PRINT October 1985


I WANT TO POSITION the work of Gordon Matta-Clark at an intersection that brings together not only sculpture and architecture but also space, light, and politics. At this intersection cells of illogical, surreal space are juxtaposed with the conventional containment of the museum; intricate photomontage, the inverse of the slicing process, can reconstitute what has been dismantled; and “nonarchitecture” premised on a critique of performed action can become a blueprint for utopian renewal, reintegrating a vision of architecture on the ruins of disorientation.

The double-titled Circus or The Caribbean Orange, February 1978, was the last of three major works organized around circular forms that Matta-Clark completed before his death, later that year, aged 35. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago had recently acquired an adjacent three-story townhouse to be renovated into additional space. Before the renovation was put into effect Matta-Clark was invited to present a proposal that would take advantage of and inaugurate this new space. His project was ultimately to be covered up once the renovation was complete. Upon entering the brownstone, on the first floor, one saw that large arcs, 20 feet in diameter and embracing the width of the building, had been removed from the second and third floors. This horizontal layering of semicircles implied a series of spheres which could be read through the building from floor to floor; the openings, and another set of vertical cuts, revealed an interplay of illumination and shadow which changed according to the time of day, quality of light, and weather—cold and snowy at that time of year. The work’s title refers to a method of slicing oranges (“the orange [the building], instead of being cut the way you usually cut it, has been cut the way that Carib-beans cut oranges . . . in horizontal slices”1), and to the three-ring activity of the circus. What determined the series of circular removals was a “diagonal that was drawn in the elevation, from the top of the building to the bottom.”

“[Circus was] basically a mental . . . or formal exercise ...There is something in the totality of that building. ..and the fact that the whole space being available was, let’s say, an incentive to do a hind of work that I would not have done if, for example, the idea were, ‘Well, something will survive.’ Basically it’s much more exciting; I’m much more interested in even a totally transitory, a totally ephemeral blanket commission rather than the condition the architects or sculptors, most people who work in ‘tame’ conditions, get. . . . The building is a sort of throwaway environment that all the work has been produced in. . . . It will be two totally forgotten brick walls buried somewhere.”

Three years earlier, in Paris, Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect twisted a cone-shaped volume at a 45° angle through the walls and floors of two soon-to-be-destroyed 17th-century townhouses in the neighborhood of Les Halles, near the site designated to become the new cultural center of the city, the Centre Georges Pompidou. To artist Dan Graham this was Matta-Clark’s “most (propagandistically) effective work” because of the “relation of the new Centre to its visual alignment with the Tour Eiffel; one a monument of 19th-century French progress, and the other of contemporary French national ideology”2 For Office Baroque, a piece he did in Antwerp in 1977, Matta-Clark extracted boat-shaped cuttings from the floors of a five-story commercial building, creating a series of overlapping voids. Formally, what he called a “walk through panoramic arabesque” was made up of the crossings or collisions of two semicircular extractions. The French project played with and against the idea of the museum or cultural center as something fixed and sanctioned, and the Belgian site was attractive to Matta-Clark because of its nearness to a frequently photographed tourist attraction, the 12th-century Steen castle, which serves as the city’s maritime museum. His dissected office building, confronting this institution, whose cultural significance depends on both its history and its modem function, was juxtaposed with it in photos that tourists snapped.

Circus or The Caribbean Orange was Matta-Clark’s first museum-sponsored project, and his first in a building scheduled to be renovated rather than demolished. By definition, it defied the processes of preservation and conservation that a museum such as the Museum of Contemporary Art would normally foster: as the modeling of the gallery space progressed, the artwork allowed itself to be cut away, in an inversion of the cutting process through which it itself was made. The artwork dissolved as the galleries materialized. Matta-Clark had expressed interest in carving a museum before his Chicago project, using Washington D. Cs Hirshhom Museum as an example; in 1974, in Splitting: Four Corners, he had sliced open a house in Englewood, New Jersey, and the fragments had been exhibited and sold. Circus was predicated on the idea that it would disappear, be replaced by conventional museum spaces filled with traditional objects—that it would become decontextualized, another fragment in the mausoleum. Of course, it recognized that fragments can be more telling than totalities;some architecture is more eloquent as a ruin than as a functional whole.

