New York

Gordon Matta-Clark

David Zwirner / Zwirner & Wirth

Gordon Matta-Clark died young, but the life span of his large-scale architectural interventions was even shorter. Of the major site-specific “non-uments” realized in the period between his architectural studies at Cornell in the late '60s and his death from cancer in 1978, not one has escaped the wrecking crew. Since the work was fundamentally concerned with the physical experience of built space—a kinesthetic mix of void and mass, light and shadow, suburban saltbox or pier warehouse and phenomenological event—this poses problems for curators. Of course, Matta-Clark knew that the buildings he altered with his preternaturally delicate chainsaw were slated for less graceful deconstruction, and he documented the often dangerous process of filleting floors and ceilings in extensive drawings, films, and photocollages. Still, a gallery show of these archival materials cannot help but feel doubly ghostly: The career was brief, the artist is gone, and the work exists only as a feedback loop of secondary objects, shoring up a core that has disappeared.

But the evacuated core was, in a sense, the point of Matta-Clark's project. This pair of exhibitions presented two aspects of his oeuvre: Zwirner & Wirth hosted a selection of “cut drawings” and works on paper dating from 1970–78; downtown at David Zwirner was a focused series of photocollages and drawings documenting A W-Hole House, an intervention Matta-Clark completed in Genoa in 1973. Swirling, ebullient, quasi-mathematical, the works on paper uptown seem to center on an energized vacuum, as if the Magic Marker and pencil strokes were pushing into air. Indeed, the cut drawings,stacks of heavy paper gouged with rough-edged geometric excisions, are explicitly sculptural. The revealed strata—in gradations of cream, tan, and dark orange—suggest layers of plaster, paint, and wallpaper, or dermis and epidermis, a conflation of bodily and architectural structure that constantly reasserts its simple reality as a stack of hacked cardboard. Similarly, the studies for architectural follies—circular cuts in the MoMA's facade; a barge pulling “floating islands” down the Hudson (an idea also sketched by Matta-Clark's mentor and fellow entropist Robert Smithson)—express a constant interest in evocative absence.

A W-Hole House, meanwhile, enacts this principle on a grand scale. A square concrete bungalow used as an engineer's drafting rooms, the building was offered to Matta-Clark by Italian curator Paolo Minetti when it was about to be tom down. Capitalizing on the highly rationalized relationship between the walls and roof, Matta-Clark made two interventions: the Roof Top Atrium, in which the apex of the peaked roof was removed, leaving an open square; and Datum Cut, two horizontal incisions made around the interior partitions. The result—documented in black-and-white photographs organized here into friezes and grids—was a kaleidoscopic array of positive and negative space, horizontal and vertical lines. A W-Hole House is a rigidly geometric building completely destabilized, neither whole nor hole, a house devolved into a puzzle of heavy panels linked by passages of open air.

At least that's how one imagines it. Matta-Clark was a brilliant draftsman, and his photocollages have the same manic-yet-ordered energy as his drawings. But they are gray and grainy, static and flat, lacking the breathing, lyrical violence of a real cut. Exhibition organizer Angela Choon has tried to remedy this absence by installing a “re-creation” of a Datum Cut in the back gallery. This gesture bears only a generic, somewhat anemic resemblance to the entirely site-specific Genoa version. Nevertheless, as you peer into the hollow core of the gallery wall, noticing the rough edge of the wallboard, the occasional snaking wire against the rhythmic structure of the studs, something of Matta-Clark's visceral fragility—what he called the “thin edge”—does flicker here, if only for a moment.

Frances Richard