecture at Cornell University, and evolved into a kind of urban land artist who used his skills to reshape and transform architecture into an art of structural explication and spatial revelation. He is best known for cutting up derelict buildings scheduled for demolition, turning them into giant temporary installations or extracting fragments from them that he then exhibited as sculpture.
This show, organized by Antonio Sergio Bessa, the museum’s director of curatorial and education programs, and Jessamyn Fiore, an independent curator and co-director of the Gordon Matta-Clark Estate, is beautifully staged in separate capsules of work. It doesn’t attempt to give us a wide-angle view of Matta-Clark’s brief but prolific and extremely diverse career, barely a decade in length, which ended with his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. It concentrates on his photographs and videos, seen in appropriately large projections, and the ways he constantly fused art and the documentation of art.
Nonetheless, the exhibition captures his restless intelligence and, most important, his relationship with the city and the urban landscape, which were sources of both inspiration and material. “Anarchitect” also indicates the freedom that the deterioration of the South Bronx in the 1970s granted him. Following the clarity of the exhibition’s staging, the focus here is on its main works or groupings.
‘Untitled (Anarchitecture)’ (1974)
Matta-Clark may or may not have known about the 1970 article “Towards Anarchitecture,” by the British architect and theorist Robin Evans, when he started using the subversive hybrid of anarchy and architecture in the mid-1970s, but it perfectly personifies his attitudes. The show begins with a piece consisting of 20 photographs, about half of them stock images of disasters seen from above. Installed outside the exhibition galleries, these visceral images introduce Matta-Clark’s sense of humor and his mordant eye for violent intersections of the built and natural worlds.
The photographs show collapsed buildings and bridges, a housing development leveled by a tornado, train wrecks and floods. In one, cars crowd together on the ramped roadway of a railroad crossing, like rats clinging to driftwood. But the images taken by the artist deepen the mood of life irrevocably disrupted, especially in retrospect. In three, tombstones in a cemetery are seen from different angles. Another reveals the gap of space between the towers of the World Trade Center. And yet another was taken from one of the windows of Matta-Clark’s top-floor loft at 155 Wooster Street in SoHo, from which his twin brother would jump to his death in 1977. The image catches the large ink-black shadow of the building’s profile cast on West Houston Street.
Matta-Clark’s interest in tunneling through things is reflected in a series of tours he took with a few friends, armed with a video camera, along New York City’s subterranean network. Old railroad tracks beneath Grand Central Terminal, the crypt at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the 13th Street storm sewer and pumping station were among the sites visited. Documented by a series of murky video clips whose primary audio consists of the voices of different guides, they provide a heady sense of the artist’s daring and curiosity and a healthy dose of suspense, as if the Phantom of the Opera might be lurking.
‘Garbage Wall’ (1970)
Matta-Clark made his first “Garbage Wall” at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village in 1970. Originally conceived as the ephemeral set for a performance, it mixed garbage with concrete. But Matta-Clark soon saw that combination had possibilities for both cheap housing and communal art; either way it was something that could be made by anyone. For this exhibition, Jane Crawford, Matta-Clark’s widow and co-director of his estate (and Ms. Fiore’s mother), oversaw the Bronx Museum Teen Council in the making of a new, colorful “Garbage Wall” installed on the museum’s terrace.
Bronx Graffiti (1973)
The show’s greatest revelation may be a grouping of about 30 photographs in black and white and, it seems, in color, that Matta-Clark took of graffiti on subway cars and walls and buildings in the South Bronx. They have never been exhibited in such abundance, and their delicacy and color enlivens the show, especially the close-ups of walls.
And even more when you realize the color images were actually hand-colored by Matta-Clark using an airbrush. They add a new twist to his penchant for interacting with the urban environment — though here he is adding rather than subtracting — and emphasize his gift for pictorial beauty. The close-up images of wall graffiti with added color tend to be the liveliest. Had Matta-Clark lived into old age, he might even have taken up other forms of painting, or at least built on these.
‘Bronx Floors’ (1972-73)
Some of Matta-Clark’s first interventions in the urban architectural fabric were the pieces of floor (including the beams and ceilings beneath them), roughly four-feet square, that he cut from abandoned buildings in the South Bronx.
