Gordon Matta-Clark: Open House essay

Essay to accompany exhibition I curated, appearing in the Visual Arts Program Critical Reader accompanying the Melbourne International Arts Festival 2009.

I see the work as a special stage in perpetual metamorphosis, a model for peoples’ constant action on space as much as in the space that surrounds them. Buildings are fixed entities in the minds of most—the notion of mutable space is virtually taboo—even in one’s own house. People live in their space with a temerity that is frightening[i]

Gordon Matta-Clark is that most rare, but often mythologised, of artists: someone who died young, but despite a foreshortened practice, left in their wake an indelible mark on art and its future practitioners.[ii] There are many photographs, and a handful of videos, of Matta-Clark at work that prima facie perpetuate the myth of the ‘heroic’ artist figure. In his case they include: jack-hammering his way through concrete walls making Conical Intersect (1975), rendered all the more violent by the absence of noise in the still and silent moving images; the artist climbing—without a harness—a flimsy rope ladder hand-made in his German hotel room, that he’d attached to the top of a sheer industrial chimney for Jacob’s Ladder (1977); the artist swinging from the roof of a suburban house in the breeze to complete the cut in Splitting (1974)—again no safety harness. With Matta-Clark the list goes on. But the promise of feats of daring, and lack of temerity, is not Matta-Clark’s legacy (or, at least, only a small part of it) to which works in the exhibition Gordon Matta-Clark: Open House surely attest.

Gordon Matta-Clark was born to Spanish Surrealist painter Roberto Matta Echuarren and Anne Clark, and although they separated soon after, Matta was an ongoing influence in his son’s life. Like his father, Matta-Clark studied architecture, attending Cornell university, then a key site of investigation and theoretic rigour in the field, from 1962 to 1968. From the beginning Matta-Clark had difficulty with the prevailing architectural winds of the time. He (again, like his father[iii]) respected Le Corbusier[iv] but was critical of the extent to which his theories were prevalent in the united States at the time and the way in which they were interpreted and valorised.

Matta-Clark undertook fine art classes as part of his curriculum, in which he excelled. Though, with a highly influential figure in the Surrealist movement as a father, and the legendary Marcel Duchamp as a god-father, this hardly comes as a surprise. After completing his degree in architecture he spent a further year living in Ithaca, assisting with the seminal Earth Art exhibition of 1969 staged in conjunction the university, assisting artists such as Robert Smithson, Hans Haake, Jan Dibberts, and presciently working with Dennis Oppenheim on his frozen lake piece,[v] cutting into the ice sheet with saws. Soon after he moved back to New york, where he had grown up, and ten years of art-making follow before his death in 1978 of pancreatic cancer, aged 35.

Matta-Clark’s background, his long engagement with architecture at the academy, as well as the formative experience of intervention in the public realm, are all important considerations in the development of his practice. Much of Matta-Clark’s approach to architecture is misunderstood or overlooked: his engagement with the ideas of Le Corbusier and others; the desperate desire to ‘push things forward’; his frustrations at public obsession with the ‘surface’ and ‘function’ of buildings over the intimate and personal experiences of them; at the constant drive to pull down communities and build them new and ‘better’.

Matta-Clark founded the Anarchitecture group with ten others in 1973. At first glance the preoccupations of this group seem at odds with his commitment to community and his near nostalgia for the architecture of the city (as, for many, are his architectural interventions). While these subsequent works can be read in a very sculptural way, the initial ideas Matta-Clark articulated through found imagery in the Anarchitecture group exhibition (1974) centred around buildings failing, falling or being crashed into. Destruction, or at least perversion of function, was central to his proposition then. Most prophetic perhaps is an image of the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers, with black X’s etched over each (Matta-Clark was highly critical of the building and its imposing presence in New york’s skyline). Conjoined in our contemporary readings of this work must surely be one of his notes, which simply states:

A RESPONSE TO COSMETIC DESIGN COMPLETION THROUGH REMOVAL COMPLETION THROUGH COLLAPSE COMPLETION THROUGH EMPTINESS[vi]

