The American artist Gordon Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell University, graduating with a B.Arch. in 1968. 1 Yet he decided while still in college to become an artist, and his métier became uselessness, fracture, and the renegade inhabitation of urban space. His professional life was packed into a hectic period between his return to his native New York City from Cornell in 1969, and his death from pancreatic cancer nine years later. In this short decade, he executed seven major site-specific works, now customarily referred to as “building cuts,” in which an abandoned building was infiltrated in toto with geometrically complex voids, cut by the artist and a few helpers using handheld tools. One of the cuts was located in Manhattan, and two more within striking distance of the city. Three were in Europe, and one was in Chicago. Some were sponsored by institutions or patrons, and some were illegal, executed guerrilla style. All were destroyed, sometimes before they were finished.
From these Piranesian environments, Matta-Clark occasionally saved sculptural chunks for exhibition. He also made films, photographs, drawings, and artist’s books. He was a pivotal figure at the artist-run gallery 112 Greene Street, a center of the Soho scene in gritty downtown Manhattan, at a time when developments in conceptualism and minimalism were meeting innovations like the Portapak video camera and the corollary emergence of performance and installation art. In collaboration with the dancer and photographer Carol Goodden, Matta-Clark cofounded FOOD restaurant on Prince Street, and with Goodden and a tight-knit group of friends — among them Laurie Anderson, Tina Girouard, Jene Highstein, Suzanne Harris, Richard Landry, and Richard Nonas — he organized the freewheeling and now semi-legendary artists’ group that called itself Anarchitecture. He is credited with having helped to establish the site-specific and performative modes of art-making now gathered under the rubric of postminimalism.
His preoccupation with literal deconstruction has overshadowed the importance of language in Matta-Clark’s art.
In the decades since his death, Matta-Clark has entered the art-historical canon as a hands-on, shirt-off materialist, a bandana-wearing daredevil vigorously involved with the experience of site, whose labor-intensive yet ultimately ephemeral endeavors resisted commodification in the art market. This reputation is deserved, and he consciously helped craft it. He really was a devil-may-care character, and he really did do most of the filthy, exhausting work of cutting buildings up himself, by hand, for the benefit of visitors who found a way to enter them in the days or weeks in which they might survive. From hardscrabble regional cities like Genoa, Italy (A W-Hole House, 1973), Englewood, New Jersey (Splitting, 1974), and Niagara Falls, New York (Bingo/Ninths, 1974), to grimy waterfronts in New York City (Day’s End, 1975) and Antwerp (Office Baroque, 1977), and even in swiftly expanding cultural hubs such as the Plateau Beaubourg in Paris (Conical Intersect, 1975), and along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile (Circus, 1978), Matta-Clark specialized in aggressive disruptions of built space.
And yet, in the posthumous reception of his art, this swashbuckling image has tended to obscure the more conceptual elements of Matta-Clark’s practice. More specifically, the artist’s undeniable preoccupation with literal deconstruction has overshadowed the fundamental importance of language and semiotic structure in his thought.
For Matta-Clark, the physical and the poetic were halves of a whole. He wrote constantly, and punning wordplay, surreal quasi-narrative provocations, and conversational exchange were integral to his understanding of sculpture, performance, and filmmaking alike. He was not, like his somewhat older contemporaries Donald Judd and Robert Smithson, a reviewer of other artists’ work, nor an essayist composing for publication. Neither was he a diarist, writing to fulfill inner needs. Much of his verbal output occupies, instead, a liminal zone between presentational and off-the-record or off-the-cuff. In place of polemic or confession, he gave interviews, drafted long-shot proposals, and kept aphoristic notes on index cards; he confected neologisms on the spot. He was probably dyslexic and his spelling was atrocious — yet these errors cannot be discounted wholesale, since his puns often turn on intentional misspellings and multilingual plays on words. There was method to his madness, and he returned continually to his flights of verbal fancy and invented terms, reworking phrases on the page and weaving a mesh of nuances based on use.
It is in his interviews, letters, and writings that Matta-Clark’s grappling with radical activism is most visible.
An equally important — and closely related — element of Matta-Clark’s career is his commitment to collaborative and politically inflected art-making. Like the vivid physicality of his site-specific cuts, the sociopolitical symbolism of his production has frequently been taken as a given in critical reception. “Matta-Clark’s work is a politics of things approaching their social exhaustion and the potential of their reclamation,” observes the art historian Pamela M. Lee — whose 2001 book Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark reignited interest in its subject after years of posthumous neglect. “It is a politics of the art object in relation to property; of the ‘right to the city’ alienated by capital and the state, of the retrieval of lost spaces; of communities reimagined in the wake of their disappearance; a politics of garbage and things thrown away.” 2
Matta-Clark’s efforts as an organizer of experiential environments has also led him to be claimed by artists and theorists as a forerunner for the participatory strategies that in recent decades have been framed as new-genre public art, relational aesthetics, and/or social practice — forms addressing audiences as co-producers of the events that constitute the art, as in the sharing of meals, or the staging of festive undertakings like dance parties or graffiti-writing sessions. 3 (Matta-Clark used all these strategies, from food-giveaways like Pig Roast  and Cuisse de boeuf  to street performances with dancers like Open House  and collective painting projects like Graffiti Truck .)