Several photographs and photocollages document three of these extractions, and the show includes a single example, its only sculpture. “Bronx Floors,” from the Museum of Modern Art, is displayed on a pedestal against a wall, more like a relic than the still-shocking ready-made fragment that it is. It has deep turquoise linoleum with a gold quatrefoil pattern and two thresholds, suggesting that it lay at the juncture of three rooms.
‘Day’s End’ (1975)
One of Matta-Clark’s long-gone masterpieces is “Day’s End,” a site-specific piece executed without permits on one of the decrepit piers on the Hudson River in the West Village, which then served mainly for assignations among gays. (Four photographs by Alvin Baltrop, who documented life on the piers, as well as “Day’s End,” hang nearby.) Matta-Clark was after light and water views. He cut a big semicircle through the corrugated steel end-wall of the piece. This half-moon, orange slice or primitive rose window was echoed, just inside the building, by a large quarter-circle cut through the heavy floor (but not the beams) to reveal the river below.
A short, sometimes alarming video provides glimpses of the artist, blowtorch in hand, working from what appears to be a large swing or small platform made of rope and plywood.
Last year the Whitney Museum unveiled plans to have David Hammons commemorate “Day’s End” with a full-scale steel outline of the old pier. Perhaps it should include the outlines of Matta-Clark’s cuts.
‘Conical Intersect’ (1975)
After New York City officials discovered “Day’s End,” Matta-Clark faced an arrest warrant and lawsuit. He hopped on a plane to Paris — where he had another obligation — and remained there until charges were dropped. For the ninth Paris Biennale, and with that city’s blessing and objections from both the left and the right, he tackled a large 16th-century building being demolished to make way for the Centre Pompidou. Its exoskeleton appears in the video that records the artist at work, assisted by Gerry Hovagimyan.
The result, “Conical Intersect,” was a giant tunnel that telescoped down through the building, widening as it went. It may be easier to grasp from some photo-collages here, but the video conveys the grandiosity of Matta-Clark’s vision, the fearlessness it required and the solidity of the building being torn apart; 16th-century floor beams are something to behold. Any sadness about the loss of this ancient structure may be complicated by the video’s final shot, showing a steam shovel knocking everything down, the brief “Matta-Clark” included.
Matta-Clark’s relationship to the ephemeral and the passage of time is complex and was undoubtedly balanced by his use of cameras to document what he saw and did. In addition to graffiti, he was drawn to all sorts of architectural remnants, among them, interior walls exposed during demolition. The show includes a dozen black-and-white photographs of such, sometimes from one room, sometimes in multistoried clusters, all titled “Walls” and hanging in a grid.
Across the way, an enormous wall is covered with grainy versions of similar images from the series: offset lithographs printed on newsprint that repeat their forms in changing combinations of fruity plum, citrus and lime and evoke Andy Warhol. This is “Wallspaper,” first made to cover most of a large wall at 112 Greene Street in 1972 and reprinted for subsequent exhibitions.
Near the show’s entrance, situated specifically in the museum’s cafe, a 60-minute video by Matta-Clark records mealtime at FOOD, the relaxed semi-communal restaurant, and artwork, that he and Carol Gooden founded, with other artists, on the corner of Wooster and Prince Streets in SoHo.
It was 1971 and the neighborhood was still a nexus of artistic experimentation. In perhaps his first architectural excision, Matta-Clark tore out the storefront’s walls to achieve an open-plan kitchen and exhibited one of the fragments as a sculpture at 112 Greene Street. In the video, you may recognize artists like Keith Sonnier, Tina Girouard, Richard Nonas and Suzanne Harris, as well as Matta-Clark himself.
How Gordon Matta-Clark Carved Beauty Out of New York’s Urban Blight
In 1973, New York was crumbling. That December, the elevated West Side Highway near the present-day Whitney Museum of American Art collapsed under the weight of a dump truck carrying ten tons of asphalt. A few months earlier, a gas leak caused an explosion on Bedford Street in the West Village, injuring five people. A similar explosion killed a mechanic in Queens in March. Then, in August, an apartment building at 673 Broadway suddenly fell down while a man was on the phone with his mother. His last words were “the ceiling’s falling.”
