Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitectural Practitioner

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What does it mean to be born the son of the renowned Chilean Surrealist painter Robert Matta? One can only assume Gordon Matta-Clark added his mother’s last name to the end of his father’s last name in order to distinguish himself from his father’s overbearing popularity. And yet, it’s as if Matta-Clark foresaw something else, something akin to his life’s work. It’s as if Matta-Clark was neither Matta nor Clark but the hyphen (-) in between the two, the punctuation mark joining together these separate syllables, the hyphenation, the syllabification, the very punctum1 accentuating the name, the cut, the minus, the negation, the splitting in two, the break, the cutting between names, unbuilding the architecture of language, turning the self into a dialectic, becoming double, an act of mimesis. Did Matta-Clark cut into his name first and then cut into buildings? There’s no doubt, when Matta-Clark cuts into buildings, he cuts into our brains, he cuts us off from our expectations, and cuts in light, in order to cut modernization with a critique of the abandoned, the neglected, the overlooked, while minding the act of expending, the potentiality of entropy, and the alchemy of art.

We can read about his life and point to three key periods in which Matta-Clarks was exposed to particular ideas that would supply him with a theoretical framework to work around.

The first period was during his study at Cornell University. Although Gordon Matta-Clark received a formal architectural education here, he obviously did not practice convention architecture, but instead, investigated what he (and his colleagues) called Anarchitecture.2 At this time, the architecture program at Cornell University was run by Colin Rowe, a major intellectual influence on the modern world of architecture and urbanism. Known for his criticism of the modernist revolution in architecture, which he saw as an utter failure, Rowe denounced the destructive effects modernist urban planning had on the historic city, and the social body, emphasizing the conceptual relationship between modernity and tradition. He was also a lead thinker in the movement toward conceptualism within circles of aesthetic practitioners. Contextualism emphasizes the context in which an action, utterance, or expression occurs; and many argued that, in some important respect, the action, utterance, or expression can only be understood relative to that context. This tending toward context-dependent interpretation, helped to remind art of its making.

The second period occured when Matta-Clark spent a year studying French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. In fact, he was in Paris during the student strikes of May 1968. Here he became aware of French deconstructionism, Guy Debord and the Situationists, esp. the concept of detournement. Detournement – originally a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist Iternational, described by them as “turning expressions of capitalism against itself,” – is “the ruse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble,” or variation on a previous media work and to re-appropriate expressions in new ensembles that antagonize or act in an antithetical manner to the original.2 The opposition of the new message combats the commodification and normalization of everyday life. For Matta-Clark to detourn and defamiliarize the abandoned site, by radically altering the existing structure, the dilapidated building, he in turn provides a new perspective, exposing us to new meanings, esp. those behaviors behind modern architecture, and alludes very graphically to the failed social edification of modernism at large. Matta-Clark seems to draft and execute the animalistic qualities of design through undesign. He dealt with the social dimension played out through the terms of architectural space.

The third period takes place in 1969 when Matta-Clark was living in Ithaca. The curator of the Earth Art show at Cornell University, William Sharp, invited Matta-Clark to help the artists involved with on-site execution of their works. It was here he met Robert Smithson, whose 1968 essay The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects provided a critical framework for the movement.

But Matta-Clark seemed to feel that earth art often escaped the urban problem, and ran into the wilderness, thereby becoming autonomously alienated from the common person, or rather, did nothing for them. He felt more inclined toward the social issues embedded within the production of the cityscape. And it was primarily in SoHo where Matta-Clark in the 1970s explored these social tensions between built space and emergent communies, consequentially, the individual in the middle of it all. It is clear that opening the first restaurant in the then rundown SoHo, Food, both owned and staffed by artists, points to this; not to mention, the numerous times he held pig roasts under the Brooklyn Bridge. He would often use food as a way to bring people together around social issues and turn them on to the work of artists within these neighborhoods. There was a general reaction and disagreement with Modernism from the social issue, notoriously spearheaded by Clement Greenberg; but we can see how the ideas of Colin Rowe and Guy Debord and Robert Smithson moved through discussions on aesthetics during this time and helped to play a critical role in shaping the way Matta-Clark described his own work.

