BY Jeff Rian in Features | 05 JUN 93
Featured in
Issue 11

Rocking the Foundation

Gordon Matta-Clark

BY Jeff Rian in Features | 05 JUN 93

The abbreviated bio might go something like this: Born Gordon Matta, 1943, the son of surrealist painter Roberto Matta Echaurren; grew up partly in Paris, mostly in New York; studied at the prestigious Cornell School of Architecture; supported most of his life by his estranged father. In 1971 he co-founded a 'health food' restaurant in SoHo called Food, where artists were sometimes guest-chefs.

He became the carver of whole buildings; he survived the suicide of his twin brother in 1976, and died less than two years later of pancreatic cancer on August 27, 1978. His was a brief but intense life; his career lasting barely ten years.

by Jeff Rian

Like his father, Matta-Clark studied architecture before turning to art. In 1968, when he was an architecture student at Cornell, Matta-Clark, then still Gordon Matta, made an impossible-to-traverse, temporary site piece called Rope Bridge, which was suspended over a spillway outside of Ithaca, where Cornell is located. The following year the first major Earth Art exhibition was held at Cornell. It included Dennis Oppenheim, Walter De Maria, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson. Matta-Clark assisted Oppenheim in cutting a swath across a frozen lake to make an impermanent landscape drawing called Beebe Lake Ice Cut. Matta-Clark discovered that the common goal of these artists was to move art outside the galleries and beyond traditional materials. This may have been a revelation to him, because the new art was as extreme as Surrealism, yet it borrowed formal elements from architecture and engineering.

This, of course, was the time of 'happenings' and 'sit-ins', when words like 'pieces' or 'works' or 'projects' were used to describe art. It began an age of broken perspectives, of pandemic information, of a 'whole Earth' mindset of recycling and global change. The spirit of 'objecthood' was being undermined by the spirit of idea and an abstract notion of place. Nature had become a 'found object' and the world a museum. Ephemerality and action were favoured over permanence, and past act preserved. Earth art and all forms of temporary art - whether Fluxiste or site-specific or performed - were the antidotes to the endgame that Minimalism was playing with the spirit of 1912. And the propitious year 1968, marked an end and a beginning.

After Cornell, Gordon Matta turned his interest completely to art, joining Earth work artists, performance artists and public art artists, such as Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Lawrence Weiner, et al., in an attempt to invigorate art by deinstitutionalising it. Matta-Clark would eventually attack architecture like a proto-graffitist with a chainsaw, exposing its heart and soul. He cut, disembowelled and dismembered buildings and homes; he became an 'unbuilder' of places where social impact first occurs - places where functional and dysfunctional identities are shaped and where the cosmology of space and time is inculcated.

Gordon Matta's first gallery works had to do with the culinary arts, which he saw as homespun alchemy involving selection, preparation, and, of course, cooking. Photo Fry (1969) used a cast-iron stove rigged with a gas burner. In a skillet, he fried photographs in oil, producing a permeating smell in the John Gibson Gallery for the show's duration. Some of these photo-frites became Beuys or Rauschenberg-like multiples - fried, gold-leafed, and gift-wrapped photographs he'd set in little cardboard boxes and labelled in his neat architectural hand.

The alchemy of cooking soon evolved to the ecology of recycling. In Agar (1969-70) he grew mould in large tin sheets, using agar and water mixed with food-matter (sugar, yeast, sperm-oil, Pet-milk, juice, chocolate Yoohoo etc...); metal-based ingredients (gold leaf, screws, tacks), and bacterial strains (such as Penicillium Notatum). Over time he added to his concoction, letting it dry and flake. The in June of 1970, he exhibited hardened, scab-like parts of it on vines that festooned the walls of the Bykert Gallery, the bastion of Minimalism. Here he blended a salon-style hanging, Duchampian alchemy (anti-art matter recontextualised as art), and recycling, and gave it a title that epitomises preservation: Museum.

In the basement of Jeffrey Lew's alternative space at 112 Greene Street, he did another recycled artwork, digging a deep hole to plant a cherry tree; planting mushrooms; collecting bottles and smelting them into 'commemorative ingots.' Finally, he enclosed the hole for Time Well, and buried the remains of the tree along with fruits and pits in a ceramic crypt.

