Gordon Matta-Clark: Works 1970–1978
David Zwirner is pleased to present an exhibition of works dating from 1970 to 1978 by Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978). Spanning three floors of the London gallery, the exhibition will include key examples from the artist’s short but prolific career, including films, photographs, sculptures, and works on paper that illustrate his complex engagement with architecture and the many ways in which he reconfigured the spaces and materials of everyday life.
A central figure of the downtown New York art scene in the 1970s, Matta-Clark pioneered a radical approach to art making that directly engaged the urban environment and the communities within it. Through his many projects—including large-scale architectural interventions in which he physically cut through buildings slated for demolition—Matta-Clark developed a singular and prodigious oeuvre that critically examined the structures of the built environment. With actions and experimentations across a wide range of media, his work transcended the genres of performance, conceptual, process, and land art, making him one of the most innovative and influential artists of his generation. As Roberta Smith notes, Matta-Clark ‘used his skills to reshape and transform architecture into an art of structural explication and spatial revelation.’1
This exhibition marks the first solo presentation of the artist’s work in London in over a decade and follows the recent institutional exhibitions SPLITTING, CUTTING, WRITING, DRAWING, EATING . . . GORDON MATTA-CLARK at Museu Serralves, Porto, Portugal (2017), and Gordon Matta-Clark: Mutation in Space at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (2018). The artist’s work is currently the focus of a critically acclaimed travelling exhibition, Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect, that was recently on view at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, and Jeu de Paume, Paris. Anarchitect continues in 2019 at the Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn, Estonia, and Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.
1Roberta Smith, ‘Back in the Bronx: Gordon Matta-Clark, Rogue Sculptor', The New York Times (January 11, 2018), accessed online.
Image: Gordon Matta-Clark creating Garbage Wall under the Brooklyn Bridge in 1970. © The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark
‘A resident of Greenwich Village from the age of six until he left to take up his studies at Cornell . . ., Matta-Clark would have grown up surrounded by construction sites; a map of the area from the New York Times in December 1957 showing developments under way locates one of the largest right on his doorstep. This was the “metamorphic New York” described by Saul Bellow in his novel Herzog, through which his eponymous hero wanders, surrounded by the burning pyres of torn-down buildings, his clothes and those of his fellow pedestrians streaked with ever-present ash.’ —James Attlee, ‘Towards Anarchitecture: Gordon Matta-Clark and Le Corbusier’, Tate Papers, Spring 2007
‘Matta-Clark . . . 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. . . . He was drawn to all sorts of architectural remnants, among them, interior walls exposed during demolition.’ —Roberta Smith, in a New York Times review of Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect, which debuted at The Bronx Museum of the Arts in 2018 and travels internationally through 2019
Matta-Clark executed the first Garbage Wall at Saint Mark’s Church in the East Village in 1970 as a temporary, stand-alone unit constructed with trash sourced from the streets. Emerging out of his observations of, and response to, New York’s infrastructural decline and growing homeless population during the seventies, this conceptual work—which Matta-Clark intended to be rebuilt and adapted to different locations by using found garbage from the specific city in which it is made—is representative of the artist’s overlapping commitment to art, architecture, activism, and civic engagement that was very much ahead of his time.
Two additional iterations of Garbage Wall were executed in New York during the artist’s lifetime: one at the alternative art space 112 Greene Street from October to December 1970 and the other for a group show held under the Brooklyn Bridge in 1971. The latter action is highlighted in the artist’s film Fire Child, which documents Matta-Clark constructing the wall.
‘By the mid-1960s, as the war in Vietnam progressed halfway into its second decade, a noticeable shift in civil engagement across the United States became apparent. . . . On March 6, 1970, a townhouse in Greenwich Village used as a bomb factory by five Weather Underground members accidentally exploded, leaving three dead. . . . The incident marked a clear end to the era of nonviolent protest and launched a new decade under the sign of destruction throughout the country and abroad. . . . For a young architect trained to work on solutions, the sight of New York City on the brink of anarchy might have stirred ambiguous feelings. . . . Symptoms of an aging urban infrastructure had somehow become too familiar—an environment where anyone might feel free to act upon a building, by removing a wall, or blowing it up—underlined a pressing need to rethink architecture and urban planning in the early 1970s.’ —Antonio Sergio Bessa, cocurator of Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect, which debuted at The Bronx Museum of the Arts in 2018 and travels internationally through 2019, in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition
Splitting (1974) is one of the artist’s most well-known architectural cuts in which he made a vertical slice through a suburban home in Englewood, New Jersey, that was slated for demolition. The film documents the process through which, over a period of several months, Matta-Clark made two parallel vertical cuts through all of the house’s structural surfaces; he then removed several of the foundation blocks on which it stood, making one half of the house lean slightly away from the other, creating a wedge-shaped interstice between the two sides. Before the building was demolished and removed in September 1974, he extracted the four upper corners of the structure, subsequently exhibiting them as freestanding sculptures.
