Cutting Up the City in Crisis: Gordon Matta-Clark and the Urban Commons
By Jeffrey Patrick Colgan and Jeffrey Escoffier
The traditional narrative of twentieth century urban living has often concerned itself only with the antipodal philosophies and practices of urban planner Robert Moses and critic Jane Jacobs. This binary conception of American urban life contrasted Moses’ radical projects that aimed to remake New York to suit the automobile with Jacobs’ admonishments that quality of life required small, organic neighborhoods of diverse inhabitants and independent businesses. These philosophies, however, were both time and space-specific. Moses’ vision of the ideal city was prompted by the ascent of the automobile and the crumbling infrastructure of immigrant, tenement neighborhoods; he acknowledged a fundamental change in the modes of production and consumption and sought to drastically reorient urban life accordingly. Jacobs’ ideal, alternatively, reacted against the raze and rebuild, top-down approach of Moses. Yet she depended upon historical continuity and assumed an element of permanence in the neighborhoods she studied and strove to protect.
By the 1970s, however, much of New York City was profoundly different than it was in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. With middle-class flight and the departure of traditional industries, public monies that funded the grand top-down projects of Moses became unfeasible. As neighborhoods quickly altered in regards to their ethnic and financial make-up, any semblance of permanence, too, vanished. And the incremental, place-oriented approach of Jacobs lost its requisite conditions. In a new city characterized by crisis, ruins, and abandonment, a fundamentally new way of conceiving of the urban realm was required. The artist, activist, and ‘un-builder’ Gordon Matta-Clark was one of the first to explore and embody this new alternative — and he remains a representative figure of the unique cultural and political ferment of 1970s New York City.
Matta-Clark is most famous for making massive cuts into abandoned buildings — by splitting them in half; by carving large crescents, rectangles, or conic sections into the outside walls; and by chain-sawing through floors and ceilings. However, it is his vision of the de-industrializing metropolis as a city of possibility that makes his work an essential contribution to twentieth century urban thought. His approach to the urban realm rejected a clean image of historical continuity in favor of the radical discontinuity of times of disaster. He accepted the city as it was, presently, for him — dirty, contested, and struggling — and devised strategies for reclaiming dignity amidst a ruinous landscape.
Trained as an architect, Gordon Matta-Clark was often considered a sculptor or a performance artist, but he was also sometimes called an ‘anarchitect’ — a term that embodies his unconventional and seemingly negative approach. Born in 1943 in New York, raised in SoHo during the epic battle to save the neighborhood from Moses’ plan to build an expressway from Brooklyn to New Jersey, he graduated from Cornell University’s School of Architecture in 1968. He died ten years later at the age of 35 from pancreatic cancer. He left behind a legacy of sociability and proactive engagement with his community and the inhabitants and buildings that constituted it. As many of his works were illegal and transitory and are only accessible now through films and photographs, there was an essential documentary aspect to experiencing his works — this element of ephemerality underlines his emphasis on working with the city as is and treating the urban realm as a commons that can and should be acted upon yet not possessed.
Books, articles, and exhibitions about the work of Gordon Matta-Clark have steadily appeared over the years. Among the most recent were an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which ran from November 2017 to April 2018, and two books, one a collection of essays edited by Antonio Sergio Bessa and Jessamyn Fiore and the other a “forensic investigation” by Mark Wigley of Matta-Clark’s concept of anarchitecture. Bessa and Fiore’s Gordon Matta-Clark, Anarchitect (New Haven: Bronx Museum of the Arts in association with Yale University Press, 2017) was published in conjunction with the exhibition at the Bronx Museum and, more than any other book on the artist, explores the political and social vision underlying his work. As Cara M. Jordan notes in her essay, Matta-Clark’s “unique approach was inextricably linked to the abundance of problems occurring in New York during the 1970s, when a prolonged financial crisis and the threat of bankruptcy resulted in massive budget cuts and widespread layoffs that forced libraries and firehouses to shutter and piles of garbage to stand in the streets, uncollected.“
In the early 1970s, Matta-Clark and a group of fellow artists met in their downtown lofts to plan an exhibition to be called “Anarchitecture” at 112 Greene, a gallery owned by their friend Jeffrey Lew. In Cutting Matta-Clark: The Anarchitecture Investigation (Zurich: Lars Muller/Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2018) Wigley reports on his investigation to determine whether or not the show ever took place and what significance the term anarchitecture had for Matta-Clark. And although Matta-Clark used the term throughout his life, he used it almost exclusively in his private correspondence and writing; it remains unclear how the term related to his political and artistic vision. However, since his death the term has been widely used to characterize Matta-Clark’s work — in large part because it seems consistent with the disruptive aspect of his cuttings, his guerilla attack on property rights and city regulations, and his use of trash and discarded materials.
Matta-Clark devoted himself to what he called ‘unbuilding’ — in which he engaged in making huge cuts into abandoned buildings, using salvaged materials from dumpsters, incorporating trash into his sculptures, and sawing vacant suburban houses in half — which served, at times, as social and political commentary. For example, by making his cuts in abandoned apartment buildings in the Bronx, Matta-Clark not only called attention to the deplorable conditions for the New Yorkers who lived in those buildings, but he also revealed the substandard and inadequate methods of construction. In the spirit of Marxist philosopher Theodore Adorno’s negative dialectics, his cuts showed that the crumbling buildings had failed to perform their ‘ideal purpose,’ that is, to provide stable shelter. He showed that actual buildings are not identical to their ideal purposes. “[U]ndoing a building,” he explained, revealed “many aspects of the social conditions against which I am gesturing.” He believed that buildings were “a model of prevailing social structures” and that his deconstructive activity helped to demonstrate the “need for change.”
