gordon matta clark exhibit bronx museum feature

A Break-Through Art Exhibit – Gordon Matta-Clark at The Bronx Museum

***

A new exhibition entitled GORDON MATTA-CLARK: ANARCHITECT recently opened at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, located at 165th Street and the Grand Concourse.

The exhibit, which lasts until April 8, consists of works made from materials that already had an architectural identity and were then transformed into sculptures. Matta-Clark was taking materials from South Bronx buildings abandoned in the early 70s, and transforming what had been elements of functional architecture into works of art.

This work, begun in 1972, was highly original, and was the focus of his short-lived artistic career; he died in 1978.

Matta-Clark was born in 1943, in New York City. His father was Matta, the influential Surrealistic painter. His mother, Anne Clark, was also a painter. Matta-Clark grew-up in New York but also lived in Paris, and Santiago, Chile. His privileged upbringing exposed him to a broad range of art works and artists, and because of his father’s reputation and connections, he met and associated with world-class artists such as  Isamu Noguchi, Marcel Duchamp, and the architect/designer/sculptor Frederick Kiesler.

He graduated from the McBurney School in 1962, and entered the architecture program at Cornell University, graduating with an architecture degree in 1968. Interestingly, Matta-Clark’s degree was not a B.Arch degree (a professional practice degree) but a B.A. in architecture, which is all theory and wouldn’t allow him to apprentice as an architect. Matta-Clark’s theoritical concern with architecture is a unifying theme in this exhibition.

How did Matta-Clark arrive at his style of sculpture which is now the focus of this museum exhibition? The years between 1968 and 1972 may be viewed as a period of artistic experimental apprenticeship for him.  One particular event influenced his sculptural style.  

From February 11 to March 16,1969, The Earth Art exhibition was “the first American museum exhibition” to present “site-specific installations” of works by nine commissioned artists. It was organized in Cornell, New York. at the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, curated by the independent curator and writer, Willoughby Sharp. Among these artists were Robert Smithson and Dennis Oppenheim, whose work and friendship would be important in Matta-Clark’s artistic development. Matta-Clark assisted Oppenheim in a work titled Beebee Lake Ice Cut, 1969, sweeping loosened pieces of ice into the lake.

In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Ideological Basis of the New Sculpture, Sharp wrote, “Earthworks show a clear emancipation from ideologies and doctrinaire esthetic codes. . . Now, it is possible for the artist to leave his studio and produce whatever he wants in the exhibition area itself, and this offers him a way of having greater control over his artistic output.” [1]

The idea of earth art or cutting the earth was very much in the air during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The phrase “exhibition area,” is suggestive of Matta-Clark’s perception of almost any space as an arena in which to create work and of his use of cutting as a means to an aesthetic end. It is important to keep in mind that Matta-Clark was trained in architecture, but never built a building, working instead with existing structures.

***

gordon matta clark bronx museum exhibit embed 1
Gordon Matta-Clark (right) and Gerry Hovagimyan working on Conical Intersect, 1975. Photo: Harry Gruyaert © 2017 Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and David Zwirner, New York.

***

As the word “ANARCHITECT,” in the exhibition title suggests (it is a combination of two words, anarchy and architect), [2] Matta-Clark’s belief was that architects had failed to build and provide affordable housing for poor people. I spoke with Les Levine, a friend of Matta-Clark about Matta-Clark’s sculptural approach:

I think Gordon in general felt architects weren’t doing any positive job, they were just falling into line with what came before them and not contributing much to the art of architecture. Very few of his friends were architects, and apart from Ingo Freed, most of his friends were artists. It is not unlike somebody taking biology and bringing it into the art world. His perverse view of architecture made these interesting sculptures. And one of the reasons architects are very much interested in it is because at a certain level, there is embedded in it, some kind of critical view of architecture. . . . Gordon’s work is definitely a negative comment on architecture. You can’t get away from that. He’s taking these aspects of architecture and he’s giving them new life at some level. [3]

The current exhibit illustrates Matta-Clark’s contribution to this new approach in architecture. Upon entering the lobby of the Bronx Museum, the visitor encounters a public café area with tables, chairs, and a coffee counter for buying drinks. Tucked into a corner of the lobby of the Bronx Museum, adjacent to a streetside window, there stands a four-foot high display case containing four 8 x 10 black-and-white photographs and three issues of Avalanche magazine, a seventies art journal that functioned as an alternative to more commercial art magazines like ARTFORUM. Avalanche was published by Liza Bear and Willoughby Sharp.

A label on the wall above the case provides us with information on FOOD, 1971-1974, a cooperatively-owned restaurant located in SOHO. The displayed photographs and open pages of Avalanche provide visual information on FOOD, what it served, how it looked and its function as a cultural hub. So too does a black-and-white film titled FOOD, projected on the wall about a foot above the display case. The film was made in 1972 and provides a slice-of-life look into how FOOD was run by Matta-Clark and his artist-business partners.

