The small Bronx Museum of the Arts regularly hits above its weight. It is doing so again with “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect,” a streamlined exhibition of the work of this insurrectionary artist. The show creates a remarkably full picture of an irrepressible and unfailingly D.I.Y. maverick who is revered as one of the prime movers in the juggernaut of Conceptual, Process and Performance art that emerged in the late 1960s and ’70s. With a range that few of his peers equaled, Matta-Clark contributed to all of these genres.
He and his twin brother, John Sebastian, were born in New York to the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta and Anne Clark, an American artist and fashion designer. The parents separated shortly after their birth, and the boys were raised primarily in Greenwich Village by their mother. Matta-Clark (1943-1978) studied architecture at Cornell University, and evolved into a kind of urban land artist who used his skills to reshape and transform architecture into an art of structural explication and spatial revelation. He is best known for cutting up derelict buildings scheduled for demolition, turning them into giant temporary installations or extracting fragments from them that he then exhibited as sculpture.
This show, organized by Antonio Sergio Bessa, the museum’s director of curatorial and education programs, and Jessamyn Fiore, an independent curator and co-director of the Gordon Matta-Clark Estate, is beautifully staged in separate capsules of work. It doesn’t attempt to give us a wide-angle view of Matta-Clark’s brief but prolific and extremely diverse career, barely a decade in length, which ended with his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. It concentrates on his photographs and videos, seen in appropriately large projections, and the ways he constantly fused art and the documentation of art.
Nonetheless, the exhibition captures his restless intelligence and, most important, his relationship with the city and the urban landscape, which were sources of both inspiration and material. “Anarchitect” also indicates the freedom that the deterioration of the South Bronx in the 1970s granted him. Following the clarity of the exhibition’s staging, the focus here is on its main works or groupings.
‘Untitled (Anarchitecture)’ (1974)
Matta-Clark may or may not have known about the 1970 article “Towards Anarchitecture,” by the British architect and theorist Robin Evans, when he started using the subversive hybrid of anarchy and architecture in the mid-1970s, but it perfectly personifies his attitudes. The show begins with a piece consisting of 20 photographs, about half of them stock images of disasters seen from above. Installed outside the exhibition galleries, these visceral images introduce Matta-Clark’s sense of humor and his mordant eye for violent intersections of the built and natural worlds.
The photographs show collapsed buildings and bridges, a housing development leveled by a tornado, train wrecks and floods. In one, cars crowd together on the ramped roadway of a railroad crossing, like rats clinging to driftwood. But the images taken by the artist deepen the mood of life irrevocably disrupted, especially in retrospect. In three, tombstones in a cemetery are seen from different angles. Another reveals the gap of space between the towers of the World Trade Center. And yet another was taken from one of the windows of Matta-Clark’s top-floor loft at 155 Wooster Street in SoHo, from which his twin brother would jump to his death in 1977. The image catches the large ink-black shadow of the building’s profile cast on West Houston Street.
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Matta-Clark’s interest in tunneling through things is reflected in a series of tours he took with a few friends, armed with a video camera, along New York City’s subterranean network. Old railroad tracks beneath Grand Central Terminal, the crypt at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the 13th Street storm sewer and pumping station were among the sites visited. Documented by a series of murky video clips whose primary audio consists of the voices of different guides, they provide a heady sense of the artist’s daring and curiosity and a healthy dose of suspense, as if the Phantom of the Opera might be lurking.
‘Garbage Wall’ (1970)
Matta-Clark made his first “Garbage Wall” at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village in 1970. Originally conceived as the ephemeral set for a performance, it mixed garbage with concrete. But Matta-Clark soon saw that combination had possibilities for both cheap housing and communal art; either way it was something that could be made by anyone. For this exhibition, Jane Crawford, Matta-Clark’s widow and co-director of his estate (and Ms. Fiore’s mother), oversaw the Bronx Museum Teen Council in the making of a new, colorful “Garbage Wall” installed on the museum’s terrace.
Bronx Graffiti (1973)
The show’s greatest revelation may be a grouping of about 30 photographs in black and white and, it seems, in color, that Matta-Clark took of graffiti on subway cars and walls and buildings in the South Bronx. They have never been exhibited in such abundance, and their delicacy and color enlivens the show, especially the close-ups of walls.