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Considering Day’s End: What does it mean for an artist to believe that regulations might compromise one’s work and that any compromise would in turn devalue the work of art? Does an artist have to become criminal in a society that criminalizes the free part of expression in order to be honest as an artist? Matta-Clark plainly acknowledged his inherent right to the city, his right to space, by autonomously throwing the light of his persona into these neglected, invisible, ambiguous spaces.

On the one end, Matta-Clark is something like a termite, eating away at this idea of the home being the machine for the American dream. But the way I look at Matta-Clark, he is an alchemist, and crusader of light. Matta-Clark was dealing with the subliminal, interacting with the light, drawing with light, by way of the power-saw. But as fleeting and flickering as is light, so where these reimagined sites of light collision. It was about the violence of light, the violence of committing to the expansion light within an urban-oriented or constructed oeuvre of civilization.

There was however another influence, and a tragic one at that, but one that points to the intimate experience of cutting into his world. Gordon Matta-Clark’s twin brother, Batan, committed suicide by jumping out of Gordon’s studio in SoHo in 1976. On another trip to Paris in 1977, Matta-Clark performed Descending Steps for Batan3 where he dug a hole through the gallery floor, and continued through the basement floor into the depths of the earth, somewhat like an Orpheus in search of his recently deceased brother. Matta-Clark also spent time taking photographs of the catacombs, the dead asleep under Paris, the layered underbelly of the city. There’s the drive to reclaim what has been lost to us – reclamation as a form of revolt, a natural tendency of aggravated artists to recreate the personal or the social within the systemic withdrawal of the personal and the social.

Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural interruptions “were contingent upon the shifting temporalities of the built environment.”3 Concerned over what constitutes allowable limits, Matta-Clark seemed more interested in architecture as information, as idea, “information that is itself undergoing a feedback process (metamorphic).”2 Architectural interruptions are reconfigured moments in an environment where the architecture is contextually disruptive. Building dissections or removals, or namely, building cuts are “sculptural transformations of abandoned buildings produced by cutting and dismantling a given architectural site.”3 Sites are points of haecceity, points of convergence, fixed inter-junctions, crossroads of intentions and interpretations. How many meanings collide and coalesce and conflict in order to compose what we describe as a site? How many histories have gone into a site? Does one cutting through the floor, literally, exhume the heteroglossic voice of a place?

By negating an area of constructed space, by acting as a force of light, or acting as its agent, acting in alliance with light against the functional façade of the product of space, the artist as alchemist, by allowing light to cut into space disrupts the eye. I think his photographs show this, how the eye is disrupted by light cutting into a room, by the light cutting in through these constructed spaces, thereby dislocating one’s familiarity with perspective and scale. How does this apparent negative addition open space? For instance, Bingo anatomizes the two-story frame house, or with Conical Intersect Matta-Clark plays the role of a sort of brain surgeon of architectonics, removing the tumor within the built environment, creating a centralized absence by negating the core of the structure itself.

In regards to Matta-Clark’s work, in most cases the photograph is all we have because very little of his work survives today except for a few parcels cut out of buildings, some cooking experiments, maps and tax deeds, and hundreds of photographs. These photographs that capture some essence of the sites, its visual aspects, are all that is left. And therefore it is the nonverbal language of these photographs that gives us an instrumental vision of his work.4 The framed capture is all we have to think about, we cannot experience his work but from the outside. They are the memories of nonexistent sites. Temporary as they were, he photographed and filmed these sites full knowing that soon these epic works of art would be demolished, and that these photographs would be all that survives of them. The residuum of nonexistent sites, are all we have to interpret the behavioral aspect of his work, to the study of Behavioral Architecture. Matta-Clark is similar to Vermeer, in that, although few works survive the artist, these works challenge the course of aesthetic emancipation with a remarkable technological advance in visual presentation: the former being his camera obscura and his paintbrush, the latter being his power-saw and his Minolta. Both are painting light, aesthetically heliotropic.

