Gordon Matta-Clark is known primarily for his ‘building cuts’—geometric lines and sections sliced out of structures slated for demolition—but his practice ranged across almost the entire territory of 70s avant-garde art: from site-specific work to performance, from process art to film. Common to the vast bulk of his œuvre, however, is the notion of impermanence, of things doomed to decay or disappear: trays full of mouldering organic material, meals made entirely of bones, incisions into houses that were soon to be razed. As he himself put it in 1973, his works were ‘designed for collapse, failure, absence and memory’.
All the more ironic, then, that there has been a resurgence of interest in his work in recent years, when little remains of his output besides photographs, films and the reminiscences of his contemporaries. Since his death in 1978, there have been retrospective exhibitions in Chicago, Valencia, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Vienna, Rome and Glasgow—all but one of them in the 1990s. The critical literature on his work has gathered pace, too, with the first scholarly monograph—Pamela Lee’s Object to be Destroyed (2000)—now followed by Phaidon’s lavishly produced volume, notable for the impressive survey by Thomas Crow and the quantity of illustrations and documents reproduced. The book testifies to the variety and dynamism of Matta-Clark’s art, the most critical aspects of which have perhaps been overlooked by those (principally architecture students) for whom he has virtually become the object of cult-worship. There are, moreover, few signs that these elements have been absorbed into contemporary practice. Though recent studies have opened up several avenues of interpretation, it is his insistent engagement with capitalism’s spatial contradictions that seems most urgently to speak to the present.
Born in 1943 in New York, Matta-Clark was the son of the Chilean painter Roberto Matta Echaurren, and grew up in the bohemian circles frequented by many of the exiled Surrealists—Duchamp’s wife was his godmother, and he was named after Gordon Onslow Ford, the English painter. Though his parents separated only a few months after his birth—and that of his twin brother, Batan—he stayed in contact with his father and often visited him in France and Italy. His fluent French, cosmopolitan upbringing and ability to switch between European and American cultural milieux distinguished him from many of his peers in the New York art scene of the early 70s. Another key difference lay in his training in architecture at Cornell between 1962–68, where he developed a profound aversion to what he termed the ‘surface formalism’ of his teachers, such as Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves, members of the ‘New York Five’. Here Matta-Clark’s ideas resonated, perhaps consciously, with the Surrealists’ critique of Le Corbusier. Matta père had briefly worked for the latter in Paris, and in 1938 published an article in Minotaure arguing for an ‘architecture of time’, with ‘walls like damp sheets which lose their shapes and wed our psychological fears’, as a counter to Le Corbusier’s rational geometry. But Matta-Clark had less abstract objections to the triumph of the International Style, having witnessed, on the one hand, the use of a debased modernism for mass housing, and on the other the transformation of the Bauhaus’s legacy into the architectural vernacular of corporate America.
Matta-Clark’s beginnings as an artist lie in some temporary, site-specific pieces executed in Ithaca in the late sixties. An exhibition at Cornell in 1969 provided him with the opportunity to meet several of the key figures in ‘Land Art’, including Robert Smithson, Richard Long and Robert Morris. The sculptor Dennis Oppenheim was his conduit to the New York gallery scene, where his early contributions—photographs fried and sprinkled with gold leaf, vats of decomposing moulds in agar—clearly resonated with the ‘process art’ of Richard Serra or Eva Hesse, as well as with Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘dirt’ paintings. Many critics have pointed to the influence of Smithson’s attention to entropy, the inevitable decay built into many site-specific pieces. In the present volume, Thomas Crow singles out Matta-Clark’s interest in alchemy, an esoteric leaning balanced by a grounding in Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism. For Crow, the notion of ‘ingredients’ can be seen as a ‘semantic lynchpin’ for Matta-Clark’s work as a whole, tying the bubbling vats to the building cuts; in altering the make-up of a house or oozing substance, the artist transposed it to a new location in a fluid system of qualities—open/closed, edible/inedible, static/dynamic.
Matta-Clark seems, by all accounts, to have been a vital presence in the SoHo art scene; the restaurant—named ‘Food’—he and his then-partner set up in 1971 was not only a rare venue for dining out in a decaying, light-manufacturing area; it was also the venue for countless discussions and performances, including ‘meals’ prepared by guest chefs such as Rauschenberg and Donald Judd. During this period Matta-Clark converted a number of ex-industrial lofts into studios for himself and his colleagues, which provided both income and inspiration for the building cuts that were to make his name. He began to treat architectural space as a malleable object in its own right, a process many saw as a logical extension of the ‘expanded field’ of sculpture announced by Land Art. In 1974 he made Splitting, which involved vertically slicing in two a suburban house in Englewood, nj. He bevelled down the top coursing of the brick foundations on one side, and then lowered that section of the house back onto its now slanted base. The result was an aperture that widened from the bottom up, letting a lance of light in to illuminate the abandoned rooms. Serra, who was among the busload of Manhattanites who came to view the piece, saw it as minimalism writ large, a work whose rigour was spoiled when Matta-Clark continued and sliced away the top four corners of the building. John Baldessari, meanwhile, saw it as ‘messy minimalism’ with a surreal element: the dreamlike yielding of solid material to the individual will.
But Matta-Clark’s interest in the social dynamics of his site—the structures he chose as emblematic of particular material circumstances and relations—complicates the picture. His political instincts were already manifest in 1971, when he organized a boycott of the São Paulo Biennale in protest at the military dictatorship, trying (unsuccessfully) to set up an alternative event in Allende’s Chile. While in Santiago that year, he did a piece in the National Museum of Fine Art—due for structural renovation—that brought daylight to the basement of the building via a series of mirrors and cuts in the walls; Crow aptly describes this as an ‘allegory of political redemption’. Back in New York, Matta-Clark’s attention had turned to the outlying boroughs that had now been forsaken by the city’s authorities. In 1972 he roamed the abandoned housing blocks of the Bronx, cutting sections from the floors and exhibiting the excised material, along with photographs of the space vacated, in downtown galleries. The following year—long before it became a fashionable technique of painting, as in Basquiat or Haring—he exhibited photographs of graffiti on subway trains, along with sections of his car, which he had encouraged inhabitants of the Bronx to decorate with spraypaint. By bringing the traces of his interventions in marginalized areas back to Manhattan, Matta-Clark was signalling the widening gap between the two.
The distance was graphically demonstrated in a 1976 exhibition at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Research. Having proposed a modest building cut, he turned up with photographs of shattered windows in Bronx housing estates, shot out all the venue’s windows with an air rifle, and placed the images in the casements. The Institute’s director, Peter Eisenman—a former teacher of Matta-Clark’s—was enraged, hysterically comparing the act to Kristallnacht. But as Crow points out, by immediately ordering the windows to be repaired, Eisenman in effect completed the piece: underscoring the difference between downtown, where broken glass was intolerable even for a few hours, and the Bronx, where such dilapidation was an ongoing, everyday condition.