“If someone in the museum was truly interested in my work they would let me cut open the building. The desire for exhibiting the leftover pieces hopefully will diminish as time goes by. This may be useful for people whose mentality is orientated toward possession. Amazing, the way people steal stones from the Acropolis.”

Acknowledging that even the most monumental forms are destined to be ruins, Matta-Clark’s work addresses the issue of architecture becoming an ideological container signifying the past. Appropriately, his excavations usually occurred in abandoned buildings, marginal urban sites, and ordinary houses. As much an excavator as a maker, he documented the history of a group of Parisian monuments in Underground Paris, 1977, a series of photographic scrolls; particularly haunting are his images of skulls arrayed like apples in the ossuary beneath the church of St. Michel. In that same year Descending Steps for Batan, a memorial piece for his twin brother, who had committed suicide, made excavation both its subject and its process. Matta-Clark’s early digging pieces, in the basement of 112 Greene Street, in SoHo, were also removals, cuts, or slices of a kind.

As they stripped away cosmetic layers Matta-Clark’s subtractions revealed layers of information, histories of construction and stratification. In the place of the usual architectural containment and closure they allowed for an opening, an unfolding; in order to do, these deconstructive gestures invoked a negative dialectic of undoing. Matta-Clark carved meaning in the very making of ruin—on the edge between the two, and the edge, both metaphoric and literal, was among his central concerns.

“You read through the negative space to the edges of the building.... the edge is what I work through, try to preserve, spend this energy to complete. . . . the difference between my kind of edge and a lot of other people’s edges is the majority of edges are very finished, manicured, and this is a raw edge which people seem to find different in some way. Actually it is more informative. In the typical building process everything is all covered up; here, the grinding, chewing, gnarled edges are all there is, so you really read it. You read the traces much, much more. In fact, that’s one of the things that motivated it right from the beginning, the fact that the whole art experience seems to be rather cosmetic, that you’re applying constantly layers and layers of more cosmetics in terms of the real substance of the space or building.”

“One of the artists that I truly admire is Sol LeWitt. He has that wonderful line. He has this incredible sort of technique. But also all my work is based on—to some extent—the total denial of that work on a whole other level, which for all his neatness, elegance, and wit, there’s also the other side, which is what if this has never gone beyond the surface and it’s all at best speculation? So I guess I’ve taken on the real something which to some extent I regret from time to time . . . of going a little further and thinking, well, what about i f all of that beauty and elegance were really transmitted through space. . . . ”

Conical Intersect, Office Baroque, and Circus or The Caribbean Orange were all variations on what Matta-Clark called “dynamic volume”; they evolved from simple line drawings incised into masonry walls (Infraform, for example, done on a wall in Milan in 1973) and from drawings consisting of deep cuts carved into pads of paper “The whole progression of lines is a geometric progression . . . from line to plane to various kinds of planes to volumes to something . . . beyond the volume, which is sort of dynamic volume! And that dynamic volume is probably one which ultimately interests me most.” Like spiral forms, the dynamic volumes Matta-Clark carved in these last major pieces gave the feeling of being endless. They eluded comprehension as one passed haltingly through the spaces, climbing up and down, walking to and fro, even jumping as one looked. On the third floor of Circus a truncated section of a sphere, a circle of Sheetrock with a door in the center, was dramatically suspended as if to defy gravity, architectural reason, and visual understanding. Matta-Clark often spoke of the apprehension of his multilayered works being dependent on recollection, of the impossibility of their being instantly assimilated. Although neither the Antwerp nor the Chicago work could include an opening in the facade of the building (because of bureaucratic and practical considerations), both had a narrative structure that one sensed as one climbed higher and higher in the space, becoming increasingly unhinged from an idea of a particular structure, until finally one felt drawn into a larger pattern of the city.

