New York

View of “Gordon Matta-Clark: 'You Are the Measure,'” 2007, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Foreground: Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting: Four Corners, 1974. Photo: Sheldan Collins. All works by Gordon Matta-Clark: © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

View of “Gordon Matta-Clark: 'You Are the Measure,'” 2007, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Foreground: Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting: Four Corners, 1974. Photo: Sheldan Collins. All works by Gordon Matta-Clark: © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Gordon Matta-Clark

THE ALL-TOO-BRIEF, mercurial career of Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978) has attracted increasing interest over the past ten years. Thanks to monographic studies by Pamela M. Lee and Corinne Diserens, published in 2000 and 2003, respectively, and several recent exhibitions in San Diego and New York, Matta-Clark’s ten years of frenetic productivity are becoming known to a larger public. The show currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is, however, the first retrospective of Matta-Clark’s work since that held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1985. The many objects on display include fragments from his celebrated cuttings and splittings of condemned buildings; photographs and photomontages of the results of these cuttings; drawings and sketches; notebook pages; index cards; and, of course, films of the more important actions. In keeping with Matta-Clark’s well-known aversion to traditional gallery and museum spaces, “Gordon Matta-Clark: ‘You Are the Measure’” is staged on the fourth floor of the Whitney as if the space were one of his loft studios. There is also a beautifully produced catalogue, with many large color and black-and-white illustrations and several informative essays, which was edited by Elisabeth Sussman, who organized the exhibition.

On entering the galleries from the main elevators, the visitor is immediately confronted with the outside faces of three of the nine building fragments left from the cutting Bingo, 1974. These rectangular pieces—rust-colored shingles on the outside, green-and-white-painted plastered walls on the inside—seem at first sight to have been cut almost arbitrarily: Windows, doors, beams, and stair treads have all been sliced through with little regard to their former roles. But photographs of the cutting procedure show how carefully Matta-Clark divided the facade of this little two-story house into nine rectangular portions before cutting, in a gesture that seems intended to mock the “nine-square” formal grid that was such a preoccupation for architects of the time, above all Matta-Clark’s erstwhile teacher John Hejduk of Cooper Union in New York. These fragments of the Bingo cutting also offer, so to speak, an appropriate “facade” for the exhibition itself: They pose a puzzle for the uninformed visitor, which is gradually to be solved through the comprehensive display of a range of representations of each of Matta-Clark’s major projects.

Such an approach means that the familiar difficulties of exhibiting Matta-Clark’s work—often part performance, part object-oriented, and in part photographs or film—have been largely overcome in this show, which groups together records in various media so as to provide as complete an experience as possible. Particularly benefiting from this curatorial approach is the much exhibited Splitting: Four Corners, 1974, comprising the material remnants of the building that was also used for the most celebrated of Matta-Clark’s actions, Splitting, 1974, in which he carefully cut a suburban house into two equal parts, gently lowering the back half in order to open up a band of light through the structure. These “corners”—which themselves both evoke the scale of the cutting process and leave one with a strong impression of the historical “aura” of this traditional wooden house, replete with all the traces of its former inhabitation—are here complemented by generous documentation, including film footage and many photographs of the cuts being made. In this way, a work that is in one respect entirely transitory, with a defined and historical beginning, middle, and end, is given its proper extension into the present, allowing the viewer—albeit with some effort—to piece together Matta-Clark’s procedures, starting with the numerous preliminary sketches, following the actual cutting in the film, and examining the resulting remains in the gallery.

Matta-Clark’s practice took many forms—photography, film, installation, action, and others he invented—so it is gratifying to see that, alongside the variety of media recording the cuttings, the exhibition also covers an impressive range of his other work, including vitrines displaying the index cards that were so much a part of his “systems” approach to research; the tresses of his hair, cut off, numbered, and organized to recombine into a wig; the bricks he made from discarded glass bottles in a kiln installed in the basement of the exhibition space at 112 Greene Street in New York; documentation pertaining to Food, the SoHo restaurant Matta-Clark cofounded in 1971; and Super-8 film of Tree Dance, the exceptionally moving performance Matta-Clark staged at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1971. The images in this latter piece are striking examples of his perfect eye, attuned equally to the nuances of architectural forms and bodies in movement, as well as to the poetics of decay, of detritus, and finally of space itself.