In many ways Anarchitecture bears some resemblance to aspects of other ‘utopian’ and propositional architectural practices working around this time, Superstudio’s caustic critique comes to mind, as does Yona Friedman’s Ville spatiale (‘the spatial City’), wherein a modular architecture was to be accessible by a city’s residents: one could pull the constituent pieces, which were suspended above in netting, for constructing something whenever it was needed—shelter, a bridge—and then return them to the collective pool for re- use. Anarchitecture was, as Matta-Clark wrote on an art card, ‘about making space without building it’. This idea resonates in more recent times in the practices and projects of artists such as Atelier Bow-Wow who, in their words, find ways to turn ‘public space into social space’,[vii] and is certainly evoked—with a varied range of reference to Matta-Clark—by many artists whose practices have been charactised as belonging to Relational Aesthetics.[viii]

Matta-Clark’s ideas were not about destruction— most of his projects utilised only derelict or condemned structures—they are in fact propositions for buildings and the process of living in and around them. Or, as Matta-Clark simply put it: ‘The pieces I have done that have ‘architectural’ implications are really about non-architecture about something that’s an alternative to…the established architectural vocabulary.’[ix] Many of these projects, including the works in this exhibition, were accompanied by drawings, made with graphite, felt-tip pen and crayons, often in vivid colour and in a rudimentary, childlike style almost as if they were finished in a rush, with half a mind to something else. Viewing them now, they most naturally read as sketches, plans for thinking about and around his sculptural works, researching and theorising, in much the same way Matta-Clark used language and wordplay to extend his thesis.

Sketches, but not plans.[x] Instead they are models, manifestations of energy and movement.[xi] They are starting points for the physicality depicted in these video works— somehow lost within the stillness of the building fragments or collages—which suggest new propositional spaces, improvised from these initial sketches, though performed rather than designed.

I feel my work intimately linked with the process as a form of theatre in which both the working activity and sculptural changes to and within the building are the performance. I also include free interpretation of movement as gesture, both metaphoric, sculptural, and social into my sense of theatre.[xii]

As the works get bolder, larger, less sanctioned, the mythical element of the making starts to grow. Surreptitious activity, creeping into spaces at night, then launching into an aural and architectural assault of mechanical saws meeting plaster and floorboards, pickaxes and jackhammers meeting concrete and brick. As dangerous and exciting as these actions still feel today, they mark a departure from the works presented in Gordon Matta-Clark: Open House, which are more reflective and collaborative, relying on others to complete the circle and the works.

His practice leads in two directions: the purposeful deconstituting[xiii] of taken-for- granted buildings and edifices; and the constituting or reconstituting of spaces without ‘buildings’ to enable new social engagement. The Great American Dream is cracked open, letting in the sunlight, in Splitting. The suburban home becomes a canvas for a temporal, geometric exploration in Bingo Ninths (1974). Interstitial space becomes a site of conviviality in Tree Dance (1971). Re-valued abandoned detritus is transformed into shelter in Open House (1972).

Tree Dance, with its writhing, lounging mass of bodies resembling a pyjama party, is particularly reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s discussion of spaces he termed ‘heterotopias’. Heterotopias are conceived as spaces in opposition to utopian (or non-) space, ‘different space that can contest the space we live in’.[xiv] ‘Disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter’, are the spaces of heterotopias.[xv] Matta- Clark could see other orders when he regarded a tree, or a dumpster, or indeed a building. According to Daniel Defert’s analysis:

[Heterotropias are spatio-temporal] places where I am and yet I am not, as in the mirror or the cemetery, or where I am another, as in the brothel, the vacation resort, or the festival: carnival transformations of ordinary existence, which ritualise splits, thresholds, and deviations, and localise them as well.[xvi]

It is fascinating to reflect on Matta Clark’s later, grander, architectural intervention works though the prism of this last phrase— Day’s End (1975) at Pier 52, Conical Intersect (1975) in Les Halles Paris, The Caribbean Orange (1978)[xvii]—but this impulse, and ability to conceive of another order, clearly underscored his conceiving of even the earlier Splitting and Bingo Ninths works in the exhibition:

…The things we studied always involved such surface formalism that I had never a sense of the ambiguity of a structure, the ambiguity of a place, and that’s the quality I’m interested in generating in what I do. To some degree that’s the aspect I think of as sculptural, a vigorous transformation process that starts to redefine the given. In the case of the Humphrey Street building it was cutting.[xviii]

And, indeed, there are hints that the two seemingly distinct areas of investigation that Gordon Matta-Clark: Open House foregrounds were beginning to find convergence in single rather than separate projects. In his 1976 interview with Donald Wall, Matta-Clark reflects:

