Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect at the Bronx Museum of the Arts
By Craig Lee
In an unexpected but deft move, Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect at the Bronx Museum of Arts (November 8, 2017 to April 8, 2018) begins in the lobby above the XM Café — a partnership with Fountain House, a community program supporting people with mental illness. Upon entering the museum, accessible to all through the free admission policy, visitors turn and see an open seating area filled with tables and chairs with the café’s food and beverage service counter against the back wall. Above, where one might find a menu display board, instead is the introductory wall panel for the exhibition. Rather than providing a comprehensive survey of Gordon Matta-Clark’s too brief (he died of pancreatic cancer in 1978 at 35 years of age), but prolific and influential creative practice in the 1970s, the exhibition is tightly organized around a handful of key projects and explorations.
The co-curators, Antonio Sergio Bessa, Bronx Museum Director of Curatorial and Education Programs, and Jessamyn Fiore, independent curator and co-director of the Matta-Clark Estate, show the first of these, Food, a restaurant-cum-performance piece, in the café itself through the projection of a sixty-minute film and a display case with several photographs and ephemera related to the life and operation of the piece and place.
Founded by Matta-Clark and artist Carol Gooden, along with artists Tina Goirouard, Suzanne Harris, and Rachel Lew, among others who contributed to the construction, menu planning, cooking, and meal service, Food opened on September 25, 1971 in a renovated commercial space and former luncheonette at the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets in SoHo. In gutting the interior walls to create an open-plan kitchen and dining room, it also marked the first instance of Matta-Clark’s well-known practice of architectural cutting and displaying the removed physical fragment in the gallery (in this case nearby at 112 Greene Street), an art object in the form of spolia and social critique. While short-lived, closing in June 1973, Food contained many of the key ideas that characterized Matta-Clark’s boundary-breaking practice between art, architecture, and our experience of them: the critical appreciation of derelict, neglected sites through physical intervention; an exploratory, innovative approach to the documentation of conceptual ideas and ephemeral work; and enacting social change through deliberate acts to develop, even redevelop, communities.
Across the lobby, at the top of a set of ramps, twenty photographs are installed, staggered in various individual and paired groupings, part of a 1974 series, Untitled (Anarchitecture), which gives the exhibition its name. A combination of “anarchy” and “architecture,” the portmanteau expressed the opposing forces of chaos and order visibly present in the American built environment and postwar life, which he discussed with a collective group of other artists at the time. Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell University, graduating in 1968. This training informed his creative practice and left him especially attuned to the failure of modernist architecture to impose a rational worldview in an uncontrollable world. Two adjacent photographs, for example, depict this visual contradiction: the planned efforts of a housing subdivision razed by a tornado exposing a grid of concrete foundation pads and the orderly rows of a tree farm interrupted by jangled cars askew from a train accident bisecting the fields and picture plane. These pictures encapsulate the subversion of expectations and jarring contrasts that animate the exhibition and Matta-Clark’s efforts to make meaning through the considered juxtaposition of observations, ideas, and acts.
From the open, bright space of the lobby, visitors move into the exhibition galleries proper, first entering an enclosed, darkened room. Inside, a row of chairs faces a wall-size projection of the piece Substrait (Underground Dailies) (1976), the title of the work a pun of “substrate” and its quality of being layered and found beneath the surface. The thirty-minute film tracks Matta-Clark’s exploration of six places set below New York City: the Croton Aqueduct at High Bridge; a pumping station at 13th street; the railroad tracks below Grand Central Station; the crypt at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; a subway in Flushing; and the digging of a municipal water supply tunnel. This cinematic documentation of urban spelunking, a journey often filmed in color above ground before the explorers descend below and the camera switches to black and white, reveal the moment of appreciative awe of coming upon the usually unacknowledged but critically vital spaces and structures of urban life. While admiring the complex subterranean infrastructure of the pumping station at 13th street, the film’s narrator admires the sight as “the most beautiful flowing sewers in the city.” Elsewhere in the gallery, a single frame holds two photographs that comprise the work titled, Above and Below (1976). The top image depicts a midtown street scene alive with vehicle and pedestrian traffic set against the cavernous space of a water tunnel below ground, a visual synthesis of the terrestrial and subterranean worlds, an acknowledgement of the complex systems, visible and hidden, and always present, that are a part of urban life.