And even more when you realize the color images were actually hand-colored by Matta-Clark using an airbrush. They add a new twist to his penchant for interacting with the urban environment — though here he is adding rather than subtracting — and emphasize his gift for pictorial beauty. The close-up images of wall graffiti with added color tend to be the liveliest. Had Matta-Clark lived into old age, he might even have taken up other forms of painting, or at least built on these.
‘Bronx Floors’ (1972-73)
Some of Matta-Clark’s first interventions in the urban architectural fabric were the pieces of floor (including the beams and ceilings beneath them), roughly four-feet square, that he cut from abandoned buildings in the South Bronx.
Several photographs and photocollages document three of these extractions, and the show includes a single example, its only sculpture. “Bronx Floors,” from the Museum of Modern Art, is displayed on a pedestal against a wall, more like a relic than the still-shocking ready-made fragment that it is. It has deep turquoise linoleum with a gold quatrefoil pattern and two thresholds, suggesting that it lay at the juncture of three rooms.
‘Day’s End’ (1975)
One of Matta-Clark’s long-gone masterpieces is “Day’s End,” a site-specific piece executed without permits on one of the decrepit piers on the Hudson River in the West Village, which then served mainly for assignations among gays. (Four photographs by Alvin Baltrop, who documented life on the piers, as well as “Day’s End,” hang nearby.) Matta-Clark was after light and water views. He cut a big semicircle through the corrugated steel end-wall of the piece. This half-moon, orange slice or primitive rose window was echoed, just inside the building, by a large quarter-circle cut through the heavy floor (but not the beams) to reveal the river below.
A short, sometimes alarming video provides glimpses of the artist, blowtorch in hand, working from what appears to be a large swing or small platform made of rope and plywood.
Last year the Whitney Museum unveiled plans to have David Hammons commemorate “Day’s End” with a full-scale steel outline of the old pier. Perhaps it should include the outlines of Matta-Clark’s cuts.
‘Conical Intersect’ (1975)
After New York City officials discovered “Day’s End,” Matta-Clark faced an arrest warrant and lawsuit. He hopped on a plane to Paris — where he had another obligation — and remained there until charges were dropped. For the ninth Paris Biennale, and with that city’s blessing and objections from both the left and the right, he tackled a large 16th-century building being demolished to make way for the Centre Pompidou. Its exoskeleton appears in the video that records the artist at work, assisted by Gerry Hovagimyan.
The result, “Conical Intersect,” was a giant tunnel that telescoped down through the building, widening as it went. It may be easier to grasp from some photo-collages here, but the video conveys the grandiosity of Matta-Clark’s vision, the fearlessness it required and the solidity of the building being torn apart; 16th-century floor beams are something to behold. Any sadness about the loss of this ancient structure may be complicated by the video’s final shot, showing a steam shovel knocking everything down, the brief “Matta-Clark” included.
Matta-Clark’s relationship to the ephemeral and the passage of time is complex and was undoubtedly balanced by his use of cameras to document what he saw and did. In addition to graffiti, he was drawn to all sorts of architectural remnants, among them, interior walls exposed during demolition. The show includes a dozen black-and-white photographs of such, sometimes from one room, sometimes in multistoried clusters, all titled “Walls” and hanging in a grid.
Across the way, an enormous wall is covered with grainy versions of similar images from the series: offset lithographs printed on newsprint that repeat their forms in changing combinations of fruity plum, citrus and lime and evoke Andy Warhol. This is “Wallspaper,” first made to cover most of a large wall at 112 Greene Street in 1972 and reprinted for subsequent exhibitions.
Near the show’s entrance, situated specifically in the museum’s cafe, a 60-minute video by Matta-Clark records mealtime at FOOD, the relaxed semi-communal restaurant, and artwork, that he and Carol Gooden founded, with other artists, on the corner of Wooster and Prince Streets in SoHo.
It was 1971 and the neighborhood was still a nexus of artistic experimentation. In perhaps his first architectural excision, Matta-Clark tore out the storefront’s walls to achieve an open-plan kitchen and exhibited one of the fragments as a sculpture at 112 Greene Street. In the video, you may recognize artists like Keith Sonnier, Tina Girouard, Richard Nonas and Suzanne Harris, as well as Matta-Clark himself.
“Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect” runs through April 8 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts; 718-681-6000, bronxmuseum.org.
Videos: Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; David Zwirner and Electronic Arts Intermix. Produced by Alicia DeSantis, Nicole Herrington and Ariana McLaughlin.