“I think of [the plans] like . . . throwing a ball in space and being able to pass through surfaces. . . . it’s basically mental projections or projectiles, and you spend all that grimy time trying to realize them . . . ”

Here it is fruitful to introduce the work of Robert Smithson, whose projects, in and out of the museum, were also dialectically balanced between chaos and order. Matta-Clark had worked for Smithson when the older artist was constructing Mirror Displacement (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) at Cornell, in 1969, but the exchange between the two men seems to have traveled in both directions: Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed of 1970, and his drawings and studies for “dearchitecture,” can be linked to Matta-Clark’s conceptions. Both artists merged organic with inorganic systems, natural evolution with geometric or mechanical progression. The slippages between the two systems were illustrated in Matta-Clark’s early drawings of swirling trees, and in his calculated line drawings, which recall the economic qualities he so admired in LeWitt. The titles Circus or The Caribbean Orange themselves involve such slippages, as well setting up other spinning resonances: the turning action of the circus ring and the spherical orange, the paradox of the circus in a Chicago winter and the orange’s flavor of the tropics. For Smithson, the spiral form was a symbol of endlessness, a sign for aporia, for disorientation; Circus couldn’t help but evoke the spiral ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, leading the viewer around the interior’s periphery and protecting its vacant core. Another reference may have been to Le Corbusier’s unrealized “museum of unlimited growth,” ca. 1931, with its squared spiral, like a labyrinthine Greek key design, around a central chamber. And Conical Intersect may have related to the Eiffel Tower, with its open skeleton and heart. Sacrificing architecture’s utilitarian capacity, its usual raison d’être, Matta-Clark substituted esthetic potential, “trompe d’être,” in the form of a void, a central cavity.

“The reason for the void is so that the ingredients can be seen in a moving way—in a dynamic way. You have to see them by moving through them; they imply a kind of kinetic, internal dynamism of some sort.”

Matta-Clark’s radical deconstructions were ahead of their time, just as they attempted to move back in time, to unearth. Like Smithson and ultimately inspired by Walter Benjamin, Matta-Clark believed that ruins are emblematic, and can better provide allegorical meaning than can complete structures. In Circus Matta-Clark cut into the museum, acting on Smithson’s identification of that institution as mausoleum and even prison. It is not an invidious comparison to say that where Smithson was a theoretician and metacritic, Matta-Clark was more the agent provocateur, operating on multiple levels as performer and reconstructor of his own actions.

In his protective mask and construction-worker garb, Matta-Clark enacted a heroic version of modern life, elaborating on the loft experience of the ’70s in which individuals remade their residential spaces to determine their own conditions for living. Several critics have emphasized his political consciousness, his attempts to cut into social, economic, and cultural barriers; others have viewed his avant-gardist actions as fundamentally antiauthoritarian embodiments of the ideology of individualism. His concerns need not be confined to any particular political side. Manipulating the ideas of artists like LeWitt, Graham, and Vito Acconci, Matta-Clark explored the overlapping spaces of architecture, language, and psychology The fragmentary nature of his oeuvre (fragmentary intentionally and in terms of what remains—a few building residues, a lively group of drawings, and of course the photographs) is deceptive—his work does in fact maintain a visual coherence; what holds it together, and describes the breadth of his ambition, is the acknowledgment of the spectacular. This staging element was underscored in the current retrospective exhibition,3 which encouraged audience participation in a special reconstruction of Open House, also called Drag-On and Dumpster, 1972, on the sidewalk in front of the museum where Circus had taken place. Matta-Clark’s theatricality, his playing to and for an audience; his fabricated passages; his own gestural cuts and the paths his audience took through his works—all this emphasis on staging propels his work from the romance of Modernism to a post-Modernist concern with memory and the revival of architectural fantasy

_“This is a Caribbean orange—or a winter circus. Everybody knows that circuses go south in the winter, right? So it’s a winter circus—circus because it sets a stage for people, sets a stage from the ground up. ‘Circus’ in my own dyslexic manner means ‘circle’ through which you operate. It means a circle in which you circle—a place for activity, a circle for action. And that’s the way I understood this piece, that people were given a kind of circular stage to look at or to circulate through.”