Yet, as with the verbal elements of his work, Matta-Clark’s engagements with communally inhabited city spaces are more complicated and more subtle than can be accounted for by an exclusively stylistic interpretation, in which such interests drive his doings in aesthetic terms but remain distinct from politics-as-such. The great problem of producing art that would be not only formally adventurous but also politically effective was as vexing to him as it was important, and he grappled throughout the 1970s with the possibilities for effecting grassroots change through artistic means, and the degree to which he could or should cede control to people who might have been using a place before he got there. All seven of his large-scale cuts involved derelict structures; indeed, the evacuation or condemnation of a property were the only conditions under which he ever gained access. But this, he realized, did not insulate him from the contradictions of deindustrialization and ghettoization. He knew that his affinities for abjected zones did not negate the fact that other squatters, cruisers, and adventurers might be occupying buildings he went into, nor absolve him of responsibility when redevelopment swept away dilapidated neighborhoods and displaced their tenants. It is in his interviews, letters, and writings that these struggles are most visible.
It was the era of civil rights organizing, antiwar protest, expanding ecological awareness, countercultural communalism, and feminist and gay liberation movements.
Matta-Clark was a product of what is sometimes called “the long 1960s,” the era of civil rights organizing, antiwar protest, expanding ecological awareness, countercultural communalism, and feminist and gay liberation movements; he died in the midst of the Jimmy Carter administration, when it was still possible to take for granted a leftist political understanding among young people who were embracing alternative lifeways and making site-responsive art. Such concerns surface regularly in his verbal exchanges — as, for instance, in an interview with the curator Judith Russi Kirshner, who had brought him to Chicago to make Circus, which as fate would have it turned out to be the last building cut he made before his cancer diagnosis. Matta-Clark worries aloud in this conversation about the conundrum of individual ambition versus mutually binding ethical imperatives. Eventually he settles on situation and communication as joint foci for his work — but all the while he acknowledges that the social turn enacted by his generation is not sufficient to save art from a crisis of relevance:
So for me, basically, it seems that I know what I want to do, I know how I’m going to try to solve my personal guilt, let’s say social, political, guilt, but I don’t really know how to describe it for other people. I don’t think that there is a formula. I think that basically art in society, in our community, is an incredible dilemma, and I don’t think that there are any pat or generalized ways of doing it. I think you have to deal with a specific situation and the character of your dealing with that specific situation is the piece, the work. If you can work with people in addition to working out your ideas, and so forth, then that can become an interesting ingredient in the art. 4
Most of his friends in Soho felt the same. From individuals who had taken part in campus protests in the ’60s, to activist groups like the Art Workers Coalition who organized against the Vietnam War and raised funds for causes from the Black Panther Party to Biafran refugees, downtown artists in the ’70s thought of themselves as “bohemian outsiders and almost Marxists — against capitalist culture,” as the painter Mary Heilmann recalls in a recent oral-history interview. The period, wrote the critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard in 1972, “confirmed my belief in ‘ideas in the air.’” 5
Such shared horizons of belief — their “in the air” ubiquity — are difficult to reconstruct and easy to minimize all these years later, when conditions in art and activism (and real estate) have changed so drastically. As we look back from a vantage in the new century, we may find ourselves discussing a given art work as conceptually or symbolically political, or as a proleptic experiment in social practice, while bracketing the real-time pressures exerted on that work by events beyond the downtown art community. We may, in short, deemphasize context. Stripped out of this larger context, however, Matta-Clark’s political thinking risks being neutralized.
He was committed to undermining systems he found oppressive — whether they were architectural or economic, spatial or semiotic.
Bringing specificity to the discussion of Matta-Clark’s activist sympathies is all the more important in that here — as with most issues related to his verbal sensibilities — he gave no single, overwhelming statement regarding his convictions. It is, rather, the preponderance of detail and resonance that affirms his commitment to undermining systems he found oppressive — whether those systems were architectural or economic, spatial or semiotic. Real-world implications are almost always embedded in Matta-Clark’s art. But they are usually indirect or intentionally scrambled, and he would have rejected readings that privilege a reflection of social conditions over the direct exploration of materials.