The next gallery — a large, open, double-height space — pairs two of Matta-Clark’s works, one a well-known series and the other lesser known, but both especially connected to the Bronx. The series Bronx Floors (1972) occupies the middle of the room, represented by a physical object and set of photographs from his work that used the interior spaces of abandoned buildings on Boston Road as the object, subject, and medium of his focus. This series is part of Matta-Clark’s famous practice of architectural interventions, cutting, slicing, and removing sections of empty buildings for their display, an exercise in spatial reconfiguration, use of the ready-made, and social critique. The walls around this gallery space are filled with photographs from the series Graffiti (1973). In this work, Matta-Clark documented the proliferation of graffiti in New York City, especially in Harlem and the Bronx. The photographs, some hand-colored, which he called photoglyphs, reveal a probing, catholic eye trained on the canvas of the city, finding visual and graphic poetry in the urban vernacular that many others at the time did not. By pairing these two series of Matta-Clark’s work in the Bronx, this gallery makes the strongest case for Matta-Clark’s relevance for visitors, especially local residents, bringing forward the rich interior and exterior life of a community, despite initial outward appearances or stereotypes.
The final gallery presents the ideas established in Bronx Floors and Graffiti — incisive architectural incisions and a critical, expanded attention to the urban vernacular — by gathering three larger-scale and more familiar works. Photographs, sketches, and, most prominently, a film visualize Conical Intersect (1975) and Day’s End (1975), two monumental architectural interventions in Paris and New York, respectively. The site-specific French work consisted of carving a cone through two seventeenth-century row houses, exposing their interiors before their ultimate demolition to accommodate the Centre Pompidou, urban planning by tabula rasa methods. In downtown Manhattan, Matta-Clark cut-out several geometric openings into an abandoned warehouse on the no-longer extant Pier 52 on the Hudson River, but a site in the Meatpacking District now opposite the Whitney Museum of American Art. The films, each around twenty minutes, are especially illuminating. They document the work and labor required to alter each structure, a process revealing new spaces, views, and light. In the course of watching, each film offers a meditation about the larger dynamics of urban change at that moment, but also push contemplation into how these areas have transformed, for better or worse, through art and culture in the ensuing decades. Walls and Wallspaper (1972) are the third major work, Matta-Clark’s photographic documentation of former interior now exterior party walls exposed from the partial demolition of buildings in the South Bronx. In addition to several black and white photographs highlighting the lush material and textural contrasts, the showstopper is an entire gallery wall set aside for Wallspaper. The installation, Matta-Clark’s Walls photographs, but now colored, printed on newsprint, and arranged en masse, calls into question hierarchies of value at scales ranging from the reproduced image to urban planning reform efforts.
The most telling intentions of Matta-Clark as he matured as both an artist and a person into his thirties exist in a display case in a corner of the final gallery, a fitting end for the show though easy to overlook. The papers from his successful 1977 fellowship proposal to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to build, create, and support a Resource Center and Environment Youth Program for Loisada are on display here. The project underlies his desire to use redefined notions of what art making is to enact direct, transformative change in people’s lives. He passed away before he could see it fully realized, but it was to be a site to collect construction material and salvaged objects from an increasing amount of abandoned and demolished buildings on the Lower East Side for community reuse, in addition to children’s programming to raise awareness and efforts for recycling, gardening, and park spaces. Through using institutional structures and forms of support in combination with creative thinking to increase community engagement and elevate neighborhood conditions, the ideas and spirit of Matta-Clark’s innovative efforts in social practice remain as vital as ever. Their legacy seen in spaces as small as a museum café’s partnering with local vendors and training programs to the Bronx Museum’s community emphasis through free admission and a mission to be a “crossroad where artists, local residents, national, and international visitors meet.” All a fitting site to reassess Matta-Clark, in the city he called home and a borough that offered generative inspiration.
Craig Lee is a PhD candidate at the University of Delaware, and an Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Museum Education at the Museum of the City of New York.