The following year he added his mother's maiden name of Clark to distinguish himself from his estranged father who, ever since Gordon's childhood had been preoccupied with his own mythologising. Now Gordon Matta-Clark, he expanded his artistic output in film and video, working on a number of site-specific pieces and performances, photographing them, and making drawings and notes for future works.

In May of 1971 an exhibition celebrating the anniversary of the Brooklyn bridge was held in the piers under the bridge. Along with Matta-Clark, it included Minimalist heavies Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Richard Nonas, along with Mark Di Suvero, films by Rudy Burckhardt, and performances by Mabou Mines. For his work, called Jacks, Matta-Clark piled up debris around abandoned cars that he 'jacked up' to appear strewn, like pieces in the game of jacks. Choosing existing, often neglected, structures would become the starting point of his intended reclamation. Here he commented on urban renewal.

During the Brooklyn Bridge show he also made a film called Fire Boy about the debris gathering of curbside campers. He culminated the exhibition with Pig Roast - an open-house barbecue 'happening', using Jacks as mise en scène.

Photographs of Jacks appeared in Avalanche, an art magazine founded by Willoughby Sharp and Liza Bear, using the subtitle 'jacks: the autodemolition debris zone ripoff imitation neighbourhood group action cars abandoned raised propped dismantled and removed 24 hours service.' The unpunctuated subtitle not only fitted the fast, interpenetrating discursive thinking for which he was well-known, but imitated the 'concrete' poems of Fluxus poets (e.g. Jackson MacLow) and post-Pound haikuists who constellated words in an algebra of signs.

For Matta-Clark, titling was a way to use word plays, puns, and homonyms: to create allusions and interconnections. This additive process fitted his idea about transformation and recycling; each manifestation of a work probing and questioning the propriety of exhibition spaces, the value of hieratic monuments, and the industrial world's fragmenting of space into zones of production and consumption.

Nevertheless, politics was still a subtext of art - only now the world was a palette and you never missed an opportunity to jest or to get people involved. Robert Smithson blended sci-fi and prehistoric utopianism with land reclamation: Vito Acconci wanted audiences of the Scientising Age to join him in exposing or revealing the body as cosmic generator: Dennis Oppenheim used the land and his body as a canvas. These weren't cabalists: they were trying to declassify art; they were hooked into a systems mode and a pansensory aesthetic. Matta-Clark felt that the new art could sway and inspire, and that audiences, including the dispossessed, would have a natural affinity to 'outsider' or 'post-studio' art, as Carl Andre had recently coined it. Ultimately, this tactic would also fail. More than ever, critics were needed for the support system, thus paving the way for cabalists of the 80s.

In June of 1971 Matta-Clark participated in opening the restaurant Food. A commercial performance project, it was a New World cousin of Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth's 'food' editions, and of Daniel Spoerri's Restaurant Spoerri and Eat Art Gallery in Düsseldorf. Only Food was commercial and 'food theater' survived until the late 80s. Several performances were held there. In Bone, meat and chicken bones were strung as necklaces. Matta-Clark also made his first architectural 'cuttings' at Food, using its walls to make 'sandwiches'.

That same year he was one of 27 artists to participate in an exhibition called Projects: Pier 18 organised by MoMA and Willoughby Sharp. Matta-Clark did an untitled work in which he suspended himself upside-down above piled-up trees and debris. At Vassar, he filmed and photographed a similar work called Tree Dance - a tree-house network of nylon pods and rope ladders in which he suspended himself. In both works he put himself in the structure as inhabitant, pushing the space and its contents to an extreme. In his Fourth Street loft he extracted part of his environment, sawing his sauna in half and showing the severed half as a free-standing sculpture.

Around this time, galleries promoted one of their most impressive coups de main of the century by exhibiting 'documentation' as art, using photographs and texts as evidence, or mnemonic stand-ins, for events that would otherwise only survive as gossip. This became Conceptualism's answer to sculpture and painting. Matta-Clark developed his now-famous, cubist-like photo-collages, which he created as spatial analogues to the sites and which are how we now know his most salient projects.