Matta-Clark’s hybrid art is inextricable from architecture, and the work it reflects most directly is Robert Venturi’s, the Venturi of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, first published in 1966. Matta-Clark’s contradictory dissections, his intricatemazes opposing the clarity and geometry of any architectural plan, violated the unity and continuity associated with Modernist architecture, exposing relationships between forms and materials to make visible unexpected, multiple layers in spatial and temporal depth. Venturi’s phrase “contradiction juxtaposed” could be a key to Matta-Clark’s Circus. Rather than erasing articulations between spaces, Matta-Clark transformed them into puzzles (to which he was careful to provide clues), juxtaposing them in what Venturi labeled “superadjacencies.” He literally went to the heart of architecture: as in Circus, his work often involved the removal of an actual center and the emphasizing of a central void, “cutting away at the core of the structure,” and even insinuating himself and his audience there. And he positioned the viewer as spectator/performer in his “winter circus,” a work poised between Alice in Wonderland and the melancholy of Piranesi.

Matta-Clark’s complex cuttings recall the vast, dizzying spaces of the 18th-century Venetian architect Piranesi’s “Carceri d’Invenzioni,” 1745, those etchings of prisons. In this context a case has recently been made by the French critic Yve-Alain Bois for a similarity between the work of Piranesi and that of Richard Serra.4 Bois’ comparison rests on the premise that both men’s projects, whether realized or imaginary, are not reducible to plans, and depend on dislocation and the experience of the moving spectator. What is the picturesque stroll for Serra—and, parenthetically, the promenade for Le Corbusier—becomes the walk for Matta-Clark. Differences between Serra’s antimonuments and Matta-Clark’s “non-uments” are evident, but the two artists shared ideas on how their work should be received. Describing his own Delineator, 1974–76, Serra stated, “as you walk toward its center, the piece functions either centrifugally or centripetally. . . . All your psychophysical coordinates and your sense of orientation are called into question immediately”5 Matta-Clark was deeply aware of this issue of passage: “You have to walk.”

“You have to walk—this is always one of the big issues which I’ve brought up before: the difference between a kind of anecdotal piece—I don’t know how you would classify it—and this sort of internal piece. There are certain hinds of pieces that can be summarized very quickly from a single view—at least characterized. And then there are other ones which interest me more, finally, which have a kind of internal complexity which doesn’t allow for a single and overall view, which I think is a good thing. I like it for a number of reasons, one of which is that it does defy that category of snapshot project or a sort of snapshot scenic work. The other thing is that it defies the whole object quality that is with all sculpture, even with the people who have escaped the so-called sculpture habit by going into some sort of landscape or extragallery, extramuseum type of territorial situation.”

Matta-Clark studied architecture, at Cornell, in the mid ’60s, but abandoned it as a career, and here it is worthwhile to note another set of parallels—in the careers of Gordon Matta-Clark and his famous father, Roberto Matta Echaurren, the surrealist painter. Matta-Clark was following his father’s example in his choice of study, for Roberto Matta had a degree in architecture, and in the mid ’30s he worked in the atelier of Le Corbusier, who had just completed The Radiant City. After a year there Matta gave up architecture as a profession, and, after meeting Andre Breton, turned instead to painting and Surrealism. (One may assume that Matta-Clark’s training at Cornell, which just preceded the years of the “revolution” of Postmodemist discourse in architecture, incorporated the work of Le Corbusier; his work constitutes a rejection of Le Corbusier’s utopian ideas.) Both Matta and Matta-Clark, whether through images or through actions, dealt with distorted notions of space. Matta represented the “space of feelings” in hallucinatory images—for example, the project for an apartment, with intersecting spaces and soft walls that shifted in response to its occupants, that he published in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure, in 1938.6 Matta-Clark was also fascinated by “the idea of transforming this static, enclosed condition of architecture...into an architecture which incorporates . . . this animated, tenuous relationship between void and surface.”