That man’s cousin was the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, the subject of a sharp and splendid new show titled “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Matta-Clark was born in New York in June 1943 to the American artist Anne Clark and the Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta, and his boyhood was spent surrounded by artists. (His godmother was Teeny Duchamp, Marcel’s wife.) In 1962, he went to Cornell University to study architecture; he graduated in 1968 and moved back to New York the following year, having determined that architecture was a useless pursuit, but that the derelict landscape of his hometown might provide the ideal blank canvas for whatever came next.
The new exhibition (which is organized by Sergio Bessa, the museum’s curatorial and education director, and Jessamyn Fiore, the co-director of the artist’s estate) begins with the artist’s first mature works, which he started in the South Bronx in fall 1972. For months, Matta-Clark ventured into disused tenements and carved out large sections of walls and floors, capturing the surviving gaps in disorienting photographs. Eight of these images are on show, alongside one of the few remaining cutout sculptures, which he showed with his pictures at 112 Greene Street, an early Soho exhibition space, in 1973.
The sculpture, titled Bronx Floors (1972–73), is an L-shaped floor and subfloor, turned on its side, covered in cheap blue linoleum and dirtied by its former use. It is, appropriately, the first object in the show: a succinct summary of the artist’s ability to take a shabby emblem of abuse and neglect and make it beautiful by stripping it of its purpose. Framed handsomely in an elegant Bronx Museum gallery, it neatly captures Matta-Clark’s impossible project, which he called “anarchitecture.”
The idea was simple: Buildings and infrastructure “should be in perpetual metamorphosis by virtue of people continually acting on the space that surrounds them,” Matta-Clark said a few years before his death, from cancer, in 1978. “A house, for instance, is definitely a fixed entity in the minds of most people. It shouldn’t be.” Instead, it should bend to the needs of its community.
The traditional top-down, centrally planned fantasias of architects such as Minoru Yamasaki had imploded. A year before Yamasaki’s World Trade Center opened in the Financial District, all 33 of his Pruitt-Igoe housing block buildings in St. Louis were torn down after years of failing elevators, poor ventilation, declining population, and rising crime — conditions not unfamiliar to residents of the South Bronx.
In contrast to Yamasaki, Matta-Clark was after an organic, vernacular style, an architecture for and by the local population, adapted according to their own imaginations. Graffiti, which he’d started to document in photographs, occurred to him as a flash of possibility — a reclamation of public space by the citizens it was intended for. When he began taking pictures of concrete walls covered in street tags in 1973, graffiti was in its infancy, and his pictures — presented together for the first time in this exhibition — are cursory, fragmentary snapshots, casually framed, informal. Their value is largely documentary, but for the artist, they were markers of a community’s creative capacities.
This spirit was at the heart of Matta-Clark’s ambition. It was what led him to found Food, an affordable, community-oriented restaurant in Soho, with the artists Carol Goodden and Tina Girouard in 1971. But his goals were not necessarily constructive. More often, as with the “Bronx Floors” series, wherein he carved his way through the city, his approach was, if not destructive, at least deconstructive. “Anarchitecture attempts to solve no problem,” he said in 1973; it was just an artist’s way of seeing the world and reorganizing its puzzle. This was the opposite of the social programs of Yamasaki or Le Corbusier, who designed utopian models to which everyone was meant to conform. Instead, Matta-Clark offered an artist’s singular, idiosyncratic vision.
The show ends in 1975, three years before the artist’s death, with films that document two of Matta-Clark’s most compelling projects. For one of them, Day’s End, he spent two months inside a deserted building on the pier near Gansevoort Street illegally making five large incisions into the wall, floor, and roof to realize what he called a “sun and water temple.” The resulting film is remarkable: In it, he saws his way through a faded building to strip back its history and reframe it, which is a project he never would have imagined had he not developed similar ideas in the South Bronx. So it is fitting that the Bronx Museum now presents this snapshot of local history to its community, to which it has long been dedicated. It is a perfect exhibition for the venue, and a clear elaboration of Matta-Clark’s best lesson: that an impossible dream of pure grassroots harmony can make for compelling art.