A specific project might be to work with an existing neighbourhood youth group and to involve them in converting the all too plentiful abandoned buildings into a social space. In this way, the youth could get both practical information about how buildings are made and, more essentially some first-hand experience with one aspect of the very real possibility of transforming their space.[xix]

The four projects presented in this exhibition exemplify dual trajectories in Matta-Clark’s practice, both of which can be thought of along the lines of intervention or interruption: the first in terms of the existing built environment, and its surfaces, and the second in terms of social flow and interaction. At their heart they both question the function of space and objects, and our assumptions about what pre-exists in our lived space (and this includes a questioning of the art ‘object’ itself within contemporary practice). While clearly these two concerns were beginning to fuse within Matta-Clark’s practice, its open-ended nature (as well as its brevity) has bestowed a potent legacy to subsequent generations of artists who owe much to his vision and spirit.

Simon Maidment 2009

[i] Donald Wall interview, ‘Gordon Matta-Clark’s Building Dissections’, Arts Magazine, May 1976. Reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark, Ed. Corinne Diserns, Phaidon, 2003.

[ii] The idea of myth within Matta-Clark’s oeuvre has been the subject of scholarship for some time, and won’t be explicitly dealt with here, except to note the humour within one of his alchemic works. These incorporated organic materials, decaying and growing mould, with quicksilver, steel, and plastics, and, for the piece Museum (1970), a copy of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist examination of myth, The Raw and the Cooked.

[iii] Roberto Matta worked as an apprentice to Le Corbusier drafting the drawings for La Ville Raieuse, the project that was to have such an effect on urban planning within the United States. James Attlee writes: ‘As has been frequently reported, he rejected his employer’s ideas, proposing in an article in the surrealist journal Minotaure an apartment with walls “like wet sheets that change shape to fit our psychological fears”, furnished with biomorphic couches that appear in his illustrations to mould to and at the same threaten to swallow the human body’. James Attlee, ‘Towards Anarchitecture: Gordon Matta-Clark and Le Corbusier’, Tate Papers, Spring 2007.

[iv] Donald Wall: ‘Would you cut into or displace a section of a Corbusier building?’ Gordon Matta-Clark: ‘No. I don’t see why that would be desirable. What would be the point? He did the same thing as I am doing now. He took a box and broke it up in ways that were inherently valid then. Right?’ Donald Wall interview, 1976.

[v] Beebe Lake Ice Cut or Accumulation Cut (1969).

[vi] Note card 1146, undated, estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, on deposit at the CCA, Montreal.

[vii] In conversation with the author, 2006.

[viii] None more clearly than Rirkrit Tiravanija’s practice, and his homage exhibition Rirkrit Tiravanija & Gordon Matta-Clark, David Zwirner Gallery, New york (2008).

[ix] Liza Béar interview, ‘Gordon Matta-Clark: Splitting the Humphrey Street Building’, 21 May 1974, Avalanche, December 1974. Reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark, Ed. Corinne Diserns, Phaidon, 2003.

[x] ‘If needed we work to disprove the common belief that all starts with the plan. There are forms without plans—dynamic orders and disorders’. Gordon Matta-Clark, notebook, estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, on deposit at the CCA, Montreal. Reprinted in Attlee, 2007.

[xi] Jochen Volz: ‘[A model is] an abstract representation of a system from the modeller’s viewpoint. It helps to stimulate reality, and in doing so to question and understand that reality…’. Jochen Volz, ‘In the Making’, Fare Mondi, Making Worlds 53rd International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale catalogue, Eds. Jochen Volz & Daniel Birnbaum, 2009.

[xii] Donald Wall interview, 1976.

[xiii] The act of constituting is also doubly important—and Matta- Clark, like his god-father, adored nothing more that doubling and double entendre—in that cooking and food was central to many of his projects, most clearly perhaps Food, a restaurant / art project he co-initiated in New york’s Soho in 1971.

[xiv] Michel Foucault, ‘utopie et littérature’ [‘utopia and literature’], broadcast paper, December 7, 1966.

[xv] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Routledge, 1970.

[xvi] Daniel Defert, ‘Foucault, Space and the Architects’, Documenta X: Politics/Poetics, Cantz Verlag, 2000.

[xvii] Or Circus.

[xviii] Liza Béar interview, 1974.

[xix] Donald Wall interview, 1976.

Photo: Gordon Matta-Clark, Program Six (1974-76),
courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

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