A close examination shows, nevertheless, that Matta-Clark’s notes, letters, and recorded conversations are larded with references to radical politics. He cites organizations and events, states opinions, and registers the impact of signal developments of the decade; his archive includes mentions of the prison uprising at Attica in upstate New York; bombings in New York City and elsewhere by the Puerto Rican paramilitary organization the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacíon Nacional; the election and overthrow of the Chilean Socialist president Salvador Allende; the rise of the military junta in Brazil; the Watergate investigation; and the Vietnam war, as well as references to civil rights protest, gay culture, feminism, and environmentalism. These citations go by quickly and are rarely followed up by interlocutors in interviews or correspondence.
Still, to gloss over such moments in the writings is to blur the particularity of Matta-Clark’s struggle with political belief. It is to detach his more apparent interests — in housing rights; in the permeability of public and private spaces; in the lifecycle of buildings; and in the responsibility of architects to serve rather than to dictate the needs of city dwellers — from their economic and geopolitical circumstances. It is to shear the radical edge off his faith in experimental world-making. The effect of this imbalance is to isolate Matta-Clark’s ideas from the non-art world in which he sought consistently — albeit Dadaistically — to root them. An index-card note:
I FEEL MORE LIKE
WORDS INSTEAD OF BULLETS—
AMIDTTHESE DOUBTS I
HOLD FAST TO THE IDEA OF JUST
HOW VULNERABLE THE SYSTEM IS.
In another note, he summarizes in one invented word the network of economic, infrastructural, and clannish bigotries that foment segregation and impoverish neighborhoods:
THE OPPRESSION OF THE RACES IS SPACISM.
The neologism SPACISM, like space itself, was protean in Matta-Clark’s mind. While he clearly intends in the OPPRESSION note to consider racism as a mainspring for failed urban planning, elsewhere he toys with the term as an -ism through which to name the sculptural and performative interests of his own Anarchitecture group — the loose and talky artists’ collaborative whose aim was to explore the anarchic energies that haunt order and measure:
NOT AS MUCH ANARCHITECTURE
AS SPACISM ?
Taken in the aggregate, Matta-Clark’s verbal archive shows that his interest in and respect for oppositional politics never flagged. How, then, might the evidence for his questions and desires in the realm of SPACISM or SPACE IF/ICATION be laid out now? How might a conceptual politics of urban space be shown to link, in his art, with specific activist interests of his era? These questions can be addressed on two levels. First there are the connotations evinced by his art as such: the building cuts, photographs, performances, and films. These, after all, are the artifacts that most audiences have in view. Then there are the details in the writings, a body of evidence that has been sifted less often, but in which political affinities, antipathies, and quandaries are made more explicit.
In considering the language-borne traces of Matta-Clark’s political thinking, crucial details can be found in a series of proposals, in minor and unfinished works, and in efforts toward establishing artists’ institutions. These incomplete and/or indeterminate projects demonstrate Matta-Clark’s alertness to international events, and his interest in applying what he found abroad to American contexts. His urge to develop what he described as “an adequate context for art” or a way of “participating in people’s lives” can be mapped in these endeavors, as can a dynamic central to his thought across the board — that between what he described as THE JOY OF GETTING AWAY WITH IT and an earnest belief in art as “an essentially generous human act, an individually positive attempt to encounter the real world through expressive interpretation.” 6 These works dramatize inevitable conflicts between institutional sponsorship (on which, like most artists, Matta-Clark depended) and his own passionate belief in “the freedom … of developing the kind of place that you want” without sanction or interference. Matta-Clark’s art as we have received following his death is a tissue of erasures and displacements. He never had complete control over his work-sites, and had no choice but to accept the vanishing of his large-scale interventions; even in his lifetime, his work depended on a relay of losses, traces, and remembered or imaginary scenes. That said, among his sizeable portfolio of ambitious but unrealized undertakings, three truncated projects illustrate with particular clarity the productive tension between THE JOY OF GETTING AWAY WITH IT as a lone outlaw, and the aim of “encountering the real world” through socially transformative generosity.
These projects embrace erasure, failure, and the propensity of cities to gobble up and pave over their histories.
The first of these projects, Arc de Triomphe for Workers, was a building cut proposed in 1975 for the Communist youth encampment at Sesto San Giovanni outside Milan. The second, Window Blow-Out, made the following year, was an uncharacteristically violent intervention staged at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York. Lastly, A Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for Loisaida was a plan for a community-development organization to be staffed by artists on the Lower East Side, which won support from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1976. Window Blow-Out made a pointed critique, and it lasted just a few hours before the IAUS eradicated it. Italian authorities stopped Arc de Triomphe for Workers before it had started, and the Loisaida initiative was short-circuited by Matta-Clark’s illness. The Window Blow-Out series comprises at least eight photographs, while Arc de Triomphe for Workers is typically represented by a single photograph altered with an overlaid drawing. Otherwise, historically speaking, Window Blow-Out is a performance recorded through a narrative recounted by a handful of onlookers, while the Sesto San Giovanni and Loisaida projects take form in the words on paper of Matta-Clark’s proposals.
