New York

Gordon Matta-Clark

One piece in the recent show of Gordon Matta-Clark’s work, titled Blast from the Past, 1972–73, consists of a vitrine containing a photographic fragment of a small pile of trash measured by a ruler, a reconstruction of the floor sweepings on the neutral white bottom of the display case, and these handwritten instructions: “Puzzle kit . . . contains all the parts necessary to recreate this compelling scene from history of my floor . . . Just use this simple diagram to put everything in its proper place.” The disjunction at the center of this work, the impossibility of following the instructions “to put everything in its proper place” if that means re-creating the specificity of that pile of trash, on that floor, in the SoHo of the early ’70s, presents in concentrated form the dilemma surrounding the display of Matta-Clark’s art: Not only have none of the artist’s original site-specific incisions into the built environment survived to the present, but a fundamental condition of their existence was that they would eventually be destroyed.

The exhibition addressed this problem by re-creating Garbage Wall, 1970, reassembling the installation Wallspaper, 1972, from color offsets recycled from the orig-inal showing, and presenting fragments—the cart the artist used to dispense oxygen, a piece of his 1973 Graffiti Truck—as well as a number of smaller works (mostly photos of buildings in various states of demolition). The concept of waste as architecture was central enough to Matta-Clark that he built three versions of Garbage Wall: in St. Mark’s Church, as a set for a performance; under the Brooklyn Bridge, where he filmed it for his 1971 short Fire Child, also on view here; and at 112 Greene Street, the alternative space he helped establish in the early ’70s. Matta-Clark was interested in the social and historical implications of the built environment, and he once described his work as “non-umental, that is, an expression of the commonplace that might counter the grandeur and pomp of architectural structures and their self-glorifying clients.” A wall of trash would be erected for a specific event and then returned to the Dumpster, leaving the most minimal trace on the physical world.

There is something uncanny about seeing the current re-creations so close to Matta-Clark’s artistic home during his years in SoHo. Two blocks north of David Zwirner is the former site of 112 Greene Street, where the artist presented both his own work and numerous exhibitions and performances between 1970 and 1974. Around the corner, on Prince Street, was Food, the restaurant Matta-Clark cofounded as SoHo’s first artists’ hangout, and the locus for his performative experiments with cooking. Gallerist Holly Solomon has gone so far as to say that “Gordon created SoHo, along with a handful of other people.” However, Matta-Clark had no fantasies about urban renewal. The first piece he completed at 112 Greene Street was Cherry Tree, 1971, in which a tree was planted in a hole dug in the building’s dark, dank basement, where it died after three months, a victim of its impossible environment. Similarly, in an early advertisement for his restaurant published in the magazine Avalanche, “food” is written in black Magic Marker over the sign for the Criollas restaurant put out of business by the relocation of its clientele, as SoHo’s manufacturing sites were supplanted by artists’ lofts.

With his activities, Matta-Clark animated the notion of place as a nexus of past and future, acknowledging the coexistence of life and death: for instance, by building a wall that combined trash gleaned from vanishing industries with the detritus of the residences that were replacing them. The existence of these “non-uments” must be brief, for otherwise they would simply take their place in the historical continuum, becoming monuments, the permanent instantiation of history’s victors. In opposition to this, the obviously painstaking re-creation of Garbage Wall in 1999 functions as an elegy for the artist and for SoHo, the neighborhood-as-art-center that Matta-Clark helped bring into being.

As a rejoinder to the type of presentation at David Zwirner, another mode of historical reconstruction was taking place concurrently, within walking distance, at American Fine Arts—Sylvia Kolbowski’s An Inadequate History of Conceptual Art, 1998–99. For this exhibition, a group of artists was asked to recall a work of Conceptual art from the period 1965–75 that they felt to be important. One participant (they are not identified) describes Matta-Clark’s work at Food. The speaker gets many of the details wrong—the date, the length of the project—but the strength of his impressions is concrete, and that is perhaps how Matta-Clark’s work survives best today, as images in the reminiscences of those inspired by them.

Andrew Perchuk