Between his apartment cuttings and eventual building cuts, he created moveable architecture, nomadic art, and works about dispossession. Open House (1972), also called Drag-On or Dumpster was a portable house in a dumpster made of discarded materials. He had 'professional' graffitists tag a panel truck - Graffiti Truck (1973) - that was eventually dismembered and its back quarter-panel shown as a free-standing floor piece. He also made an anecdotal film called Fresh Kill (1972), about his red panel truck named Herman Meydag, which was crushed to death by a bulldozer and relinquished to the city's seagull-infested dump.

During the early 70s, civil rights, anti-war, and ecology movements were attempts to bring margins to centres. This was, inherently, an Industrial Age supply tactic that counter-culturalists applied to social integration and used to oppose the 'disintegration' that the Vietnam war had created. At the time, everyone was affected by a rampant paranoia stemming from generational differences - the wildest since the wild boys of 1912. Matta-Clark, however, was less a propagandist for his generation than an instigator or questioner of sanctioned zones of place.

The many discussions among the Food group and other artists led to concepts about architecture in antithetical terms. One idea they explored was termed 'anarchitecture', meaning a combination of anarchy and architecture that focused on voids, gaps and leftover spaces. Another was 'Non-ument', which was a way to treat presence as absence, or to discuss a phenomenon in terms of what it was not. These discussions inspired Matta-Clark to look for actual places to apply these ideas, such as abandoned buildings and homes.

It wasn't until Matta-Clark applied that same energy to 'unbuilding', that his peculiar relationship to architecture and art became his 'anarchitectural' métier. In Italy in 1973 he did two projects. The first was in an abandoned warehouse outside Milan, where he cut a right-angled triangle through the perpendicular intersection of two block walls for a work called Intraform. The second, called A W-Hole House: Roof Top Atrium and Datum Cut, was made in Genoa. It was a 'cutting' that involved making increasingly larger radical cuts through an entire house; first cutting off its pointed apex, then cutting larger squares throughout. All of these works we now know from photographs.

The centrepiece of his 'non-umental' work was Splitting (1974). Horace and Holly Solomon had bought a property in Englewood, New Jersey that had a house on it they were going to demolish. From March until June Matta-Clark worked on it. He sawed the entire structure in two, then had it drawn and quartered and dismembered. Later, he showed parts in Splitting Four Corners. This was classic Matta-Clark: a house cut in two - its identity disintegrated. The cosmologic centre of the family unit, and the locus in which identity is shaped and through which one interfaces with the world was severed - as his own had been in childhood. This was a career-making work, influencing artists, and maybe a few architects. it was the antithesis of Frank Lloyd Wright's form and function; but like Wright's work, it shifted a box from its centre - a Cubist's tactic. It even prefigured the exfoliating architecture of Frank Gehry.

From Splitting he soon gained access to other contemporary ruins - the entire West was now a museum of the Industrial age. For a work called Bingo (1974), he cut out all but the centre rectangle of nine 5'x 9' sections on the side wall of a condemned house in Niagara Falls, parts of which he later showed at the John Gibson Gallery, along with pieces from Splitting. In Day's End (1975), he cut part of a circle out of the end wall of a pier and a section of the floor over the water. This was an unsanctioned work for which the city sued him, but eventually dropped the charges - the city was in bad financial straits.

The element of danger in these later pieces had become commonplace. In earlier works the sites were on the periphery, for example in places where the homeless 'resided' or where gangs hung out. Now, the buildings he eviscerated were spaces one had to enter cautiously, where accidents could occur, because he'd severely compromised their integrity as secure refuges.

For the Paris Biennial, in September 1975, he incised a cone shape into the side of a 17th century house at Les Halles that rose at 45° into an adjacent building. This was already a place plagued by controversy, because of the remodelling of an old market district and because the architecturally mutant Centre Georges Pompidou was raising hackles. The cone shape was chiselled out of the building entirely by hand. From inside the building one could have a periscopic view of the city; but city officials were miffed and closed the site as soon as it was completed.

Afterwards, repeating his festal Pig Roast, for an event called Cuisse de Boeuf, he roasted 750 pounds of beef outside the Pompidou and made sandwiches that he gave to the public.

