A Sum of Possibilites: Gordon Matta-Clark and the Urban Landscape
When the artist Gordon Matta-Clark moved to New York City in 1969, the city as a whole wasn't in the best of economic shape. Declines in post-War manufacturing and shifts in the labor market, loss of jobs, economic stagnation, flight to the suburbs and a shrinking tax base, municipal mismanagement -- all of the problems that were affecting a number of major American cities were beginning to take a severe toll on the city of New York. Nevertheless, artists of every stripe continued to move into Manhattan -- visual artists, writers, and musicians who would play an instrumental role in shaping the City's cultural landscape over the next decade or so. With the real estate market in an extended freefall, many of them had no problems finding cheap and available places to live and work.
Such was the case with the neighborhood of the SoHo (then called the South Houston Industrial Area), a former sweatshop district where obsolete and derelict property was plentiful. Since the late 1950s, scores of artists had settled into the neighborhood, the property owners often letting many of them live there in an off-the-books capacity. This situation allowed Matta-Clark and his peers a number of unusual opportunities, the means of establishing and developing their own interconnected and mutually supportive cultural community. The anarchically-run co-op exhibition space at 112 Greene Street, which allowed artists to stage their own exhibits and performances, was one such example. Another communal anchor was the artist-run restaurant FOOD, which Matta-Clark -- along with his partner Caroline Goodden and several of their friends -- opened in 1971.
L-R: Tina Girouard, Caroline Goodden, and Gordon Matta-Clark
in 1971, at the storefront that would soon become FOOD.
For Gordon Matta-Clark, making art was a fairly recent pursuit. He’d spent much of the 1960s unenthusiastically earning a degree in architecture at Cornell University. His grades throughout had been consistently poor, perhaps owing to the fact that in the course of this studies he discovered his own deep antipathy for the Modernist tenets of architecture and city planning that his professors adhered to as gospel. Only so much sterile formalism and blindly reckless idealism, Matta-Clark had reckoned. If there was any single experience that proved instructive and inspirational to him during his time at Cornell, it was when he met and spoke with the visiting artist Robert Smithson in early 1969 -- just one year before the latter would create his ambitious Spiral Jetty earthwork on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Robert Smithson was a voracious reader across a baffling broad array of disciplines and interests, not the least of which were geology and science fiction. He held a perverse aesthetic fascination for the vagaries of accelerated urban sprawl -- with terrain vague and rough-edged "non-place urban realms" where hapless juxtaposition of prefab modern civilization and the natural landscape resulted in curious new forms of desolation, upheaval, and disfiguration. ("Ruins in reverse," he'd called the suburban developments of his own native New Jersey.) A central idea for Smithson in the course of his own work and theorizing was that of entropy – the second law of thermodynamics that decreed that all entities and systems inevitably gave way to degeneration, decay, and disorder. As in nature, so too with man-made systems. Speaking in a 1973 interview, Smithson explained:
"...It seems that architects build in an isolated, self-contained, ahistorical way. They never seem to allow for any kind of relationships outside of their grand plan. And this seems to be true in economics, too. Economics seem to be isolated and self-contained and conceived of as cycles, so as to exclude the whole entropic process. There's every little consideration of natural resources in terms of what the landscape will look like after the mining operations or farming operations are completed. So that a kind of blindness ensues. ... And then suddenly they find themselves within a range of desolation and wonder how they got there."
His own art, he asserted, was the product of his own efforts at creating "a dialectics of entropic change." In many ways, his ideas coincided with a larger aesthetic shift that was transpiring in the late 1960s and early ‘70s -- new artistic practices and strategies in which artists favored Bataille over Kant, contingency over autonomy, the temporal and indeterminate over the transcendent. Instead of formalism, formlessness; instead of purity, dissipation.
It was Smithson's ideas on entropy and site-specific art that fascinated Matta-Clark when the two conversed in 1969, and it was those ideas that played an instrumental part in the latter's development as an artist. But whereas Smithson was interested in creating "new monuments" in the open expanses of the American landscape, Matta-Clark's prior education steered him in the direction of the nation's urban centers -- to the physical environment of the city itself.
Having grown up in New York City, Matta-Clark returned after an extended absence to find the city in the throes of decline. Speaking in a later interview, he recalled of his youth in Robert Moses’s Manhattan:
"As the City evolved in the Fifties and Sixties into a completely architectured International Style steel and concrete megalopolis. By contrast, great areas of what had been residential [space] were being abandoned. These areas were being left as demoralizing reminders of 'Exploit It or Leave It.' It is the prevalence of this wasteland phenomena that drew me to it."
As an artist Gordon Matta-Clark quickly gravitated to the idea of making art works that were connected to (and more often, arose from) urban topology, mutable space, communal life and cultural memory, property, the disconnect between architectural form and architecture as surplus commodity, as well as the varied economies of expansion and waste that existed in the urban landscape.