His unbuilding also served to bring attention to a fundamental notion of community that, he seemed to imply, exists beneath the roles and relationships of particular social and economic structures. By dismantling the edifice — actually breaking apart the walls, floors, and ceilings of apartment buildings and homes — he made porous the boundaries (of houses, perceived difference, class, etc.) that are perceived as non-contestable social divisions. By opening up the interior, he reaffirmed the unavoidable interconnection of community members, while also commenting upon the tenuous nature of social roles and identities, especially in times of crisis and ruin — of which 1970s New York City was very much an example.
Matta-Clark was not content in demonstrating how modern architecture and urban design had created an inadequate built environment: he was intent on finding new ways of making a crumbling city more livable. In 1971, along with some fellow SoHo artists, he opened a restaurant called Food to provide his neighbors with affordable and nutritious meals — in part because he believed that cooking and eating were quotidian arts, and it was in the quotidian that dignity was to be found in the city in crisis. Relatedly, a formative experience for the young artist was his discovery of a homeless man living under the Brooklyn Bridge who had fashioned an elaborate living space (including a rudimentary stove and wash basin) from discarded materials. The homeless man was able to make creative use of the materials that were available to him, fashioning a space that offered relative comfort, an element of privacy, and a sense of agency and dignity in an inhospitable environment. This making use of refuse or the quotidian made its way into his art projects, such as the “Garbage Wall” that he fashioned from cement and debris or, in another art piece, an enclosed living space that he assembled from gutted cars.
Alarmed by the increasing presence of ruins throughout the city, Matta-Clark turned in the mid-1970s to the more than fifty unused wharfs and piers built along the Hudson River from Canal Street up to midtown. “[S]tanding wide open without no-trespassing signs or public warnings of any kind,” he noted, “city-condoned anarchy reigns there.” He proposed that “in the midst of this state of affairs it would seem within the rights of an artist or any other [person] for that matter to enter such premises with a desire to improve the property, to transform the structure in the midst of its ugly criminal state into a place of interest, fascination and value.”
In 1975 Matta-Clark engaged in his most celebrated example of unbuilding in New York at Pier 52, at the point where the West Side Elevated Highway had collapsed the year before (and which remained in disrepair for 15 years) and across from Gansevoort Street (the current site of the Whitney Museum). The pier, as he noted, was “an intact nineteenth-century industrial relic of steel and corrugated tin, looking like an enormous Christian basilica whose dim interior was barely lit by the clerestory windows fifty feet overhead…. [It was also] a mugger’s lane for the sexual underground community.” Called “Day’s End," Matta-Clark’s artwork consisted of a series of huge parabolic incisions in one of the walls and the floor of the pier. At the end of the day the setting sun, the shadows, and the reflections from the water created a dramatic effect. One observer said that it reminded her of “the first moments of seeing a Michelangelo, … in a cathedral with the flying buttresses and light through stained glass. [But I was] also afraid.” Another reported that it was “a mysterious, decrepit place — a huge space — and the cuts had a certain scale. It was frightening… dangerous … to go into an abandoned place and chop it up — he was … flirting with some sort of abyss.” Day’s End, by transforming a once essential, yet utterly prosaic, piece of the city’s economic infrastructure into an aesthetic and spiritual experience dramatized the struggle of the urbanite in the city in crisis.
The widespread abandonment of buildings during the 1970s created a particular type of urban commons, “an environment,” as Antonio Sergio Bessa says in his introduction, “where anyone might feel free to act upon a building” — by removing a wall, cutting a hole in a floor, or founding a community-focused restaurant. “When I demolish a building,” Matta-Clark wrote, “I act against many social conditions or restrictions…first of all, I try to open a breach through a state of enclosure conditioned not only by physical necessities, but by the industry that creates the proliferation of urban and suburban boxes guaranteeing the ideal conditions to obtain isolated, passive consumers, an audience kept in a state of captivity.” Matta-Clark’s work, especially pieces like “Day’s End,” participate in the act of reclaiming the spaces in the city made available by the hollowing out that resulted from de-industrialization and the 1970s urban crisis.
These acts of reclamation were occasioned by a radically new urban attunement, or the manner in which a person lives in, experiences, or acts upon the urban environment — an attunement that Gordon Matta-Clark expressed and embodied. Instead of seeing the city as a foreign, distant, and unchangeable other, his attunement acknowledged the city as a commons characterized by possibility — a realm that is able to be acted upon, to be changed, and made one’s own. And this act of reclamation, and seeing the city as possibility, was incredibly important for those who lived in 1970s New York — itself a city in crisis — as it allowed for dignity in the face of ruin.
In Gordon Matta-Clark’s 2017/2018 exhibition at the Bronx Museum, there was a small and easily missed piece in the corridor adjacent to one of the museum’s larger halls. The piece, no more than a few inches squared, was an impromptu puzzle set with an accompanying image serving as a guide. Significantly, though, the puzzle pieces were found detritus — cigarette butts, matches, washers, stones, pieces of dirt and lint, and candy. The collection could easily have been the pile resulting from the sweeping of an unkempt room. But the objects, which each had been at some previous time cast aside as refuse, when they were deliberately brought together and constituted as a whole, acknowledged and celebrated the daily moments of consumption, production, and disposal. And without recourse to grandiosity, capital, or power, the piece made use of what was available and imbued them with meaning, value, and dignity.
Jeffrey Patrick Colgan is one of the founders of the Network for Culture & Arts Policy, the producer of the DROP DEAD podcast series, and a writer on political and social philosophy. Jeffrey Escoffier is the author of American Homo: Community and Perversity (recently re-released by Verso Books) and a research associate at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Together they are writing a book on the economic crisis and cultural creativity in 1970s New York City.