New York

Gordon Matta-Clark

Galerie Lelong; Josh Baer Gallery

Gordon Matta-Clark was the focus of two recent shows, “Gordon Matta-Clark and Friends” at Lelong and a smaller solo show at Josh Baer. What was so refreshing about these exhibitions was the physical modesty of the works: that’s something to reminisce about and be grateful for.

The keynote work at Lelong was Matta-Clark’s famous Splitting photograph, 1974, which has no doubt become emblematic of a life cut short—another artist whom we, and the “cause” of art, have lost. (Matta-Clark died of cancer in 1978, at the age of 35.) One is suspicious of such canonizing, but it signals the elegiac mood running through Minimalism and Conceptualism. Epitomized perhaps by Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, 1963–67, it is also evident in the peculiar air of parsimonious bleakness in most of the works here, whatever the medium. One is acutely aware of their intelligence and intimacy, from Richard Nonas’ serial piece Light to Dark (Dark to Light), 1970, through Lawrence Weiner’s language piece From Major to Minor/From Large to Small, 1974, and on to Neil Jenney’s glass piece Number One and Keith Sonnier’s wall piece In Between, both 1969, as well as Susan Rothenberg’s sparely drawn image of a horse in Untitled No. 20A, 1976, and Robert Rauschenberg’s unusually (for him) restrained combine Reynolds Wrap, 1971—to mention some of the works that particularly engaged me. They are forms of “grace under pressure,” balletic responses to inner necessity.

What we have here is a ’70s chamber music that points the way beyond the inflated opera—in certain cases what is beginning to look like opéra bouffe—that much ’80s art has been. When one sees what these artists have done later, one realizes that they have physically enlarged and refined the ideas realized here. They have not transcended themselves, and in some cases their “progress” suggests that they have fallen short of who they once were. In contrast to Joseph Kosuth’s Ten Partial Descriptions, 1979, which was shown here, his subsequent work has generally become more bombastic and narcissistic—more Hollywood-like. Indeed, in the context of when they were produced, these works can generally be regarded as resisting the populist principle of Pop art. They have a subtler, more insidious, and far-reaching effect. Thus, Vito Acconci’s Three Columns for America, 1976, with its three uncomfortably low seats and its contradictory messages (one for each ear; in one Acconci records his “process” of “coming,” and in the other there is a mix of sounds from everyday life), disturbs the mind at the deepest level. The odd-shaped hole puncturing the building wall in Matta-Clark’s Pier 52-A and 52-B, both 1975, seems to detonate in psychic depths.

The exhibition downtown featured eight of Matta-Clark’s collage-photographs of Office Baroque—his 1977 site-specific project in which he made cutouts in the walls and floors of an office building in Antwerp—and a photo of the building’s facade, juxtaposed with an altered photo of the same facade (representing his proposal for making additional cutouts in the exterior of the building). Also shown were actual fragments from three other sites where he had made similar “cuttings” in 1973; Photoglyph, a colorful “graffiti-covered,” 30-foot-long black-and-white photo of a subway train, also 1973; and a cut-paper “drawing” from 1974.

The simple drama of the works in these two shows suggests a residual Surrealistic dimension—an attempt to generate disruptive incongruence, radical artistic heterogeneity in an increasingly homogeneous world. One may be forcing the issue to suggest the influence of Roberto Matta (Matta-Clark’s father) on his work, but the point remains that most of it can be understood as an Americanized Surrealism—that is, Surrealism working with that peculiarly American sense of the comforting banality of material, an easy, self-effacing relationship to it. But there is always the destructive note, the sense of the American as what D. H. Lawrence called the “lone, isolate killer.” This is not the same as the histrionic artificiality of European Surrealism. Matta-Clark’s Minimalism and Conceptualism represent a peculiarly American form of convulsive beauty, which the works of the other artists (“. . . and Friends”) also seize.

Donald Kuspit