The printed issues of Avalanche, the photographs of FOOD restaurant, and the film act as a prologue to this exhibition, serving in part as introductions to Matta-Clark’s innovative art-making techniques. I enjoyed reading this material and watching part of the film but I felt the display was cramped and should have been given more space.

To get to the main exhibition hall, you must walk diagonally across the lobby toward a short flight of steps. Ascending the steps and opening a glass door, you enter a wide and high corridor, where the interior lighting is semi-dark. Here the film SUBSTRAIT (Underground Dallies), 1976, is projected and looped onto the left-side wall of the corridor. This film was made in black-and-white and has an investigative, documentary look. It was funded by NEA and CAPS grants and introduces us to Matta-Clark’s exploration of different underground areas and neglected spaces in New York. Also, two 11×14 b/w photographs titled Above and Below, 1977, hang in the right corner of the corridor, next to the glass doors leading into the first main exhibition hall.

As you enter the first exhibition hall, you encounter a free-standing wall facing you, approximately in the middle of the room. In front of the wall, sitting on a one-foot base is a rectangular-shaped fragment of wood covered by blue linoleum. This fragment is from a floor of one of the Bronx buildings. Hanging a foot or two above it on the left side of this fragment is an eleven-by-fourteen two-part b/w photograph titled Bronx Floor: Floor Hole, 1973. On the right side of the wall, positioned slightly above the fragment, are two eight-by-ten b/w photographs. The juxtaposition of an actual cut fragment alongside representative pictures of where this fragment came makes an effective combination.

***

Matta Clark Bronx Floor 1973 Bronx Museum
Gordon Matta-Clark, Bronx Floors, 1973. Gelatin silver prints. Print: 11 x 13 7/8 inches (27.9 x 35.2 cm).

***

Walk behind the free-standing wall and you will find an exhibition corner formed by the forty-five degree angle of an intersecting t-shaped wall. Hanging here is a group of six b/w photographs of cuts made to interior walls and floors in an abandoned Bronx apartment building. Each photograph provides us with a different view of the space and angle of each cut. On the other side of the wall hang color photographs of graffiti subway cars cut into small panels, framed in groups of five.

I walked back to the entrance and read the wall text to the immediate left of the entrance doors BRONX FLOORS / GRAFFITI, 1972-1973.  The text represents Matta-Clark as the only person working in these abandoned buildings, which was not the case.  I was a little disappointed that there is no reference or information in this text on Manfred Hecht, a construction worker, craftsman, and friend of Matta-Clark who assisted him in making these cuts.

Adjacent to this wall text are four framed graffiti photographs hanging on the wall. Catty-corner to this text hangs a photographic panel of five images of graffitied subway cars, along with a single, framed photograph of a graffitied wall. As you continue moving along this wall, you will encounter a corner with three framed and hanging photographs of graffitied walls dated 1973. The back wall is lined with panels and framed photographs of more graffitied walls.

There are two free-standing display cases located between the far-left corner of the hall and the left-side corner of the free-standing t-shaped wall.  One case contains three photographs and two postcards of Matta-Clark’s Graffiti Truck, 1973; a one-day event when children from the South Bronx graffitied his truck. Also in the case is a sixteen by sixteen inch painted-panel fragment from the truck. A second, free-standing display case shows two pages of a large photo album of color photographs of graffitied walls and subways, plus some of the graffiti artists. The photographs were taken by Henry Chailfant, a noted graffiti photographer

In a far right corner of the room, a smaller photograph of another graffitied wall hangs alone, adjacent to a short flight of four steps leading up to a recessed gallery area. Hung in a banner-style about seven feet high, three walls of black-and-white photographs of graffitied subway cars line the walls. Beneath this ribbon-like display of photographs, there are separate, individual b/w graffitied photographs. As you exit this alcove, turn left and you will see a small grouping of four b/w and color photographs of still more graffitied walls.

***

Mattta Clark Graffiti Bronx Museum
Gordon Matta-Clark, Graffiti: Linda, 1973. Gelatin silver print with hand coloring. Print: 18 3/4 x 31 3/4 inches (47.6 x 80.6 cm).

***

In my opinion, this first exhibition hall pays homage to Matta-Clark’s love of graffiti culture and the defiant position it demonstrated by defacing urban property. Matta-Clark took many of these photographs, but there are too many displayed here; half as many would have been sufficient to convey the point. I wish the curators had displayed some of Matta-Clark’s notebook writings about his ideas, thoughts, and feelings about work.

Walk across the room to the left side, ascend four short steps, and you will enter a second exhibition hall. As you enter this hall, you will be facing a free-standing walled structure shaped like an enlarged H. Hanging on this wall are four framed photographs of DAY’S END, 1975. It’s a signature work by Matta-Clark and one that is most-often reproduced and referenced.

