PRINT Summer 2003


Anthony Vidler on Gordon Matta-Clark

Gordon Matta-Clark, Bingo, 1974. Installation view, Niagara Falls, New York.

THE “DILEMMAS” OF Gordon Matta-Clark, to cite the title of Liza Bear’s celebrated 1976 interview with the artist, were not entirely of his own making. They were more the result of an increasingly specialized world of art criticism and practice, a world that was, despite the attempts of successive avant-gardes since the Futurists, still more or less divided along traditional lines. It was Matta-Clark’s apparent indifference to these divisions—between sculpture and architecture, photography and film, performance and installation, and above all the permanent and the transitory—that has given rise to so many “Matta-Clarks” over the years since his tragically early death in 1978: the enraged James Dean of the art scene; the violent anti-architect and inventor of “anarchitecture”; cult hero of the Downtown ’70s; earnest follower of the Land artists (or, alternatively, strict formalist of the informe). All these personae—and many more—can, of course, be found in his work and have provoked more than their share of critical debates.

Such a state of critical ambiguity should not be surprising. The son of the Surrealist Matta (Roberto Matta-Echaurren) and the artist Anne Clark and godchild of Marcel Duchamp, with whom he played a regular game of chess in the Village, and onetime assistant to Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson, Matta-Clark was nothing if not mercurial. Little was left untouched, from the buildings that he cut up, Polaroids he baked to a crisp, pigs he roasted, food he gave away, junk that he built into walls, windows that he shot out, language that he disassembled, and, in the recollection of a friend, Joan Simon, hearts that he broke.

Recently, however, some twenty-five years after his death, with the finished restoration of his films and the gradual opening of Matta-Clark’s archives at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, scholars have taken the opportunity to make a more comprehensive study of the life and work. There were recent Matta-Clark exhibitions in Glasgow and London. Art historian Pamela M. Lee’s Object to Be Destroyed (MIT Press) was published in 2000, and it is now followed by the two books under review.

Lee’s book was the first full scholarly and critical look at Matta-Clark’s entire career in the context of the post-Surrealist avant-garde and the American movements of the ’70s: Minimalism, site-specific art, Conceptualism. It also developed important analyses of his “architectural” projects in light of his Cornell architecture school education and the prevailing theories of the time. Lee accurately identified one of the most difficult problems of Matta-Clark interpretation as that of approaching “an artist whose principal mode of production is bound up with the work’s destruction.” Such an unstable and insecure work has naturally challenged all the commonplaces of what she terms the teleological and Hegelian roots of art history. (This is also, of course, a problem endemic to the scholarly monograph that has to rely on rhetoric and reminiscence to evoke the intense and unruly character of artist and practice. The present books have attempted to address this question not only by reference to the memories of friends and relatives but also by their graphic design—Lee with its untreated gray board covers, the Phaidon monograph by an overcute cut in its spine, and the Nazraeli by presenting its illustrations as “documents”—photographs applied to the pages as if in an album.)

Gordon Matta-Clark during the making of Day’s End, New York, 1975.

The Phaidon and Nazraeli publications build on Lee’s work and develop novel interpretations based on archival finds and new interviews, as well as differing critical stances. Thomas Crow’s study in the Phaidon monograph embeds his incisive formal analysis in a biographical tour de force that points to the hitherto neglected influence of alchemy as a trope and practice for Matta-Clark. Building on the contents of Matta-Clark’s library, assembled during his early years at Cornell, Crow reveals another side to the artist than that generally categorized under the label informe. He finds a real link between the “process-oriented” Photo-Fry, 1969—for which Matta-Clark literally cooked a series of photographs while throwing into the grease pan thin sheets of gold leaf—and alchemical theories of the relations among the elements. This theme, in parallel to that of Matta-Clark’s more precise geometrical and architectural interventions, continues throughout his career, and Crow identifies the uneasy treaty between magic and rationality that underlies the entire oeuvre. Crow indeed proposes that this may not be the contradiction it seems, both preoccupations joining in the endless search for material transformation, whether of chemical elements or traditional architectural forms. Crow’s groundbreaking essay is followed by Christian Kravagna’s discussion of Matta-Clark’s use of photography and film and Judith Russi Kirshner’s essay on the artist’s urban sensibility. The smaller Gordon Matta-Clark: The Space Between takes the form of a critical essay by James Attlee, who treats the work in a more general European context. The two books, plus Lee’s volume, complement one another. The large format of the Phaidon monograph allows for a quality and extensiveness of illustration denied to the others and forms an invaluable visual companion to Lee, while Attlee’s European emphasis, with its exposition of Situationist influences (dismissed by Kirshner as “speculative” but documented by Attlee through conversations with Gerry Hovagimyan, an artist who worked with Matta-Clark), nicely balances Crow’s investigation of alchemy.

While the image of Matta-Clark derived from a reading of these new studies is still somewhat kaleidoscopic—a Matta-Clark unstoppable in talk as in work, and in work so diverse as to defy a single interpretation—some frames of reference begin to emerge that might serve to ground his practice as a whole. One would be to take Matta-Clark more seriously at his word, or rather to understand his words within the vocabulary of architecture itself. For of all the artists in the ’70s who sought to break the boundaries of their practices, Matta-Clark was uniquely a product of professional architectural training. In the context of that training, his conceptions of “form,” “surface,” “monumentality,” the “temporary,” and “space” take on a special meaning, as do the projects that for the rest of his life were projected, so to speak, against the ground of this hermetic profession. And nowhere was the terminology of architecture so consistently developed in its formalist and modernist references as at Cornell University in the ’60s.

