Gordon Matta-Clark

at Rhona Hoffman Gallery,

through February 11

In 1976, New York’s prestigious Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies mounted an exhibit in its elegant Manhattan brownstone called “Idea as Model”: the goal was to present architects’ models as “conceptual statements,” according to the curator. Many well-known architects were invited to contribute, as well as Gordon Matta-Clark, a young artist who’d been trained as an architect but never designed a building. Matta-Clark saw some of the architectural models while the show was being installed, then went to devastated areas of the South Bronx and took photographs of buildings with broken or blown-out windows. On the morning of the show’s opening he arrived at the institute at 3 AM, installed eight of his photos in the spaces between the gallery windows, then shot out all the windows with an air gun. “He brought the South Bronx into the bastion of modern architecture,” recalls his widow, Jane Crawford. Matta-Clark called his contribution Window Blow-Out.

When the institute’s fellows saw it, they were appalled and had the windows replaced and Matta-Clark’s photos removed in time for the opening reception. Only the eight photos survive; they’re mounted in a grid, also called Window Blow-Out, which constitutes one of the 60 Matta-Clark works now on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

Matta-Clark and some of his colleagues in the 60s wanted to forge a connection between symbolic thought and action, between art and life, erasing the traditional Western distinction between art and action in the real world. When he shot out the institute’s windows, he declared war on the idea of art as an idealized, symbolic “model” of the artist’s elite, aestheticized conceptions.

Matta-Clark’s confrontational attitude can also be seen in Window Cutout, though here he attacks the “perfection” of modernist architecture. A black-and-white photograph shows a Mies-like curtain-wall building facade, each window contained in an identical rectangular frame. Cut out from the center of the photo is a large right-angled polygon, its borders mostly following the windows’ edges. Itself a kind of attack on the paper, this cut is truly unsettling: a void seems to grow out of the familiar rectilinear symmetries of the International style.

For Matta-Clark, conventional buildings were too separate from the outside world–one of his goals was to open them to light and air. In another photo, Splitting (1974), he cut out portions of a house’s front and back porches wherever the porches opened to the outdoors. He also cut this photo down the middle, splitting the house in two from its top down. And over several months he actually cut a giant wedge down the middle of the actual structure, a modest two-story home slated for demolition in Englewood, New Jersey.

Born in New York City in 1943 to Anne Clark and the noted Chilean-born surrealist painter Roberto Matta, and raised by his mother in New York, Paris, and California, Matta-Clark quickly became a charismatic figure in the New York art world after moving there in 1969. Before his death from cancer in 1978, he was known as someone who helped other artists and sought to stimulate serious dialogue and as an energetic if quirky dancer at parties. He cofounded an informal group called “Anarchitecture,” and himself worked in a wide variety of media–drawing, photography, film, video, performance, installation. Yet his works seldom fit any existing genre. He declared the SoHo restaurant he cofounded, named Food, a work of art. Once, to make a statement about air pollution, he set up a cart with a tank of fresh air on Manhattan streets (a sketch for which is included in this show) and invited passersby to breathe from it. And he made many sketches for temporary or permanent dwellings in unused spaces: plans for an open “room” of rope suspended between several smokestacks, and a sketch for a dwelling attached to the top of a flagpole.

No gallery show could hope to fully capture this protean artist, whose works often don’t have much impact unless one hears the whole story behind them. Laurie Anderson, a friend of Matta-Clark’s in the early 70s, considers what he said about his works “part of the work itself.” She recalls “feeling frustrated with Gordon’s shows…because without the talk, the background, the thing that was left was really blank. The life was out of it.” Fortunately Rhona Hoffman, who knew Matta-Clark, can provide much information, and the gallery has available a collection of catalogs and articles.

It’s possible to appreciate many aspects of the “Realty Position: Fake Estates” series of 1973-’74, eight of which are in this show, without background information. Elegantly displayed in one or two groupings (in posthumous layouts by Matta-Clark’s widow and a curator to reflect the artist’s intent) are a deed to a piece of New York City property made out to Matta-Clark or one of his friends showing that it’s been purchased for less than $100, one or more city maps showing the property’s precise location, a single photo of the whole tract, and rows of close-ups, collaged by Matta-Clark himself, showing every inch of it. This radically antiestablishment artist had not suddenly become an “estate” owner, however: these are just tiny slivers of land, often only a few feet wide, unusable parcels available because, for example, developers failed to pay taxes on land no one could build on anyway, often inaccessible because they were surrounded by private property.

There’s a long tradition of paintings and photographs of possessions as substitutes for the real things: a grand and flattering image of a loved one, for example, or of one’s home or land. It’s a tradition that reveals the kind of bourgeois possessiveness Matta-Clark came to hate, and that he attacked in “Fake Estates.” Though we see the deed and images of every bit of the property, the photos are collaged in a way that breaks the link between image and ownership.