The transformation of this vacant, quintessential suburban home, which for Matta-Clark represented the decay of the American dream, generated a series of uncanny and somewhat vertiginous photographs. This photo-collage depicts the front, back, and sides of the house at various stages of demolition.
Matta-Clark was attracted to the burgeoning graffiti culture in New York City in the early 1970s and saw it as representative of a new, democratic, and even revolutionary way to bring art out of the studio. In 1973, he began making Photoglyphs, a series of hand-coloured photographs of heavily spray-painted subway cars, which he printed on large scrolls to suggest the length of the trains. In addition, the artist produced a prodigious body of photographs depicting tightly cropped sections of graffiti, some of which he hand-coloured.
As Roberta Smith notes, ‘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.’
Office Baroque, one of the artist’s seminal architectural cuts, was made in 1977. The tear-shaped holes Matta-Clark sawed into the floors of a nondescript office building in Antwerp were derived from conceptually complex patterns of overlapping circles which systematically arced through the five floors of the structure.
The artist described this project as an ‘enforced opportunity . . . to develop ideas about spatial rhythm and complexity that I might otherwise never have done . . . an almost musical score in which a fixed set of elements played their way up and down through the layers.’
This work documents Jacob’s Ladder, a project that the artist carried out for documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany, in 1977. The artist had initially planned to develop an aerial dwelling site using rope connected to three or four chimneys some fifteen feet above ground. Instead, ‘He suspended three cables from the summit of the stack (securing them while clinging to the top rung of the steeplejack’s ladder affixed to the brickwork),’ art historian Thomas Crow writes; ‘he held the “floor” of this elongated triangular tent in place with battens about two meters apart and wrapped the whole in nylon netting. . . . Depending upon their confidence in the strength of the mesh, visitors could then climb to that thirty-story height, reaching from one batten to the next, without incurring the same risk of falling that Matta-Clark had incurred in his unsecured ascent to put the structure into place.’ The title of the installation was chosen by Matta-Clark for its analogy to the Old Testament and the story of Jacob’s dream, in which a staircase connects heaven and earth.
Matta-Clark’s drawings—which he made throughout his career—captured the interdisciplinary spirit that defined the art world in the 1970s. Intricate and yet concise, they testify to his interest in the crossovers between visual and performance arts, as well as the broader integration within his oeuvre of the natural and built environment. Trained in architecture, the artist keenly explored options for creating ‘breathing cities’ in treetops as well as below ground, subverting traditional ideas about urban planning.
‘In his drawings, as in his building cuts, Matta-Clark’s aim was to reconfigure a new structure. He would call his cutting “drawing” as he incised and sliced through buildings, as if a chain saw were a graphic tool. Conversely, the drawings are concrete physical manifestations in paper of that relation. His drawings could be literally cut into, approximating the intersecting and overlapping viewpoints of his sliced buildings.’ —Briony Fer, in Gordon Matta-Clark: The Beginning of Trees and the End, Drawings and Notebooks, published by David Zwirner Books on the occasion of Gordon Matta-Clark: Energy & Abstraction, David Zwirner, New York, 2015
Invited by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, to create a work in a nearby house, Matta-Clark decided to make a series of circular cuts throughout the interior of the narrow structure. As Thomas Crow notes, the resulting work, which was to be the last of the artist’s career, ‘was a spectacular, spherically shaped volume that took shape amid the right angles of the house’s conventional interior. [Matta-Clark] called the piece alternately Circus or Caribbean Orange, the latter title offering mordant homage to the February climate in which the work had to be completed (. . . the cuts went all the way through the roof), as well as marking a return to his favorite analogy between cutting buildings and slicing food.’
Toward the end of his career, Matta-Clark started to make large-format Cibachrome prints from 35-millimeter slides that he cut up, collaged, and then enlarged. The formal and thematic sensibility of this work, which gives detailed expression to notions of scale, perspective, and instability, shows the artist’s ingenuity in combining photography with the medium of architecture.