Gordon Matta-Clark

Gordon Matta-Clark has been interpreted as a socially conscious artist who ironically points up the problems of modern urbanism by tactics such as supplying oxygen to “stuffy” or “gasping” people on Wall Street, overseeing delightfully sensuous banquets under Brooklyn Bridge, splitting open an abandoned office building to welcome in the warm sunlight, and making art out of soon-to-be-demolished or soon-to-be-reconverted architecture, robbed of its once socially useful function. Recently, in Chicago, Matta-Clark invaded what is scheduled to become the new Museum of Contemporary Art Annex, a three-story former beauty salon and apartment dwelling adjacent to the current museum.

The title of this Chicago project is Caribbean Orange, apparently because in the Caribbean, orange lovers slice their fruits on a diagonal. Personally, I tried that and couldn’t calculate how it is done, but in any case, the picturesque yellow painted house on Ontario Street, unbeknownst to any casual passerby, has now been ripped and sabre sawed so that the interior is bisected along a diagonal axis.

Matta-Clark’s intentions may relate both to formal art and to urban insecurity. Corrugated layers which used to be walls, floors and ceilings now magnificently intersect and overlap in circles, part circles, and circular outlines, so that, in essence, real architecture has become architectural drawing. Physical lines in space describe interrelated positive and negative forms in plan, section and elevation. I stood on the third floor beside a wall circle that was upright on its edge and looked down at a circular floor hole that was flat and saw a fellow viewer grasp part of an arc that was suspended obliquely from the second story to the first. Snow was falling through the wedged roof cuts, outlining the arc edges. Studs, joists, pipes and lath all became textural accents to the monumental circular progression.

In terms of social dynamics, Matta-Clark has sustained his comments on the urban condition, having captured this Museum Annex before it becomes white-walled gallery space and after it has satisfied other sorts of personal needs for prior inhabitants. This Orange is undoubtedly hundreds of times more esthetically fascinating than any gallery space could be, and moreover the project usefully energizes a structure that’s temporarily in limbo. And yet, apart from any progressions of formal design, I couldn’t help but wonder about what must formerly have been a functioning kitchen, its cabinets now eaten into a negative wedge, its pseudo-wood tiled floor now sporting a dangerous gap. Terrifyingly, this all reeked of urban ruthless juxtapositions and obliterated pasts. It reminded me that modern cities allow nothing to stay the same and that our finest landmarks are inevitably reduced to nothing but hard photographic records.

This brings up one final thought. Folks can lecture happily that it’s wonderful when entire buildings function as marble or clay did for past artists. And yet it certainly is ridiculous to ignore the artless fact that cutting up a building is a monumentally aggressive act. All of what Matta-Clark has done here in the way of stratification and revelation requires the macho force of an audacious, nonstop, single-minded purpose. If the cuts were random, it all might be less awe-inspiring; but as it is, the geometric relationships, which could only have been thoroughly calculated and preplanned, testify to man’s domination over buildings, wherein even the rubble left over from the cuts becomes a useful and esthetic lingering texture. If society were less bent on tearing down, Matta-Clark could never “build up” such an esthetic. Moreover, his Caribbean Orange decidedly shows that destruction and construction partake of similar dynamic energies. In this sculpture, a viewer risks descending to the basement if he steps before he looks. Indeed, it’s a commanding visual breakthrough.

C. L. Morrison