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How Gordon Matta-Clark Saw the City

By slicing through buildings in his art, Matta-Clark wanted to rescue them from neglect.

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

Children around the world grow up with Legos and other building toys, encouraged from a young age to imagine and construct their own environments. But most adults don’t go on to actually build buildings. How many people know how their homes were constructed, the way the brick was laid or the drywall installed? Buildings are essential, yet many of us take them for granted. We don’t know how to fix them when they fall apart.

In 1972, artist Gordon Matta-Clark began entering abandoned apartment buildings in the South Bronx and cutting holes in the floors. His cuts were strategic: neat rectangles whose clean lines contrasted with the decay around them, even as their geometry echoed nearby windows and door frames. They were also thorough: He sliced through all the layers of a given floor and removed the cutout section. In his black-and-white photographs of the series, Bronx Floors, a sunlit window can often be glimpsed through the freshly carved holes. The cuts appear as portals. They connect spaces above and below, inside and outside.

Matta-Clark knew how buildings were made. In the late sixties, he’d returned home to New York City from Cornell University, where he’d gotten an undergraduate degree in architecture. But he wasn’t interested in erecting more modernist monoliths. The buildings New York already had were crumbling, along with its infrastructure, and the city had neither the money nor the will to fix them. Matta-Clark knew firsthand the enormous cost of this neglect; his cousin died in 1973 when the Broadway building he lived in collapsed. In words that remain chillingly prescient, Matta-Clark identified the South Bronx as a neighborhood “where the city is just waiting for the social and physical condition to deteriorate to such a point that the borough can redevelop the whole area into the industrial park they really want.”

“Bronx Floors,” 1973
Courtesy of the Bronx Museum

His cuts through buildings were an intervention, an act of careful destruction, shot through with hope. He suggested that the deteriorating tenements were not a fact or a given; that they could be something else, and better. For Matta-Clark, architecture meant more than buildings—it represented the social structure of the city, including the way certain people were pushed to the margins and ignored. “In spite of no longer working as an architect, I continue to focus my attention on buildings, for these comprise both a miniature cultural evolution and a model of prevailing social structures,” he wrote in 1975. “Consequently, what I do to buildings is what some do with language and others do with groups of people: I organize them in order to explain and defend the need for change.”

Matta-Clark met regularly with a group of artists to discuss these ideas; together, they invented a name for themselves and their approach to architecture: Anarchitecture. That’s the source for the subtitle of the Bronx Museum’s current exhibition Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect. The show, which includes around 100 individual artworks but focuses mainly on a handful of key series and projects in Matta-Clark’s oeuvre, isn’t quite big enough to be a full-on retrospective (the Whitney Museum mounted one ten years ago). It’s nonetheless an insightful and galvanizing overview of the career of an artist who made a lot of exceptional work in just ten youthful years, before he died from pancreatic cancer in 1978, at the age of 35.

The show begins in the Bronx Museum’s lobby café, where a display case and film introduce Food, perhaps the project for which Matta-Clark is best known. Food was a fully operational restaurant in SoHo, founded by Matta-Clark and his partner Carol Goodden in 1971. Run in collaboration with several other artists, the place drew in people of all kinds for inexpensive, informal, creative meals. Special Sunday menus were curated by artists, including Donald Judd. As art historian Cara M. Jordan notes in the Bronx Museum catalogue, Matta-Clark’s collaborators on Food did not view it as a work of art, but he did. Indeed, even as a functioning restaurant, it embodied themes that would be crucial throughout Matta-Clark’s career: the possibilities of transformation (of which cooking is a kind), collaboration and exchange with members of a non-art community, and reimagining the substance of everyday life as artistic material.