Top: Gordon Matta-Clark, "Pig Roast," at the Brooklyn Bridge Event, 1971
Gordon Matta-Clark, photo from Walls Paper series, c. 1972
In 1972 he began to set out to the city's blighted neighborhoods, seeking out the blocks of condemned and abandoned buildings. Sneaking into these buildings with saws and chisels and blowtorch, he made a series of precise and scattered incisions -- carving them up, rearticulating the architectural spaces, exposing their structural and material components. His friend and fellow artist Ned Smyth accompanied him on many of these excursions, helping lug tools and equipment and keeping an eye out for the police. As Smyth described it years later:
"We would break into abandoned buildings in the South Bronx and cut large, geometrically shaped pieces out of walls and floors, opening up the spaces. ...This was always scary, with blocks and blocks of empty, boarded-up buildings, haunted by junkies who would steal copper wire and pipe to sell as scrap to get money for drugs. ...We would haul all his saws and other tools, including a power generator, up into these building shells. Sometimes the apartments looked as if the occupants had simply walked out on their lives, leaving their furniture just as it was, their clothes hanging on hooks behind the doors."
Many of these early "cuttings" were done without permission and amounted to criminal trespassing. As early as 1970 Matta-Clark had drafted a proposal for such work and had been sending it out to various organizations and public officials, presenting himself as an artist who aimed to "make sculpture using the natural [sic] by-products of the land and people."
Top: Conical Intersect (Paris,1975) artist's execution & schematic.
Bottom: Conical Intersect, and Office Baroque (Antwerp, 1977)
Within a few years, however, Matta-Clark would gain permission to realize some of his projects, and during the years of 1972 to 1978 executed a number of site-specific dissections in several cities -- in locations around New York and New Jersey, as well as in Genoa, Chicago, and Antwerp. Utilizing buildings that had been condemned or slated for demolition, the works were intended to exist for a brief period of time, fated -- like the structures themselves -- for a temporary existence.
On a symbolic or theoretical level, Gordon Matta-Clark's engagement with the discarded architecture of the contemporary city comprised a form of “urban reclamation.”5 As such, one might read it an inquest into the dialectical gaps between (use-)value and obsolescence, surplus and salvage; of architectural space as mere material and property and its role in framing or containing and channeling the intricacies of human activity, interaction, and experience -- cycles of births and deaths, moments of private joys or shared sorrows, of everyday life -- that transpired or are carried out within the spatial boundaries of a brute physical environment. In the end, it operated as an inquiry into the production of social space --- as it was perceived, conceived, and lived.6
Initially, Gordon Matta-Clark's proposal letters met with little response. He'd continue to send them out over the years. When he approached real estate developer Melvyn Kaufman in 1975, seeking to "collaborate" on a series of projects, Kaufman sniffingly responded:
"Someone said that dying gracefully is an art. Perhaps it is. But I do not like funerals, either as sad occasions or celebrations. I believe in the great demise but I believe in life more, and I resent the infringement of death processes prolonged as a devitalization of the living."
The castigating tone is amusing, as it seems Kaufman considered Matta-Clark's request as being part of a cynical and reprehensibly exploitative enterprise, accusing him of something akin to "playing in (or with) the ruins" of an ailing metropolis. Given the conditions at the time, one can imagine the reasons for Kaufman's consternation. After all, it was hardly an ideal time to be a real estate developer in NYC -- what, especially seeing how 1975 was also the year of the fed's famous "drop dead" decree. Hence Kaufman's pilings-on of funereal analogies. Morbid metaphors for a morbid and entropic time.
Neither Robert Smithson nor Gordon Matta-Clark would live to see the end of the decade. Smithson would die in a helicopter crash in 1973 while surveying the location for his next major project; and Matta-Clark died in 1978 of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 35, scarcely six years after he had begun his series of urban "cuttings" and fully embarked on his work as an artist. By that point, SoHo was already well on its way to becoming a different place than the one Matta-Clark and his friends had known and inhabited. New businesses would begin to move in, and shortly the neighborhood would start to "turn around." And in the decade that followed, it would become a cultural hub -- sweeping with restaurants and boutiques and a number of high-end art galleries that would all help fuel the moneyed-up, inflated art boom of the 1980s.
5. This idea of urban reclamation more or less falls into step with certain claims that have been made about graffiti -- that graffiti in the act of marking, tagging, and bombing constitutes a recuperative gesture against an alienating and anonymous environment. By some accounts, this sort of connection wasn't lost on Gordon Matta-Clark. He was enthralled by the tags and murals that he saw proliferating throughout New York City in the early 1970s. At one point in 1973, he drove his truck to a street festival in the South Bronx and invited residents to decorate the vehicle with spray paint as they saw fit. He later cut up the truck's body with a blowtorch, and exhibited select segments at a group exhibition. In the same year, he would also document murals on the city’s subway trains for a series of works called Photoglyphs.
6. In the two decades that followed his death, Matta-Clark's work received only fleeting and limited attention among art critics and historians. He did, however, become something of a mythic figure in architectural circles, where his work was viewed as an act of "deconstructing" architecture -- as a wholly aesthetic exercise. In more recent years, that narrow reading of Matta-Clark's work has been challenged by overdue accounts from art-historical quarters, with a number of critics pointing out the social ideas that fueled much of the artist's work.