Gordon Matta-Clark

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Selected Press

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The Cutting-Edge Art of Matta-Clark

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.”

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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.

‘Substrait’ (1976)

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.

‘Walls/Wallspaper’ (1972)

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.

'Food’ (1971-74)

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.

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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.

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