by Kaegan Sparks
THE BRONX MUSEUM | NOVEMBER 8, 2017 – APRIL 8, 2018
Photographs of wreckage—buckling bridges, gas explosions, detritus bred by both neglect and natural disaster—line the ramp in the Bronx Museum’s lobby, offering a provocative if fleeting footnote to the subtitle of its current exhibition: Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect. Hung in an irregular sequence, this group of twenty black-and-white prints constitutes Matta-Clark’s contribution to an under-documented but widely historicized exhibition titled Anarchitecture. In 1974, the downtown alternative art space 112 Greene Street (co-founded by Matta-Clark) mounted the collective product of a small working group of artists, including Laurie Anderson and Richard Nonas, who rejected the calcification of cultural meaning that, for them, architecture represented. Pitting themselves against both profit-driven urban renewal campaigns and the modernist dictum “form follows function,” the group’s members instead focused on voids, liminal spaces, and moments of anarchic excess and collapse.
Following this tendency, Matta-Clark’s suite of found photographs leverages a series of contradictions: an image of the spatial interval between the gleaming, once-impervious facades of the World Trade Center towers, for instance, abuts one of a half-submerged vessel, sinking into anonymity. Thus a central problem of both capitalist expansion and the artist’s oeuvre is opened up: economic development depends on cycles of deterioration, whether through razed buildings or planned obsolescence—what some economists call “creative destruction.” Although Matta-Clark was critical of this process and its social toll, urban blight was nonetheless an elemental condition of his most famous works, the “building cuts.” The transience of the artist’s materials—often condemned or abandoned structures slated for demolition—complies with his aversion to monumentality (which in turn presents an art historical challenge: the work persists only via documentation). At the same time, Matta-Clark’s interventions serve, in retrospect, as flashpoints in the socioeconomic history of a city, bespeaking crises of poverty and systemic negligence and foreshadowing the rampant real estate speculation and gentrification that have ensued in the decades since.
Indeed, symptoms of economic fatigue in 1970s New York City, particularly in the Bronx, undergirds most of the present exhibition (apart from Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect, which he executed in Paris, all the included works are sited in New York). During the prime of Matta-Clark’s short career—he died from cancer in 1978 at age thirty-five—the city's public transportation, housing, and social services were all casualties of an under-financed municipal government barreling toward the fiscal crisis of mid-decade. This beleaguered phase, crystallized in popular memory by graffiti-saturated subway cars, is reanimated by Matta-Clark’s panoramic “photoglyphs” (photographed trains with color air-brushed by hand) encircling one of the exhibition’s largest galleries. Though they have an outsized visual presence in the show, these works are underwhelming. The real show-stoppers, as far as street art is concerned, are Henry Chalfant’s stunning images of subway car-long murals and irreverent spreads excerpted from the underground magazine IGTimes, on display in an easy-to-miss auxiliary gallery.
Atypical for Matta-Clark’s output, his graffiti photographs are anchored in the center of the gallery by some of his most recognizable architectural works. An L-shaped sculptural cut-out is flanked by multiple sets of photo documentation of Bronx Floors (1972–73), the first of the artist’s building excisions. By the early seventies white flight and the construction of Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway had led to plunging property values in the South Bronx, ushering in widespread dereliction and an arson epidemic now mythologized by the phrase “the Bronx is burning” (quipped, apocryphally, by a sports commentator during the 1977 World Series at Yankee Stadium). It was in this environs that Matta-Clark, a trained architect, began his often-illegal interventions in vacant tenements, creating precise displacements of corners, walls, and floors that resulted in salvage-like sculptures shown in galleries alongside haunting photographs of the gaps left behind.
What started as rough-hewn cross-sections developed by the mid-seventies into the more sophisticated geometries of Conical Intersect and Day’s End (both 1975), documented at the Bronx Museum by drawings, gorgeously complex photomontages, and newly remastered films. The magnificent crescent of Day’s End—an aperture cleaved, sans permit, from the corrugated steel of an abandoned Hudson pier, home at the time to a queer and trans cruising subculture—counts among the most stunning of Matta-Clark’s works in scale and visibility, fueling comparisons to his contemporary Michael Heizer’s negative cuts into the landscapes of the American west. The museum’s prominent installation of this work and Conical Intersect, both centered around large-scale projections, reinforces their weight. Yet in the context of this exhibition—perhaps by design—the relatively unassuming Bronx Floors, with its attendant kitsch and grit, all but upstages Matta-Clark’s more spectacular projects.
The aforementioned sculpture from this series is (regrettably) the singular architectural object on view. Extracting an interstitial zone between two stories of a residential building, Matta-Clark inverts this slice of floor and ceiling to a vertical position. Viewers confront strata of peeling linoleum (one layer, incredibly, is a trompe l’oeil carpet), registering decades of cheap renovations like synthetic tree rings. On the reverse, separated by a foot-wide gap, are flimsy, partially rotted beams of a ceiling, perhaps once hidden by drywall. And in the lower corner of this artifact, excavated from what was likely a well-worn kitchen, lingers an ambiguous, even abject, impasto smear. It’s these stains of use and abuse on chintzy patterned laminate that lend Matta-Clark’s transplant its specific—one hazards to say auratic—energy.
If Matta-Clark’s Anarchitecture photographs introduce one of the exhibition’s narratives, tracing Matta-Clark’s critical post-minimalist practices applied to an urban framework, a second body of work installed in the museum’s lobby suggests a different point of departure. Positioned adjacent to the cafe is a vitrine of paper ephemera and a film chronicling Matta-Clark’s collaborative venture Food, an artist-run restaurant and performance space open from 1971–74 in a then-underpopulated Soho. The film on view showcases the full gamut of Food’s operations, from early-morning negotiations in a fish market to food prep, raucous mealtime socializing, and finally the evening rituals of sweeping floors and counting change. A full-page ad in Avalanche magazine emblazoned “Food’s Family Fiscal Facts” includes a detailed line budget of the cooperative’s income and expenditures. Nearby, in Matta-Clark’s 1976 film Substrait, the artist surveys New York’s subterranean innards: a labyrinth of ducts, gears, steam pipes, sewers, and subway tracks that keep the city alive. Such an intersection conjures an unlikely counterpart in the feminist maintenance art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose performances and community-based works have tuned our attention to the unglamorous economy of social reproduction. In the seventies, Ukeles scrubbed floors and greeted New York City sanitation workers; just years earlier, Matta-Clark’s mentor Robert Smithson was testing the forces of entropy in the post-industrial wasteland of suburban New Jersey. Contending with the decade’s zeitgeist of political disillusionment and economic precarity, Matta-Clark’s eye was trained toward overlooked infrastructures—not just structural but social—with an archaeological sensitivity to traces of violent historical transformation and the banal but relentless work of survival. The artist’s lucid endeavors hold ruin and preservation in tentative balance, offering a third term through “making the right cut somewhere between the supports and collapse.”
- Quoted from a 1973 note by the artist, archived at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. https://www.cca.qc.ca/en/search/details/collection/object/369441
Kaegan Sparks is a curator and writer based in New York. She is a PhD student in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.