New York

Gordon Matta-Clark, Untitled (Energy Rooms), 1974, ink and marker on paper, 7 7/8 × 11".

Gordon Matta-Clark, Untitled (Energy Rooms), 1974, ink and marker on paper, 7 7/8 × 11".

Gordon Matta-Clark

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

Gordon Matta-Clark, Untitled (Energy Rooms), 1974, ink and marker on paper, 7 7/8 × 11".

Gordon Matta-Clark was as accomplished at making drawings with pencils, pens, markers, and crayons as he was at cutting into abandoned warehouses, suburban homes, and dilapidated tenement buildings with a chain saw. And these drawings offer a variety of insights into the American-born artist’s attitudes about nature, movement, and geometry; the themes that interested him; and the times in which he lived. Several dozen works on paper executed between 1969 and 1977, the year before Matta-Clark died of cancer at the age of thirty-five, were recently on view at David Zwirner.

It’s surprising to discover that Matta-Clark, during a period when so many artists were preoccupied with abstraction, from Minimalist structures to Color Field painting, drew trees. But these works weren’t landscape painting: Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell during the 1960s, and for him, trees could serve as shelters and even places to hold dance events, such as one he performed at Vassar College in 1971. Shortly after Earth Day was launched but years before climate change became a matter of global concern, Matta-Clark was calling attention to nature’s cycles, to growth and movement. The artist’s so-called Energy Trees also establish his credentials as a visionary. In these, delicate lines and seasonal colors play off one another. Instead of the constellatory space associated with the paintings of his father, Surrealist Roberto Matta, you’re in an imaginary world where trees bend, curve, wrap around one another, even embrace. The swift lines you find here are further exaggerated and activated in the series of works known collectively as Arrows. Here the marks are practically choreographed.

Matta-Clark attended college when Skinner boxes, introduced by B. F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist who taught at Harvard, were a hot topic. The studies for Matta-Clark’s Energy Rooms that filled a notebook presented here seemed to represent a cross between these sorts of boxes as a living space and the type of artist’s studio that resembles an artwork—Piet Mondrian’s atelier in New York City, say. Though these sketches are small and were hastily done and roughly drawn, they suggest images that could have been realized on a large scale with few but emphatic colors.

The notebook studies for Matta-Clark’s Cut Drawings were the icing on the cake, as were the six Cut Drawings on view. The twenty-nine sheets presented all sorts of shapes and forms executed rapidly with pencil and marker—the speed of their execution seeming the very opposite of how the cuts in buildings actually were executed. The six Cut Drawings made from cardboard topped with gesso or stucco and thick piles of paper evinced a more careful, deliberate Matta-Clark at work. Their geometric character and the thickness of the cuts offered a vivid reminder of how spellbinding his incursions into architecture must have been.

In the catalogue for Matta-Clark’s 1985 retrospective, painter Mary Heilmann recalls how he “would work in a state of frenzy” when he was drawing. That’s a quality that certainly was communicated in this show. You can picture, as Heilmann describes it, that way that Matta-Clark would “take colored pencils, dig in, press hard and fast, and scribble along.” We could not be more fortunate that he took us along for the ride.

Phyllis Tuchman