Both Arc de Triomphe for Workers and the Loisaida cooperative were intended, like the Window Blow-Out protest, to exceed the exhibition context and — to a greater extent than Window Blow-Out — to foster day-to-day life in struggling communities outside the art world. None of these projects succeeded as Matta-Clark envisioned. Yet, in their very contingency, these works are paradigmatic of his willingness to embrace erasure, failure, and the propensity of cities to gobble up and pave over their histories. Each work shows him thinking through the conundrum of maintaining creative autonomy while dedicating his efforts to the shared inhabitation of — and responsibility for — urban built space.
As a kind of certification of Matta-Clark’s rough-and-ready antiauthoritarianism, the story of Window Blow-Out marks a chapter in anarchitectural lore. It goes like this: The exhibition Idea as Model was being presented at the offices of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, a nonprofit educational forum housed in a Manhattan brownstone. Matta-Clark had proposed to make a modest wall cut in a windowless seminar room, and to display the excised drywall sections in piles in the same space; he planned to then rebuild the room using the sections mounted on hinges, “to make windows and other cut-outs.” 7 Late in the process, he received permission from the curator, Andrew MacNair, to knock out a few already-cracked windowpanes in an adjacent room. Instead, in the wee hours of the morning before the opening, Matta-Clark left a party at the home of his gallerists Holly and Horace Solomon, took a taxi to the venue, shot out all the windows with an air gun, and blocked the shattered panes with black-and-white prints showing broken windows in derelict apartment houses. He had taken the photographs several years before as part of a project titled Bronx Floors (1971–72), a series of early forays into the cutting of buildings in which he excised floor-and-ceiling chunks from abandoned apartment buildings in New York’s most notoriously neglected borough.
The gesture was received by the IAUS as offensive, even fascist. MacNair recalls:
It was an unbelievably aggressive act. He came in at 3:00 am while we were setting up the show, and he was incredibly wrecked. … When the Institute Fellows came in (Peter Eisenman was the director at the time), they were furious. Gordon’s piece made a most conceptual and political statement, but no one liked the statement. … As I remember it, it reminded Peter Eisenman of Kristallnacht. … The Institute was sacred space. How could someone blow out the windows? I remember it was December, it was Christmas and Chanuka [sic], the high emotional climate of the time, the religious holidays. I don’t think Gordon was aware of any of that at all, although he took the piece very seriously. 8
The glass was repaired the next morning, and Matta-Clark’s presence in the exhibition was expunged. This retaliatory erasure now constitutes the main theme of the anecdote, dovetailing with Matta-Clark’s stated motive as reported by MacNair. “These were the guys I studied with at Cornell, these were my teachers,” he is said to have ranted, indicating Eisenman and his colleagues. “I hate what they stand for.” 9 As more than one architectural historian has remarked, this last was not wholly true; Cornell professor Colin Rowe, for instance, emphasized the importance of facade, a lesson that might be glimpsed in his erstwhile student’s papering-over of the IAUS windows — a gesture that called attention to the face of the brownstone, as well as to the Institute’s “facade” of progressive commitment.
Despite the visceral urgency of the original, what constitutes the artwork now is anecdote, hearsay.
Window Blow-Out is in some ways the most visceral piece in Matta-Clark’s career. At the same time — in a paradox central to his oeuvre as we know it — what constitutes the artwork now is anecdote, hearsay. There is no mention of the incident in his letters or notes. We have only MacNair’s testimony as a source for the 3 a.m. scene with its speech by the drunk or high artist-aggressor. Notwithstanding such secondhand circumstances, the words and affect assigned to Matta-Clark in MacNair’s statement largely create the situation that (now) constitutes the work. As reported, the artist’s irascible late-night explanation serves to sharpen a conflict between his own anarchically committed act and the response of IAUS directors, who come off as bureaucrats sheltering in “ideas” and “models” instead of confronting the city’s jagged truths. As art historian Thomas Crow has observed, Eisenman’s uptightness, and the IAUS’s efficiency in repairing the unsightly damage, are dramaturgical complements to the iconoclastic violation: “If this deterioration was intolerable to Eisenman and his colleagues even for a moment, why was it tolerable day in and day out in the South Bronx or Lower East Side?” 10
A corollary reading would cast the narrative as less Oedipal than fraternal, a drama in which Eisenman and MacNair play the obedient conservationist sons of Architecture, and Matta-Clark the Satanic prodigal, the Anarchitect. Somewhat offsetting the overtones of vigilantism in his actions, furthermore, is the fact that the gun he used had been loaned by a friend, the artist Dennis Oppenheim. This is another oft-repeated detail of the tale, and it counters the rivalry between architects by signifying rebel artist brotherhood. “He once borrowed my air-gun to do a piece at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies,” Oppenheim recalls. “I was extremely excited about that. It was such a radical gesture.” 11
The gunshots were one element of the short-lived intervention; the shattered windows then became supports for the photographs. As installed, the Window Blow-Out images would have created fake peepholes, closing off the IAUS brownstone while purporting to offer voyeuristic glimpses into housing projects. Who is the voyeur in this nexus of images, ideas, models, and sites? Is it Matta-Clark out in the street, pointing his camera toward broken windows in vacant apartment blocks, and later infiltrating the IAUS to catch the professionals in a compromised position? Or is it the IAUS that posits itself as an institute for urban studies but does not want to look at urban views, that insists on controlling what is seen or not seen of the art of their invitee? The conceptual success of Window Blow-Out resides in the fact that both are true; Matta-Clark is complicit even as he accuses the IAUS, and neither the architects nor the artist is actually fixing the outer-borough problem. A bullet hole, while urgent, is destructive rather than reparative. A photograph is still an “idea” and a “model.”
