Art

How Gordon Matta-Clark Carved Beauty Out of New York’s Urban Blight

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In 1973, New York was crumbling. That December, the elevated West Side Highway near the present-day Whitney Museum of American Art collapsed under the weight of a dump truck carrying ten tons of asphalt. A few months earlier, a gas leak caused an explosion on Bedford Street in the West Village, injuring five people. A similar explosion killed a mechanic in Queens in March. Then, in August, an apartment building at 673 Broadway suddenly fell down while a man was on the phone with his mother. His last words were “the ceiling’s falling.”

That man’s cousin was the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, the subject of a sharp and splendid new show titled “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Matta-Clark was born in New York in June 1943 to the American artist Anne Clark and the Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta, and his boyhood was spent surrounded by artists. (His godmother was Teeny Duchamp, Marcel’s wife.) In 1962, he went to Cornell University to study architecture; he graduated in 1968 and moved back to New York the following year, having determined that architecture was a useless pursuit, but that the derelict landscape of his hometown might provide the ideal blank canvas for whatever came next.

The new exhibition (which is organized by Sergio Bessa, the museum’s curatorial and education director, and Jessamyn Fiore, the co-director of the artist’s estate) begins with the artist’s first mature works, which he started in the South Bronx in fall 1972. For months, Matta-Clark ventured into disused tenements and carved out large sections of walls and floors, capturing the surviving gaps in disorienting photographs. Eight of these images are on show, alongside one of the few remaining cutout sculptures, which he showed with his pictures at 112 Greene Street, an early Soho exhibition space, in 1973.

The sculpture, titled Bronx Floors (1972–73), is an L-shaped floor and subfloor, turned on its side, covered in cheap blue linoleum and dirtied by its former use. It is, appropriately, the first object in the show: a succinct summary of the artist’s ability to take a shabby emblem of abuse and neglect and make it beautiful by stripping it of its purpose. Framed handsomely in an elegant Bronx Museum gallery, it neatly captures Matta-Clark’s impossible project, which he called “anarchitecture.”

The idea was simple: Buildings and infrastructure “should be in perpetual metamorphosis by virtue of people continually acting on the space that surrounds them,” Matta-Clark said a few years before his death, from cancer, in 1978. “A house, for instance, is definitely a fixed entity in the minds of most people. It shouldn’t be.” Instead, it should bend to the needs of its community.

The traditional top-down, centrally planned fantasias of architects such as Minoru Yamasaki had imploded. A year before Yamasaki’s World Trade Center opened in the Financial District, all 33 of his Pruitt-Igoe housing block buildings in St. Louis were torn down after years of failing elevators, poor ventilation, declining population, and rising crime — conditions not unfamiliar to residents of the South Bronx.

In contrast to Yamasaki, Matta-Clark was after an organic, vernacular style, an architecture for and by the local population, adapted according to their own imaginations. Graffiti, which he’d started to document in photographs, occurred to him as a flash of possibility — a reclamation of public space by the citizens it was intended for. When he began taking pictures of concrete walls covered in street tags in 1973, graffiti was in its infancy, and his pictures — presented together for the first time in this exhibition — are cursory, fragmentary snapshots, casually framed, informal. Their value is largely documentary, but for the artist, they were markers of a community’s creative capacities.

This spirit was at the heart of Matta-Clark’s ambition. It was what led him to found Food, an affordable, community-oriented restaurant in Soho, with the artists Carol Goodden and Tina Girouard in 1971. But his goals were not necessarily constructive. More often, as with the “Bronx Floors” series, wherein he carved his way through the city, his approach was, if not destructive, at least deconstructive. “Anarchitecture attempts to solve no problem,” he said in 1973; it was just an artist’s way of seeing the world and reorganizing its puzzle. This was the opposite of the social programs of Yamasaki or Le Corbusier, who designed utopian models to which everyone was meant to conform. Instead, Matta-Clark offered an artist’s singular, idiosyncratic vision.

The show ends in 1975, three years before the artist’s death, with films that document two of Matta-Clark’s most compelling projects. For one of them, Day’s End, he spent two months inside a deserted building on the pier near Gansevoort Street illegally making five large incisions into the wall, floor, and roof to realize what he called a “sun and water temple.” The resulting film is remarkable: In it, he saws his way through a faded building to strip back its history and reframe it, which is a project he never would have imagined had he not developed similar ideas in the South Bronx. So it is fitting that the Bronx Museum now presents this snapshot of local history to its community, to which it has long been dedicated. It is a perfect exhibition for the venue, and a clear elaboration of Matta-Clark’s best lesson: that an impossible dream of pure grassroots harmony can make for compelling art.

‘Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect’
Bronx Museum of the Arts
1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx
718-681-6000
bronxmuseum.org
Through April 8, 2018 

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