A comparison between Matta-Clark and his father helps insert his work into a context beyond that of his more immediate exchanges of the mid ’70s with his colleagues in the Anarchitecture group—Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Jeffrey Lew, and Richard Nonas, among others. It also helps us resist tempting but misleading attributions of relevance suggesting that Matta-Clark’s discovery of graffiti foreshadowed contemporary East Village expression, and that his photographic collages herald David Hockney’s recent Polaroids. In 1975 Nicolas Calas viewed the paintings of Roberto Matta as “transparent cubism,”7 and in 1984 Graham referred to Matta-Clark’s work as “reversed Cubism . . . cut in to eliminate from the real world to make a sculpture.”8 Admittedly, one can find cubist precedents for most contemporary activities, but even stronger than the cubist inflection in both men’s work is a reflection of Dada strategies. Matta has acknowledged the influence of Duchamp, and Matta-Clark’s fragmenting, cutting, and reassembling of art from junk all refer to Dadaist strategies; in an interview in 1976 Matta-Clark spoke of the direct influence of Dada’s “imaginative disruption of convention as an essential liberation force.”9 On a more personal level (and a more speculative one), Matta-Clark’s conscious identification with the throwaway condition of his projects may be construed as a response to some sense of loss that made him an archaeologist of his own past.

“Probably the reason for going to abandoned buildings in the first place was some kind of deep-rooted preoccupation with that condition; maybe not so much because I think I can do anything about it, but because of its predominance in the ‘urbanscape.’ At some point you have to leave the ‘accepted’ environment to do certain things, and that’s somewhat the situation [with met . . . I found myself in a sort of parallel kind of stature with these buildings. . . . The building is another ‘throwaway.’”

In retrospect, Matta-Clark’s work seems almost inevitable, brimming with implications for current architecture. It is as though his choice of architecture as his medium allowed him to establish an unbroken continuity with the world in which his work was enacted and which it enacted. Tied to Modernism in its energetic hope for change, Matta-Clark’s project points to post-Modernism in its theatrical fictions, its fantasy, and its historical and mnemonic complexity “When confronted with real time, with the real mysteries of time,” Matta-Clark thought, “there’s a kind of central nervous spasm that takes place when you really get into it, which just amounts to a sort of all-consuming gag, all-consuming quake of some sort which you really don’t understand.” This “quake” is the point of fantasy, which made Matta-Clark’s events as approachable as they were powerful in their tearing and denying of the fabric and temporal fixity of urban structure. Not least of the losses his death incurred was that he did not have the opportunity to make good on some of his plans for collective rehabilitation of buildings, plans intertwined with a romance of the future tinged by the visionary. His political stance was premised on denial and resistance; his situational removals point to the disfunction of urban society.

Matta-Clark’s photographic collages, disjunctive two-dimensional reconstructions of his works in buildings, make pictorial and optically more manageable what had been fragmentary and physically imposing, but do so only by confusing viewpoints, emphasizing violent adjacencies, displaying penetrations. They represent Matta-Clark’s activity and process, but cannot recuperate the sensation of being there; replicating the process of fabrication on a microlevel, they replace saw with camera film and scissors. They do nothing to alleviate the fact that the work’s fundamental premise is problematic, situated as it is between disorienting derealizations of voids and recognizable representations of totalities, between the demands of real-world action and photographic reproduction.

“There is collage and montaging. I like very much the idea of breaking—the same way I cut up buildings. I like the idea that the sacred photo-framing process is equally ‘violatable.’ . . . I started out with an attempt to use multiple images to try and capture the ‘all-around’ experience of the piece. [They are] an approximation of this kind of ambulatory ‘getting to know’ what the space is about. Basically it’s ways of passing through the space. One passes through in a number of ways . . . by just moving your head, or [by] simple eye-movements which defy the camera. You know it’s very easy to trick a camera, to outdo a camera. With the eye’s peripheral field of vision, any slight movement of the head would give us more information than the camera ever had.”

There is something deliberately artificial, supplemental, even painterly about Matta-Clark’s photocollages. Their ornamented quality—in the inclusion of the film’s sprocket holes as decorative borders, for example—now seems an acknowledgment of overt manipulation and showy artifice consistent with the artist’s style. The best photoworks are like sequences of film, extending time and unfolding new lines of sight. Seen separately the works have a narrative quality similar to that of the buildings; they are fictional, and represent disorienting reconstructions at the same time that some of their features are recognizable, seem true. Mapping places and stages through which Matta-Clark had passed, recomposing on the page what was once inscribed in walls and floors and then excised, these collages, as attractive and dynamic as they are, do not reconstitute the ambiguous hidden reality, the centerless void, on which his most authentically surrealistic work was always balanced.