He had a few other problems as well. Finding sites was difficult enough. He was also criticised for destroying structures where homeless people might live. This was the opposite of his intentions, and ignored the reality of the sites themselves. Then, in 1976, Gordon's twin Batan (a nickname for Sebastian) killed himself by jumping out of Gordon's studio window. The next year Gordon made homages to his brother, an artist whom he described as less outgoing and more sensitive than himself. For Documenta VI he made Jacob's Ladder, which was similar to his early Rope Bridge piece but used a factory chimney. And at the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris he dug a deep hole in the basement floor, called Descending Steps for Batan.

Where Jacob's Ladder rose heavenward, his work at Yvon Lambert went underground. In a sense, the death of his twin halved him, and these lower-world/upper-world works were a way to work through his loss. But Matta-Clark would die within 18 months.

Before his death he completed two major works, Office Baroque, in Antwerp in 1977, and Circus-Caribbean Orange, at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, in 1978. Both used circle cut-outs in the buildings (Caribbean Orange referred to a laterally cut orange: and used three rings like a circus), and both relied on a schematic design that was imposed into the architecture. They were not classic Matta-Clark, as Splitting had been; their design was preplanned and imposed into a space. They did, however, relate more closely to his drawings.

Matta-Clark filled numerous sketchbooks and made countless drawings, many relating to his performance works. His first drawings bore a strong stylistic affinity to the 'automatic' drawings of his father. They were crossbred with an architect's use of shape, form and movement, but there was a cartoon quality as well. Generally they combined motion and energy. Arrows were a common device, which he used to illustrate energy or movement, often blending light washes with an overlay of whirling arrows. Some would leap and spin traces of line and soft colour. Around 1973 he made his first cut out and overlay drawings, using his building cuts as a model, thus combining an architectural style with a sculptural one. A 1975 series of political cut-drawings called Hammer and Sycle played on the words 'sickle' and 'cycle' (always the punster).

When he died he left many incomplete and unstarted projects, including a rehabilitation planned for the Lower East Side in which the entire community would participate in improving the neighbourhood ecology. He reconciled with his father as he was dying and he left an indelible imprint on art.

Those who knew him speak of his ebullient energy, his excited conversations and brilliant leaps of thought and imagination. Maybe his energy should be cross-referenced with a personal struggle, Freudian stuff: abandonment by the father whom he wanted to please: social concerns driven partly by guilt, because he had financial freedom, and partly by an altruistic urge arising from the politics of the global village. To that energy add breeding, will, need, resources, and timing.

Matta-Clark also shared the attitude of a counter-culture attempting regeneration by undermining an 'over-culture' of rear-gazing power-brokers. If the youth movement of 1912 blasted 'Victorian vistas,' the tyros of '68 lambasted the Americanisation of space. (In 1970 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.) Comedy and satire were often both foil and weapon. While proffering innocence, you slapped the arch Father whom you feared - whether the police, war-mongerers like L.B.J., or Kenneth Clark and his cavalcade of Great Men. Ultimately, the regeneration didn't work.

Looking back, we can see how mechanisation, photography and the newspaper engendered a myriad Cubists that led to Minimalism's endgame; we can see Pop Art's relationship to magazine consumerism; we see how the iconography of post-Minimalist or non-studio art was influenced by the electronic re-mapping of space. Matta-Clark's generation was the first to awaken to changes brought on by electronic communications. They were also among the last to be educated by unmediated literacy. They tore away at the foundations in which they were rooted if only to keep up with the technologies that were quickly undermining space/time relationships.

A world of open ranges can create an unstable sense of place and time and possibly evoke, if one could imagine, a nostalgia for the present, which is the kind of romanticism sci-fi engenders. Today's art is the product of shifts that occurred then; the indifference to history echoes the alteration in those space/time relationships.

Ultimately success in art comes down to the quality of the output. Audiences complete art by sanctioning it. The artists of the 1968 generation did not bring down the art world. They did create unprecedented diversity in art that spawned the souvenir modernism of the 80s and also expanded the possibilities of art, which, to the unprepared or unskilled, can cause profound anxiety. Their own moralising, albeit couched in altruism, was the prototype for the vitriolic politics in art today, as well as for its current anxiety.