The archive contains two contact sheets of broken-window photographs. When Window Blow-Out is represented in the art-historical literature, however, it is typically the same single photograph that is reproduced, making the work that much more enigmatic to audiences who do not know the story. This reduction of visual evidence puts extra pressure on the title. Consciously or unconsciously, a reader-viewer will notice the fluid o’s and w’s structuring the naming phrase; the sonic suggestion is of moaning or sighing, wind blowing through a synesthetically notated row of holes. The internal rhymes also create order, whispering into the images something about violence deliberately framed. Matta-Clark’s “blow-out” — in which a photographer gathers evidence of urban-economic crimes whose profiteers have likely never visited the scenes — might incorporate a reverberation of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), in which a photographer believes that he has photographed a murder. Contextualized by this title, the black-and-white shots take on a journalistic or cinematic intensity. The muckraking impulse in Window Blow-Out also invites comparison to other photo-conceptualist projects of the 1970s that document social relations in city space, in particular Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al, Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, a series of photo-and-text panels indicting the New York City slumlord Harry Shapolsky and his network of cronies.
It is a j’accuse that simultaneously inculpates the artist.
Haacke’s planned exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum was abruptly canceled in 1971, the year that Shapolsky et al. was produced, and the suspicion that his exposé had come uncomfortably close to museum board members was discussed across the various New York art communities; a letter protesting the cancellation was circulated, and Matta-Clark signed it. 12 Haacke had participated in the pathbreaking exhibition Earth Art, mounted at Cornell in Matta-Clark’s last year there, and in New York, Haacke joined a boycott of the 1971 Bienal de São Paulo that Matta-Clark organized in protest against the junta that had seized control of Brazil two years before. In Window Blow-Out, a Haacke-esque indictment of slumlords is extended to attack the architectural establishment that aids and abets them — a j’accuse that simultaneously inculpates the artist.
Shapolsky et al. supplies its own language apparatus, and many of Matta-Clark’s projects do this as well. In contrast, in Window Blow-Out the contextualizing story must arrive ad hoc, supplied not by the maker but by the person (MacNair, Oppenheim, Crow, me) who is discussing the event. Centered by the boldness of his act, Matta-Clark is just as forcefully decentered by the longevity of the project in a form he could not foresee — a narrative in which the “unbelievably aggressive,” “incredibly wrecked” protagonist becomes a character spoken for by others, even as he seeks to speak for the invisible tenants who cannot live in the blown-out rooms he documents.
Arc de Triomphe for Workers
Yet another of Matta-Clark’s aphoristic index-card notes sets out a mnemonic regarding priorities and centers of power: NOT THE WORK .. THE WORKER.
This begs the question of how WORK and WORKER are defined. The problem was at stake in Window Blow-Out, but it had been nagging since the Bronx Floors cuts and acute since Conical Intersect. The newspaper l’Humanité, the organ of the French Communist Party, had run a front-page editorial denouncing Matta-Clark’s Paris building cut as frivolous, and advocating instead for workers’ housing. Of course, Matta-Clark had no capacity to save or to repurpose the pair of 17th-century townhouses that he dissected for Conical Intersect; they had already been condemned in the wholesale razing and redevelopment of the Les Halles/Plateau Beaubourg district, which was centered on the showplace of the Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, then under construction directly adjacent to the Conical Intersect site. Still, the scathing news coverage came close enough to the principle of WORKER over WORK to spark a reckoning, and in the Sesto San Giovanni and Loisaida proposals — the first preceding, and the second following Window Blow-Out — Matta-Clark sought to confront the latent issue of occupants’ participation or lack thereof in his art.
Matta-Clark sought to confront the issue of occupants’ participation (or lack thereof) in his art.