The “land” in Jamaica Curb Block 10142 Lot 15 is a narrow strip of grass between a sidewalk and a street. Above the deed 24 photos are collaged in a long line, showing the whole length of the property; we see grass, twigs, garbage, and parts of the sidewalk and street. Unlike 19th-century panoramas, in which carefully matched photos of a landscape are placed almost seamlessly together to create a smooth 360-degree view, Matta-Clark’s photos are taken from different camera angles and overlapped or juggled to achieve a “continuous” view. The almost arbitrary, jagged result reveals that photography is an artifice that can never “capture” reality.

But doubtless it was even more important to Matta-Clark to attack the whole notion of property ownership. Buying the parcels, he said, “was my own take on the strangeness of existing property demarcation lines.” It’s important to know that his original intent was that the purchaser of one of these works–though none was sold in his lifetime–would also get title to the property, receiving minuscule but annoying property-tax bills for a “possession” no one could use.

Matta-Clark’s objections to “existing property demarcation lines” and to modernist architecture were part of a grand utopian vision: he sought to deconstruct all the symbolic and social systems that separate people from people, structures from structures, and people from the physical world. He also sought to destroy traditional hierarchies of value–the twigs and pebbles and grass of the “Fake Estates” are lovingly presented, as if they had the same importance Velazquez gave the King of Spain in his portraits of Philip IV.

Property lines, barriers, walls are not merely symbolic or architectural–they have a deeply social dimension. When Matta-Clark was in Berlin in 1976, his New York dealer, Holly Solomon, received a panicky phone call from a curator in Germany who was “terrified that Gordon was going to make a cut in the Berlin Wall,” Solomon says. “I called Gordon and told him–as your dealer you probably should tell me where all your work is, I’d like to keep track of your estate. I understand you’re going to cut through the Berlin Wall and they’re going to kill you.” In a rare instance of compromise, Matta-Clark restrained himself and settled for graffiti: small “Made in America” signs and U.S. and USSR flags.

By then Matta-Clark had already executed complex cuttings of a number of buildings. He removed much of the front of a house, exhibiting some of the pieces in a gallery; he opened an abandoned pier building to the sky and the water. Talking about viewing his architectural cuttings in a 1978 interview with Judith Russi Kirshner, he said, “You have to walk….There are certain kinds of pieces that can be summarized very quickly from a single view….And then there are other ones…which have a kind of internal complexity which doesn’t allow for a single and overall view, which I think is a good thing….It [defies] the category of snapshot picture or a sort of snapshot scenic work….It defies the whole object quality [of] sculpture.”

A 1978 cutting with two alternative titles, Circus or The Caribbean Orange–the work that occasioned the Kirshner interview–was executed for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Matta-Clark was offered a three-story brownstone, which the museum owned and planned to renovate, in which to make a cutting. It turned out to be one of his most complex, but sadly neither it nor any of his other cuttings survive. He always insisted that the building itself, not the documentation, was the work; however, the four photographic collages of Circus in the show are extraordinary in themselves.

Matta-Clark’s cuts follow vast arcs extending from floors across walls to ceilings, each one removing material several feet in width. The collages piece together several shots adorned with bright strips of solid color. One shows a neatly arranged kitchen seen from eye level, its rectangular cabinets, sink, oven, and dishwasher laid out along three perpendicular walls, with a large curved cut in the floor. An adjacent image, taken from the floor below, shows the same cut–now in the ceiling–through which we see the lower portions of the same appliances. The cuts connect disparate rooms, destroying the usual distinctions of conventional domestic architecture. In another photo collage, a shot in which the camera is aimed parallel to the floor is juxtaposed with three others taken from oblique angles, creating a dense collision of arcs, straight edges, and the varying light patterns produced by the windows and cuts. These images are hard to read, even disorienting; ordinary household decor has been torn apart and become something else.

A variety of intersecting and contradictory impulses and meanings are at play in these photo collages. The bright colors, repeated arcs, and various patterns of daylight convey an almost musical aesthetic and a rare lyrical beauty. But there’s also a feeling of danger: Can one walk about without falling in? Will this cutaway building continue to stand? The arcs contrast with the building’s right angles, an organic element in these self-enclosed boxes. The cuts destroy the usual separation between substructure and finished rooms. Of necessity support beams are left in, and so for the first time since its erection we can see how the building was constructed: we seemingly view the house as it’s being built and as it’s coming down. Matta-Clark the revealer of urban infrastructures is here also a kid full of wonder, taking an alarm clock apart for the first time.

Though these photos are true to Matta-Clark’s unconventional ideals, they also reveal an attention to articulation and order common to the mainstream aesthetic tradition. Construction, deconstruction, and the collaging of the cut spaces into new forms come together like fragments of a puzzle or disparate images in a poem. Dissecting and transforming the world in order to create a new, larger whole, Matta-Clark reproduces the many contrary impulses of consciousness itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Circus” by Gordon Matta-Clark.