On your immediate left hangs a framed, diagramatic drawing of two intersecting circles drawn by Matta-Clark, illustrating his ideas about DAY’S ENDAbout a foot to the right of this drawing, a wall text describes how the artist illegally commandeered an abandoned, covered pier (Pier 52) located on the West Side at Gansevoort and West streets. According to a 1975 Village Voice review, “The open spaced-interior of the pier had a cathedral-like presence being 350 feet long and 64 feet wide. He spent two months using a chain-saw, circular power saw, torch and chisels to cut sections of the ceiling, walls and floor. . . .The physical labor was both acrobatic and dangerous. He was sometimes hung upside down on a rope to reach beams that are covered by water at high tide or hoisted to the ceiling in a makeshift bosun’s type seat. . . .” [4]

The inside and outside color photographs the artist took of the pier after he cut the walls are beautiful.  After viewing these photographs, I suggest you turn around and watch the twenty-minute, silent film, DAY’S END, 1975, made of Matta-Clark creating this work. It is projected onto a recessed wall of the H installation.

Next, the wall text of WALLS / WALLSPAPER, 1972, introduces us to an installation of Matta-Clark’s wallpapers, created by taking photographs of each wall and then making offset color prints from the photographs. The far wall of this hall is almost completely covered by a collaged display of approximately eighty color prints. If you turn around, you will see a series of twelve framed b/w photographs of these derelict walls displayed opposite the collages.

***

matta clark embed bronx museum
Installation View, Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect, 2017. © 2017 Stefan Hagen

***

Move to the right, past the wallpaper display, and you encounter a group of color photographs of CONICAL INTERSECT, 1975, another seminal work. This particular project consisted of “two 17th century townhouses given to Matta-Clark for two weeks,” prior to the clearing and modernization of the area and buildings being destroyed to rebuild the area around Les Halles and Le Plateau Beaubourg, Paris. [5] These photographs show Matta-Clark experimenting with sculptural forms, collaging negatives into various shapes akin to the cuts he made in these townhouses.

Further along is a display case of a minor work titled, Blast from the Past, Puzzlekit, n.d., mixed materials, consisting of a handwritten note by Matta-Clark informing the reader on how to recreate a small pile of debris. As you exit this exhibition hall, stop and turn left into a small closet-like area where a display case contains two Glass Bricks, 1971, (Melted beer bottles). This exhibit accompanies a looped 16mm film titled Fire Child, 1971, projected onto a wall opposite the narrow room entrance.

Given the number of photographs in this exhibition, I would have liked to have read more about what these photographs meant to Matta-Clark. Certainly, the unique, collage-like photographic forms he created to illustrate the sculptural cuts in CONICAL INTERSECT, are an artistic advancement over his photographs of the Bronx building cuts, but there is no explanation of how or why he changed his approach.

Before leaving the exhibition, I walked through each room, looking again at various photographs and fragments. Although Matta-Clark’s work may not be quite as revolutionary as he thought, the work is nevertheless worth seeing.

Erik La Prade

C 2018

***

EXHIBIT RATING: 4 out of 5 whistles.

***

ABOUT ERIK LA PRADE

Erik La Prade lives in New York.  His interviews and articles have appeared in Art In AmericaThe Brooklyn Railartcritical, and others. His latest book is NEGLECTED POWERS. Last Word Press. 2017. Some of his poems currently appear in J Journal.  He has a B.A. and M.A. from City College.

***

PHOTO CREDITS

All images courtesy of The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Installation views (Lead-In and Embed images): © 2017 Stefan Hagen

Photo of Gordon Matta-Clark and Gerry Hovagimyan working on Conical Intersect, 1975: Photo by Harry Gruyaert © 2017 Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and David Zwirner, New York.

***

ENDNOTES

[1] Willoughby Sharp, “Notes Towards an Understanding of Earth Art”, in Earth Art, exhibition catalogue, Ithaca, NY: Andrew Dickinson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1970, n/p.

[2] ”The term, it has been noted seems to have been coined by Robin Evans in “Towards Anarchitecture.” Quoted by Bessa, Antonio Sergio. NOTHING WORKS. Gordon Matta-Clark and the Problem of Architecture. Gordon Matta-Clark. Anarchitect. Antonio Sergio Bessa. Jessamyn Fiore. The Bronx Museum of the Arts. Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 2018. Pg. 6.

[3] Author’s Interview with Les Levine. September 6, 2017. Unpublished.

[4] BourdonDavid. “The New SeasonPier Groups.” The Village Voice (September 8, 1975): 122-. 124.

[5] Jacob, Mary Jane. “Conical Intersect.” GORDON MATTA-CLARK: A Retrospective. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. May 8 – August 18, 1985. With an essay by Robert Pincus-Witten and interviews conducted by Joan Simon. Pg. 83.