A number of significant revelations emerge from such a comprehensive collection of material, particularly after so many partial glimpses of Matta-Clark’s work in previous shows. Among the most noteworthy of the items on display, especially given the difficulty of reconstructing the spatial nature of the buildings before and after cutting, are several large photomontages, which provide an almost filmic vision of Matta-Clark’s process. Particularly striking are the photomontages of the “Core” and “Datum” cuts of A W-Hole House, 1973, itself a beautiful exemplar of the complex geometrical nature of Matta-Clark’s actions, as he sliced horizontally and vertically through the square studio with its pyramidal roof. In an incisive catalogue essay exploring Matta-Clark’s relation to his father (the quasi-Surrealist artist Roberto Matta), as well as to architectural history and the “origins” of architecture in particular, Princeton professor of architecture Spyros Papapetros posits a parallel between a consideration of the conceptual nature of the Egyptian pyramids in the second volume of Sigfried Giedion’s Eternal Present (1964) and Matta-Clark’s use of the pyramid as “a median plane to invert his previous architectural education.” Papapetros’s argument is especially persuasive because the influence of Giedion’s earlier book, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (1941)—the central “set book” of the 1960s that saw the Baroque as the progenitor of the Modern Movement, the dramatic spatial geometries of the former transformed by the collapsing of space-time in the latter—can be felt in the cuttings Conical Intersect, 1975, and Office Baroque, 1977. The large color Cibachrome photocollages documenting the creation of Office Baroque might well be playful elaborations of Giedion’s premise, taking it literally but reversing the historical movement by returning the modern to its Baroque roots.

Matta-Clark has often been classed with the enragés, the violent activists of the late ’60s. He has been seen as an apostle of the informe against formalism, and above all as an artist working “against architecture.” And on one level, the objects in this exhibition, which are in large part the iconic remnants of Matta-Clark’s practice, support these ascriptions. The works on view have frequently been adduced as evidence of his strong reaction against the architectural training he received at Cornell University, where he graduated with a professional degree in 1968. After all, cutting houses open with a Sawzall, shooting through windows with a BB gun (as he did at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York for Window Blow-Out, 1976), and hammering conical holes through the party walls of Parisian apartment buildings have never been part of the orthodox practice of architecture. Nor were such actions in tune with the prevailing neo-avant-garde works of the time, whether the populist imagery of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, or the rationalist and post-Surrealist work of the New York Five, who represented the dominant tendency at Cornell in the ’60s.

But what a careful study of the exhibits at the Whitney reveals is exactly the opposite. Not that Matta-Clark wasn’t passionate, maverick, contrary, and committed to overturning conventions in architecture and in art. It is obvious that he was influenced strongly by his contact with the artists involved with the “Earth Art” exhibition at Cornell in 1969, and his place among a group of anti­establishment artists in the SoHo art world, including Laurie Anderson, Carol Goodden, Tina Girouard, Richard Landry, Richard Nonas, and many others who were involved with 112 Greene Street, has been well documented. But underneath it all Matta-Clark remained deeply invested in architecture: not the architecture of the profession or its own mavericks, but another architecture, one in which buildings responded to life and environment rather than to formalist rules. Indeed, what is fascinating is how Matta-Clark, well trained as he was, utilized these same formalist rules against themselves in work after work. He never abandoned projective geometry; his cuttings were meticulously planned according to the “rules” of the objects to be cut, and drawn with precision in notebook after notebook. But—and here his critical position toward the ’60s version of modernism taught at Cornell becomes clear—his material, as opposed to the white walls and heavy masses of post-Corbusian architecture, was space itself. Hence his invention of what he called “anarchitecture.” This word is at once a play on the title of Le Corbusier’s 1923 manifesto, Vers une architecture, “Towards an architecture” (mistranslated in English as Towards a New Architecture), and a neologism that placed “anarchitecture” on the same plane as “anaesthetics.” A handwritten document in the exhibition shows some of his other plays on the word architecture, offering a fascinating glimpse into Matta-Clark’s search for an alternative spatial world. Some examples: ant-arco-tecture; an-arco-tecture; a-arc-o-tecture; narc-o-tecture; a-che-o-tect-chore; parc-o-tecture; moc-o-tecture; hack-a-tecture; lark-o-tecture; barc-o-tecture; epi-tecture; and so on, in an endless search into the roots of the tectonic and their connections to social and individual life.

It is as if Matta-Clark internalized the call of early modernism for an architecture of space-time and set himself the task of fully realizing its potential, seeing himself, in fact, as the only true heir to modernism in architecture, the one who pushed its premises to their radical conclusions. These premises, of course, were not simply formal games to be played with in architecture schools, but the product of an attitude that saw a social and ethical role for architecture as an instrument and condenser of change—even, in the case of the Russian Constructivists, of revolutionary change. Behind each of Matta-Clark’s architectural interventions lies a similar impulse: to seek the most fundamental transformation of architecture, one that would respond to the conditions of life rather than art, and certainly not one that followed the already static conventions of the neo-avant-garde. The action of bringing light into the house (in Splitting) might itself be the best metaphor for Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture”: In the end, like his beloved alchemists, systems theorists, and psychologists, and together with the theorists, if not the practitioners, of modern architecture, Matta-Clark was an apostle of light—an “enlightener” in practice and in theory.

“Gordon Matta-Clark: ‘You Are the Measure’” remains on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through June 3. The exhibition travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Sept. 16, 2007–Jan. 7, 2008; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Feb. 2, 2008–May 4, 2008.

Anthony Vidler is professor of architecture and dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Cooper Union, New York.