He had sworn off cutting domestic spaces before leaving France. Moving on to Milan in the autumn of 1975, he found another tense urban situation. Reporting back to his Paris-based stepmother Malitte Matta, with whom he and his helper Gerry Hovagimyan had stayed while completing the rue Beaubourg cut, he wrote: “It seems that my intention to stay away from residential structures for awhile is an especially appropriate decision here” — that is, in Milan — “where the housing crisis is out of control with mass action to save the social-political integrity of certain popular neighborhoods.” He wanted to explore the truly anarchistic repurposing of derelict real estate. To this end, he attempted to make contact with the revolutionary worker-and-student organization Lotta Continua, telling Malitte that he would “try as best as possible to learn from the social climate here.” 13
His Milanese dealer, Salvatore Ala, helped to locate a potential work site in a decommissioned factory in the industrial suburb of Sesto San Giovanni. Slated for commercial redevelopment, the factory was inhabited already, by a Communist youth group. “They were actually a bunch of kids, 15 or maybe 17 years old,” recalls Hovagimyan. “And what they wanted the building to be used for was a day care and health center for the neighborhood. Gordon proposed to them that he would cut an arch of triumph through the building to publicize their position.” Variously titled Arc de Triomphe for Workers, Working Man’s Arch, and Walking Man’s Arch, the excision was to have opened through the factory’s three floors onto an interior courtyard. It never came to pass: “Somehow the authorities got wind of what he was going to do, and a day before the cutting, they went in on a trumped up drug bust and chased everybody out.” 14 Police interference had become normal for Matta-Clark. But in Milan his attentions inadvertently caused the young people’s occupation he admired to collapse. His first foray into on-the-ground community collaboration was in this sense a failure.
For contemporary audiences, Arc de Triomphe for Workers exists as a photo-based sketch that roughs in the form of the proposed cut, a few unaltered photos of the site, and the deliberately grand title — deflated a little by its mildly punning third variation — along with the anecdote of the cut’s conceptualization and disruption. More fully elaborated is the letter Matta-Clark addressed to the youth group. This document is worth quoting at length, not only because it has not (to my knowledge) been closely read in other critical contexts, but also because it shows him thinking in his most earnest mode through the contradictions of working in public space. As in his earlier letter calling for the boycott in São Paulo, Matta-Clark is keen, in the “Proposal to the Workers of Sesto San Giovanni,” to establish bonds between his coterie in Soho and the local enclave in Milan. “First of all,” the letter begins,
I’d like to thank you for your kind attention and express my joy at seeing what you’re doing here. For a long time I’ve thought it important to provide an active response to the problem of personal self-determination as opposed to the blind interests of private property. Although we have the same problems in New York and Milan, the climate here is healthier thanks to this sort of challenge you have organized. 15
He goes on to explain that he has felt constrained by market forces in art and architecture — pressures that, in the United States, have led him to rely on unsatisfactory auteurist methods. Now he avows instead a commitment to public, post-studio practice, engaging his audience not as detached viewers but as active participants in a collaboratively produced living environment. The Sesto San Giovanni proposal sums up Matta-Clark’s career to date, rehearsing points that resurface again and again in his writings and interviews from the later 1970s:
As an artist, for years I have endeavored to channel my actions toward an idea of social welfare. Due to the American political situation I have been obliged to draw up these concepts myself. I developed my way of working after completing my architectural studies, aware that a genuine spirit of change could not be achieved at the request of a private economy. So, for five years I have worked to the best of my abilities to produce small breaks in the repressive conditions of space generated by the system. 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. Consequently, what I do to buildings is what some do with language and others with groups of people: i.e. I organize them in order to explain and defend the need for change. However, unlike other artists, I feel the need to become directly involved in a context that is physically, politically and socially structured, in short to leave the studio and go out on the streets.
After this affirmation of direct action, the letter takes an unforeseen turn. One might assume that at this juncture Matta-Clark would underline the usable features of his communitarian interventions — for instance, his experiments in food sharing. At minimum, since the form at hand at Sesto San Giovanni was a large-scale cut, he might have been expected to foreground the immediate, proprioceptive effects of his site-specific removals. Instead, he backs away into the realm of the symbolic:
Now, what I want to do here is to join your group effort and achieve an artistic expression that represents a symbolic gesture of self-determination, as a flag or a poster that represents our intentions. What I propose is to transform one of these industrial constructions in a liberated way. To alter a structure that still exists as a bad memory until it is transformed into something that gives way to hope and fantasy. I’ll achieve this by resuming my early works, opening reaches in walls to give an idea of free passage. A wide passage that is neither a door nor a monumental arch, but a sort of unlimited stage on which we are the actors.