Of all the American schools, Cornell had emerged as the bastion of a heritage that joined the modernism of Le Corbusier to the abstraction of Albers, and these in a historicist reformulation concocted by painter Robert Slutzky, architect John Hejduk, and British critic Colin Rowe while the three taught together in Texas in the mid-’50s. Rowe, who had followed John Shaw and others to Cornell in 1963, was the intellectual descendent of German art historian Rudolf Wittkower, with whom he had written his thesis on Inigo Jones, and had applied Wittkower’s analysis of Mannerism in architecture to the work of Le Corbusier. His course on Renaissance architecture, attended by Matta-Clark, combined a formal analysis of facades, layered in space and framed en abyme, with a sense of their active relationship to the complications of contemporary modernism. The studio design courses, on the other hand, emphasized a strict adherence to Corbusian formulas and a reliance on the notion of space as a positive element and force in its own right—space, that is, as a three-dimensional gestalt that an abstract architecture shapes and molds like solid clay.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Office Baroque, 1977, still from a color film in 16 mm, 44 minutes.

Close attention to the terms of Matta-Clark’s discourse reveals a fundamental internalization of these principles, without which his tenacity in seeking to undermine, destabilize, and reconstrue them is incomprehensible. Lee notes these circumstances but is perplexed, to take one example, by the term “surface formalism,” a term that stems directly from Rowe’s formalist analysis of surface. Similarly, Crow calls attention to what he sees as the influence of Rowe on the nine-square gridding of the cuts in the facade of Bingo, 1974, a grid that was more commonly seen in the ’60s as an invention of Hedjuk that formed the basis for his first-year studio at Cooper Union after 1965. At any rate, the most fundamental question perhaps hinges on Matta-Clark’s interpretation of architectural space.

In the ’60s, “space” was a central concept of architectural education. It had been adopted belatedly in the States, under the influence above all of Sigfried Giedion’s 1941 Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, which had traced the notion of space (a concern in German art-historical circles since World War I) from the Baroque period to the modern as a progressive opening up of the building, enhanced by structural innovation and the transparency afforded by glass, steel, and concrete. For Giedion and his readers, Baroque was synonymous with modern, as the spirals of Borromini’s Sant’Ivo found their culmination in Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. Space then was seen as both an optical and a sensory instrument, and its manipulation the task of the modern architect.

Here, we might reinterpret Matta-Clark’s cuttings in a new mode: not so much destructive, or deconstructive, in relation to architecture but constructive of an architecture that (finally) would embody the modernist spatial promise in a way denied by the systematic vulgarizations of modernity built by corporate efficiency. Thus the roof cut at A W-Hole House (Genoa, 1973), the cut of Splitting, 1974, and the facade removal of Bingo all involve a discussion with architecture that in Matta-Clark’s words might have taken place in Rowe’s seminar but that gain significance as practice when developed as material interventions on the structures themselves. Matta-Clark’s interest in cutting through the layers of a wall to reveal “how a uniform surface is established” as a “way to create complexity,” of making information about a building visible, and in describing the procedure as a “formal” concern, is essentially an extension of Rowe’s modern-mannerist analysis into the real. Again in Matta-Clark’s terms, a way of working with space, not as the master trope of modernism but as that which has been denied rhetoric—“metaphoric voids, gaps, left-over spaces”— is particularized in his purchase of Fake Estates, those abandoned microplots auctioned by the City of New York, in 1973, which he meticulously catalogued and photographed. Conical Intersect, 1975, a series of circular cuts in soon-to-be-demolished apartment houses next to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and Office Baroque (Antwerp, 1977) bring these cuts back to their source, the Baroque. The preparatory drawings for Conical Intersect read like interior analyses of Saint’Ivo’s dome, and as Matta-Clark describes the actual cuts, he sees them as a reversal of “normal” Baroque vision: “Your normal sense of gravity was subverted by the experience. . . . It had had this strange reversal. Most of our deep space experiences are really looking up into something like a dome.” In Office Baroque, the trajectory traced by Giedion is completed, as the historic Baroque is morphed by modern montage: “The formal elements transformed from uninterrupted circular slices to shrapnel-like bits and pieces of the original form as they ‘collided’ with partitions and walls.”

Such examples could be elaborated throughout Matta-Clark’s work and might reveal a more modernist and utopian architect-artist than the myth has prescribed. Perhaps, with the assembly of an increasingly complete archive and its active study by a new generation of scholars, driven as well by the reinterpretative efforts of contemporary architects and artists, the architect Matta-Clark will finally emerge, an architect whose practice embraces and subsumes both the formal values of the precise geometrician he was, and those of the “anarchitecture” he saw everywhere in the world around him.

Anthony Vidler is dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union in New York.


Gordon Matta-Clark, edited by Corinne Diserens; survey by Thomas Crow; essays by Judith Russi Kirshner and Christian Kravagna (London and New York: Phaidon Press), 240 pages.

Gordon Matta-Clark: The Space Between, by James Attlee and Lisa Le Feuvre (Porchester, UK: Nazraeli Press), 112 pages.