New York

Gordon Matta-Clark

John Gibson Gallery

Gordon Matta-Clark went out and cut up two balloon frame tract houses in the New Jersey suburbs, split one right in half (322 Humphrey Street), and cut hunks of wall off the other one (637 Eire Avenue). Fine. But to prove that what he was doing was really art, he mounted this show of photographs and chunks of the buildings. The corners he carved off the Humphrey Street house become sculpture in the gallery—serial Minimal objects (although they face each other as they had in situ to recreate the space of the roof). The three wall sections cut from the Eire Avenue house he lined up like the panels in a huge Rosenquist collage — it’s a painting (but also the wall rearranged). This kind of devolution of a radical gesture into conventional art categories is a far less adventurous way of evidencing an act of art in the gallery than Robert Smith-son’s Site/Nonsite procedure. Perhaps Matta-Clark meant it as a joke.

Cutting is the central gesture of his act of art—the big cut, like slicing and raising the facade of the Abu Simbel temple, threatened by Lake Nasser in 1963-68; like Michael Heizer cutting Double Negative, 1969, through a table mesa. But the big cut becomes collage in the exhibition, quarrying architecture to make painting and sculpture.

You chop the wood to make the house, and chop the house to make art. The preassumption here is that destruction must precede creation, and Matta-Clark is clearly addressing this cycle in terms of carving. And by carving pieces out of the houses before the wreckers tear them down, he is interrupting the cycle in the name of Art. In his Partially Buried Woodshed of 1970, Smithson violated the integrity of a building not as if it were a cube or other Minimal object, but in terms of the destruction by natural processes that will ultimately overtake this rural structure. It was a premonition and an acknowledgment. Matta-Clark’s work with a chain saw references the urban processes of demolition, but in the end (i.e., in the exhibition), he stands against it. He cuts to salvage, not to destroy.

Okay, enough of this. Photographs of art acts are not neutral evidence. A firm grasp of means and methods, and of the formal properties of the medium, is essential to make photographic documentation contiguous with the acts it evidences. Matta-Clark is an excellent photographer, and his documentation is stronger than the artifacts he shows.

To document his cuts on the Eire Avenue house, Matta-Clark pasted a photo of the exterior over one of the interior when it was finally exposed, then cut away parts of the covering photo to indicate how he took the wall away in sections. The artist reiterates with a penknife the gesture he has made with a chain saw. The series of color photographs miniaturizes the original sculptural act; the documents explicate the act in its own terms.

The photographs that document the splitting and lopping of the Humphrey Street house (published in Splitting, $3.50 from the gallery) hint at the evidentiary mode of archeologists’ photos of excavated sites, and police documentations of crime scenes. In one group of photographs, Matta-Clark pastes together rectangular shots to show the cut from the roof down through two stories. Although the parts of the house—banisters, walls, and the cut itself—join up in the photo collage, each photograph was taken from a slightly different angle. The reconstruction, then, intimates the perspectival disjunction that the cut created in the house itself.

Alan Moore