As I don’t want to be considered an artist who does everything himself, I’d like to add something else to this proposal. … I’d like to suggest that another way of occupying this wide space, beyond your collective occupation of this cinema, could constitute a more generalized artistic fact: a period in which other artists and fine arts students could make their ideas known through their works. 16
The Paris cut had garnered upsetting criticism, but also more popular notice than anything Matta-Clark had previously accomplished. His offer to create “a flag or a poster” might accordingly be taken as a comment on the spectacular means necessary to stimulate public sympathy. Given his insistence, throughout his career, on literal engagement with physical conditions, it is nonetheless surprising to find him offering to emblematize or advertise the activists’ agenda, rather than to materially support it. This tension seems to have occurred to him in the process of drafting the letter, for the next sentences mix liberation with “fantasy,” and practical “free passage” with theatrical and cinematic staging. Matta-Clark admits that there is something backward-looking in this proposal for a cut into the occupied factory; the sociopolitical context is new, but the methods he is considering would involve “resuming my early works.” Not wanting “to be considered an artist who does everything himself,” he hastens to add that productions on this “stage” should be designed collectively.
An index-card note reads:
THERE ARE SO MANY TIMES
THAT THE RIGHT THING
This included the episode in Milan. A long interview with the architectural historian Donald Wall — a key document of Matta-Clark’s thinking about architecture and public practice, published in Arts magazine in 1976 — closes with discussion of the lessons from Sesto San Giovanni. Matta-Clark connects the Italian adventure to plans then in progress for A Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for Loisaida. “I would like to end with an idea of the direction in which I can see my work evolving,” he tells Wall:
One of the greatest influences on me in terms of new attitudes was a recent experience in Milan. When searching for a factory to “cut-up,” I found an expansive long-abandoned factory complex that was being exuberantly occupied by a large group of radical Communist youths. They had been taking runs holding down a section of the plant for over a month. Their program was to resist the intervention of “laissez-faire” real estate developers from exploiting the property. Their proposal was that the area be used for a much needed community services center. My exposure to this confrontation was my first awakening to doing my work, not in artistic isolation, but through an active exchange with peoples’ concern for their own neighborhood.
This was the takeaway. His contribution as an artist would not be to conceive a geometric statement à la Arc de Triomphe for Workers, but to lend his skills to self-defining communities:
My goal is to extend the Milan experience to the U.S., especially to neglected areas of New York such as the South Bronx 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. A specific project might be to work with an existing neighborhood youth group and to involve them in converting the all too plentiful abandoned buildings into a social space. In this way, the young could get both practical information about how buildings are made and, more essentially, some first-hand experience with one aspect of the very real possibility of transforming their space. In this way, I could adapt my work to still another level of the given situation. It would no longer be concerned with just personal or metaphoric treatment of the site, but finally responsive to the express will of its occupants. 17
Whether he spoke these words aloud to Wall and subsequently worked them up for the Loisaida proposal, or in editing the Wall interview decided to paste in a statement he had written in regard to the youth-services project, this paragraph recurs verbatim in the successful Guggenheim Fellowship application for the Loisaida project.
A Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for Loisaida
Sesto San Giovanni was not the only spur toward the Loisaida program. Matta-Clark worked with Lower East Side community organizers to hone the idea, and the Guggenheim application lists his artist friends Suzanne Harris and Jene Highstein, along with architect Fraser Sinclair, as collaborators who would help to teach construction skills to youth participants. Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, and the curators James Harithas and Kasper Koenig provided letters of reference to the Foundation.
This was the takeaway. His contribution as an artist would be to lend his skills to self-defining communities.
Another likely inspiration was the Preservation Youth Project run by Stephen Facey at Saint Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery on Second Avenue. Matta-Clark had installed two sculptures in the courtyard at Saint Mark’s in 1970 (Garbage Wall and Rosebush), and had performed multiple times in the Parish Hall. He knew Facey, and would have known and admired his approach to his job as director of arts programs at the church.
In the late 1960s, at the start of Facey’s tenure, the church and its historic graveyard were in a state of dangerous disrepair, with local gangs vandalizing the building regularly. Facey’s solution was to establish a community-employment and after-school program.
Controversially, and despite the protests of Mayor Lindsay and the Police Commissioner, the Preservation Youth Project’s first employees were the four young people who had most recently been arrested for robbing the church, and who now found themselves tasked by St. Mark’s to restore the East Yard. The Youth Project crew was trained and supervised by professionals; the East Yard restoration would take it a year. 18
From there, the teenage crew moved on to restore the West Yard and Sanctuary. Other youth organizations headquartered their activities on the premises. Arts groups like The Poetry Project that were also housed at the church crossed paths daily with young people pursuing their own agendas; the Black Panthers and Young Lords set up a communications center in the Rectory, and “it wasn’t unusual to encounter FBI agents — men in suits pretending to be ‘from the phone company’ — poking around St. Mark’s.” 19 By 1975, the Preservation Youth Project was running a full-time training program, complete with a library and free health clinic.