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Following the opening of Day’s End, at which the NYPD also showed up, Matta-Clark was in trouble with the City of New York on several accounts. In fact, Matta-Clark was a fugitive in Paris when he worked on Conical Intersect. The Pompidou was growing and closing in on the dilapidated buildings that lay beside the construction of the new museum in Les Hause. Matta-Clark was given two weeks to dissect and transform this dilapidated building into an optical instrument of aesthetic wonder. “The normal coordinates of architectural orientation were interrupted to such a degree that a sense of vertigo was produced for the observer inside the building.”3 When he finished, the site was demolished, the building destroyed by a bulldozer. A photograph of the demolition of Conical Intersect unabashedly shows modernity’s demolition of antiquity-turned-avant-garde. The temporality of this instantaneous practice of spatial-investigation connotes an entirely altered state of mind, one that requires an openness to fathom the refined honesty of time-sited-as-space.

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These disruption of these photographic dialogue underscores “the importance of negative place connection to our learning of the city, particularly relating to fear and different kinds of change.”5 The object of labor is the object to be destroyed. The work itself is in the process of undoing itself, the dematierialization of the object, the deconstruction of the built environment, the defamiliarization of the site, where “the principle mode of production is bound up with the work’s destruction” and disappearance.3 The “artistic-play” of unbuilding a building draws upon the idea of art as practice or use, if not the act of play as somewhat divine. Site-specific strategies – process art, minimalism, and conceptual art – use temporality to question the continuum, and the configuration of an artistic, social and architectural phenomena they set in relief is opposed to the accumulation, progress and growth of the economy. Destruction is located as one of society’s first principles – “multiple destructions” – and “non-productive” artistic/social play provides a “dialectical compliment to expenditure…”3 The disappearance or “dematerialization” of the art object elicits an idea-object or post-object or anti-object, a sort of post-aesthetic art. The emphasis on the elimination of the art object challenges the traditional notion of sculpture (as dealing with mass). Art whose very absence begets its purpose – sculptural memories, the work deals with the negative character of corporeal presence – an incorporeal presence or corporeal absence exists.

What sort of work unworks? What sort of doing undoes? To do an act of undoing is to undo what we commonly ascribe to the act of doing. Therefore, it is not only the relocation of visible space and the intervention of light that disturbs our eye when we look at a photograph of one of Matta-Clark’s sites, it is also the incomprehensibility of this unfamiliar form of labor, an informal labor unforming labor, unforiming what has been formed for us; therefore, not only does the visual disjointedness affect our aesthetic experience but the very meaning of undoing, of the physical realization of deconstructionism disintegrates our sense of constructed space, namely, our own constructed comprehension of space.

What does it mean to re-conceptualize preconditioned roles and relationships by radically altering addressable space? The genealogy of emergent avant-garde tendencies against modernism, toward socially-conscious, auto-critical, spatial-practitioners often animate postmodern or antimodern aesthetics. By occupying a provocative in between space, the artist as an alchemist, can predict, interpret, and tactically critique the patho-geographical relationships evolving within the framework of bureaucratic re-adaptation, an adaptive plasticity in specie. In this sense, the absurd is pedagogical. In a world with an excess of omniscience while often lacking in sapience, where does the experimental avant-garde exist but in the breaking away from whatever fixed notions we hold concerning what is possible or what is true. It is in fact the break that is most important in becoming the impossible. And we desire the impossible.

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1 Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: Relfections on Photography, Hill and Wang, New York

2 Moure, Gloria, Gordon Matta-Clark: Works and Collected Writings, Barcelona, Ediciones Poligrafa

3 Lee, Pamela M. (2001), Object to be Destroyed, Cambridge: MIT Press

4 Coollier, John, Visual Anthropology: Photography As A Research Method, San Francisco State College

5 Bendiner-Viani, G. “The Usual, Disrupted” in Studying the City, Palgrave Macmillan, London