That last idea is the master key to Matta-Clark’s work; it’s the foundation upon which everything is built. In the Bronx Museum’s first large gallery, photographs from the Bronx Floors series and one surviving sculpture—a squat, L-shaped chunk of floor whose blue linoleum is still surprisingly vibrant—occupy the center of the room, surrounded by photographs of graffiti. Matta-Clark took these pictures in the early 1970s, before graffiti culture became explosively popular in the following decade. The bulk of the photographs are close-ups of tagged walls, without any identifying building information in the frame. Hung around the gallery’s perimeter, they launch the viewer into a mysterious world of words that supplies the artworks’ titles: “Pain I is Pain II” (1973), “War 222” (1973), “Sexy” (1973).

In the decades since they were taken, the photographs have lost some of their charge; we’re far removed today from graffiti’s exciting emergence. But the volume and repetition of the pictures—sometime he shot the same wall multiple times, cropping it slightly differently—suggest that Matta-Clark was fixated, perhaps even trying to decode hidden messages. The artist, who wrote extensively and poetically in private notebooks, saw graffiti as “the people’s art,” Jessamyn Fiore, codirector of Matta-Clark’s estate, says in an interview in the catalogue: “people taking back ownership of their architecture by visually asserting themselves onto it.”

In the show’s second large gallery, we see the culmination of Matta-Clark’s efforts to take back ownership of architecture. The dual centerpieces are “Day’s End” and “Conical Intersect,” both made in 1975. The two projects are arguably his most ambitious building cuts (and neither of them survives). For the former, which was done illegally, he removed several chunks of the walls, floor, and roof of a massive metal hangar on Pier 52 on Manhattan’s West side, creating what he called a “sun and water temple.” The opening was shut down by police, and Matta-Clark was threatened with arrest and lawsuits. He fled the country for Paris, where he made the second work—this time with government sanction—for the Paris Biennale. It consisted of a large cone set at a 45-degree angle to the street, carved out of two adjacent seventeeth-century buildings that were being demolished to make way for, of all things, the Centre Pompidou.

Gordon Matta-Clark Walls, 1972
Courtesy of the Bronx Museum

Both “Day’s End” and “Conical Intersect” saw Matta-Clark working on an almost unfathomably ambitious scale—something easily forgotten when looking at photographs, in which the cuts appear elegantly simple (this is also a product of Matta-Clark’s use of basic geometric shapes). But films of each work, displayed at the Bronx Museum on opposite sides of a shared wall, show how hard-won the projects were, by documenting the artist’s labor. In “Day’s End,” Matta-Clark dangles on a DIY platform suspended from the roof while blowtorching a huge, crescent-shaped piece of wall; when it’s finally freed and sunlight comes pouring in, the moment feels like a celestial event. In “Conical Intersect,” Matta-Clark and friends hack away at cement and stone by hand as if they were tunneling their way to the outside world. Soon after they’re done, a construction worker begins demolishing another side of the same building with a bulldozer.

That visual contrast sticks in the brain, likely because it gets to the heart of Matta-Clark’s work. He and the construction worker are doing something superficially similar, but the difference in scale is significant: The bulldozer, a machine that can destroy a lot of material quickly and indiscriminately, represents the authority of central planners, and political and business interests; the artist, who works with only the tools and friends available to him, represents a kind of everyman.

Matta-Clark dreamt big but always returned to the possibilities of individual agency. The cuts were meant to create visions of new openings, but they were perhaps too metaphorical to inspire real action. Before he died, Matta-Clark began thinking about how he might do that more directly. One of his ideas was to create an organization (and artwork) called the Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for Loisaida. The center would consist of a space housing donated and salvaged materials and equipment for local community groups. The youth program would train local children and teenagers to manage the center, renovate buildings, and initiate other environmental improvement projects in the neighborhood. In his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, on view at the Bronx Museum, he called the training program “an informal school-of-the-streets.”

Matta-Clark won the fellowship in 1977 and used the money to buy a building on East 2nd Street. He died the next year, before the site could be fully cleaned up or built out. The project was promising, a visionary precursor to so much of today’s social practice art, and Matta-Clark had enlisted other artists to work on it too. But it never happened without him. He was the individual it needed.