He wrote of ‘renewed neighborhoods full of liveable streets, homes and a healthy dose of fantasy.’
The vision for A Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for Loisaida ran parallel to that of the Preservation Youth Project, except that in lieu of restoring one landmark, the plan was to progress building by building around the Lower East Side, upgrading dilapidated or fire-damaged structures purchased at extreme discounts from the city, and returning ownership of the rehabbed properties to young participants according to a sweat-equity system. The buildings could then be inhabited or sold to finance new work sites. In the interview with Judith Russi Kirshner, Matta-Clark insists that for Loisaida his artistic and technical “leadership would become dissolved within the activity,” in order to create “a situation constantly subverted.” Inside this horizontal structure, operational sustainability and the provision of pathways to ownership for the apprentices remained central:
I would try very hard to organize it so that that could be done effectively and reasonably. I wouldn’t create a situation where that couldn’t be done. … I think it’s important that something belongs to you, that your time belongs to you — energy, imagination. I must admit that I’m not all that much of a total collectivist socialist. There’s a kind of morality that is based on which I don’t think in fact works. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m too American. I don’t buy the dogma. 20
As laid out in the Guggenheim application, the Loisaida program was to work in synergy with the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which had been signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973; an extension of the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, the new law aimed to train low-income high school students for public-service jobs. Kids involved in Loisaida would be either enrolled CETA trainees or directly recruited “Environmental Cadets … who want to supplement their practical building skills with exercises in abstract spatial problems while heightening an over-all organizational ability in the planning of construction jobs.” Skills would be inculcated through a two-tiered format, with the first stage offering workshops in basic design and drafting, the reading of plans and building of models, and “the artistic use of materials allowing the young designers to visualize in three dimensions and expand their creative abilities.” The second stage would teach the installation and maintenance of heating and electrical systems, concrete casting, cost management, environmental awareness, and the ability “to creatively work within state and federal regulations.” The “ultimate emphasis,” as Matta-Clark wrote in the application,
would be to educate able young members of the community to make their own decisions while expressing unique and practical alternatives to sub-standard housing. … Depending on their individual interest participants can be helped in winning scholarships to schools. … When neither the interest nor the academic requirements are present, they may find work through the establishment of a community-based building construction and maintenance organization. This organization would advertise and promote the skills of its members for individual jobs while offering construction bids and maintenance contracts at competitive prices that local landlords could hardly refuse. 21
Matta-Clark swung into action on Loisaida in the summer of 1976. He was in a distracted, agitated state; his twin brother John Sebastian Matta, with whom he had a close and troubled relationship, had committed suicide that spring by jumping from the window of Matta-Clark’s studio in Soho while he, Gordon, was out buying provisions to make lunch. The prospect of working with teenagers at risk was clearly in line with his evolving political and creative interests. But the plan seems to have offered him a kind of psychological refuge as well. In his typical pell-mell fashion, a flurry of letters to European supporters began to get the word out. “I will be collaborating with a well organized, very aware and integrated group of ghetto youths on envisioning and funding a large scale ‘take-over’ of derelict property for their rehabilitation into community owned alternatives,” he informed the Belgian curator Florent Bex, who would soon commissioned Office Baroque. 22 To Nina Felshin, director of American entries to the Biennale de Paris (sponsor of Conical Intersect), he wrote soliciting help with funding: MY INROADS TO THE LOWER EAST SIDE ARE ALIVE AND FULL OF HOPE OF RENEWED NEIGHBORHOODS FULL OF LIVEABLE STREETS, HOMES AND A HEALTHY DOSE OF FANTASY. 23
In a letter to Ruth García, a neighborhood organizer who was advising him, Matta-Clark enthused over his contacts with a teenage activist whom García seems to have recommended:
Our talk over the phone was, for me, charged with the energetic spirit and clear practicle devotion that I have just begun to know among those of you [who] are so active in the lower east side community. It is inspiring! Especially my meeting with Louis Guzman whose insight and collaborative spirit is so far beyond his years that I will probably be spending time just trying to keep up with him. But these first impressions reinforce so well my reasons for needing to get out of the “ego-trocious” isolationism of the art/professional environment. In addition to the up lift that being involved in a group effort [will provide], I hope I can be of some practicle use as well. Not only as a willing and able hand but also in helping make some of your programs come to fruition both through planning and fund raising. 24
He was helping himself as well as trying to help Black and Puerto Rican kids. “This was a lesson he learned from Buddhism,” observes Matta-Clark’s widow, the documentary filmmaker Jane Crawford. “Energy, if it is not channeled positively, can become negative and destructive. So he wanted to … channel it into something more positive, something ‘towards the light,’ as he would say.” 25