“I think that the narrative art ruined a certain kind of mixture of words and images for me. But I think it’s possible to see the merit of very personally interpretive groups of photographic images which . . . attempt to interpret, like in this case, a spatial situation. We could call it also some kind of psychological space . . . I’ve come from straight-out documentation in the sense of snapshot documentation to a real preoccupation with this sort of documentation/time-evolution of the piece, and then beyond that to a hind of time and movement that it takes to experience the piece, and then beyond that to what happens to people in the piece. It’s gone from just the snapshot to a kind of process documentation to a kind of personalized process documentation to a sort of voyeuristic interpretation, and then finally into some sort of thing where the whole looking at the piece being made and having been finished becomes a kind of narrative which is subject to all kinds of variations.”

“Once the piece is finished it becomes a place, a . . . point of reference for ways of moving through space and looking back at the piece. And then ideally it’s a way of looking at people occupying it. . . . someone said something the other night that I thought was real interesting, he said, ‘You’re using people as ”figure-figure“ instead of figure-ground.’ Here you have [a work], although it’s geometrically generated, that seems organic, and then you’re using a human to sort of reanimate it and put it into some sort of perspective.”

From the perspective of the ’80s Matta-Clark’s work resists staying where it chronologically belongs. He was an intergenerational artist, a continual crossover, neither conceptual nor minimalist. Trained as an architect, he dedicated his career to the deconstruction of architecture, and to the presentation rather than the preservation of cultural memory in layered extractions. Allegorically identified with the condition of abandonment, his work depends ultimately on voids, dynamic cavities, empty craters, museums, and ruins formed from “mental projectiles” burrowing through masonry and memory. But the buildings, the scenes of the transgressions,were just the beginning.

“The building . . . is just that given ingredient which is somewhat useful and is obedient, but is really just the beginning of speculations about what could be beyond it and what numbers of directions there could be. So that’s pretty much the way I see them . . . as something which exists and is passionately beautiful in itself, but also demands or excites a certain kind of extension.”

Judith Russi Kirshner is a writer recently appointed curator of contemporary art at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago.

1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in the text are from an unpublished interview that I conducted with Matta-Clark in February 1978. while I was curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Circus or The Caribbean Orange was under construction. Matta-Clark did not have an opportunity to read this interview, the full transcript of which is preserved at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

2. Dan Graham. “Gordon Matta-Clark,” in Flyktpunkter/Vanishing Points, catalogue for exhibition at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, April 14–May 27, 1978, p. 97.

3. “Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago on May 8 and closed on August 18. It continues to the Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, California, February 4–March 16, 1986; the Ministry of Culture Exhibition Hall in Madrid, May–June 1986; the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, September–October 1986; the Stadtisches Museum in Mönchengladbach, November–December 1986; the Kunsthalle in Basel, January–February 1987; the Nouveau Musee in Lyons, April–May 1987; the Landesmuseum in Münster, August–September 1987; the Broida Museum in New York, January–February 1988; and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, University of Regina, Canada, and the Hewlett Gallery, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and other locations on dates to be announced.

4. Yve-Alain Bois. “A Picturesque Stroll around Clara-Clara,” October 29, Summer 1984, pp. 33–62.

5. Quoted in Liza Bear, “Richard Serra: ‘Site Point’ ’71–’75/‘Delineator ’74–’76,” Art in America, May/June 1976, p. 85. The photograph of Serra’s Delineator that illustrates Bear’s article is credited to Matta-Clark.

6. Roberto Matta, Protect for an Apartment, Paris: Minotaure 11, 1938.

7. Matta: A Totemte World, catalogue for exhibition at Andrew Crispo Gallery, New York, January–February 1975, introduction by Nicolas Calas.

8. Graham, p. 101

9. Donald Wall. “Gordon Matta-Clark’s Building Dissections,” Arts, March 1976, pp. 74–79.