An exhibit on the work of Gordon Matta-Clark at the Whitney Museum of Art in the spring of 2007 was a reminder of the prophetic insight he had in the 1970s, infiltrating the worlds of art and architecture and revealing profound complacencies in each.
I first paid attention to Matta-Clark in the early 1990s, well after his premature death in 1978 at thirty-five. Despite having lived in the wake of his influence in Ithaca and New York City in the 1970s, I did not find my way to his legacy until I developed a professional and academic interest in the reuse of existing buildings. Now this exhibition and its attendant resources have further deepened my regard for his art. It has also provided important insights into how places hold, conceal and — through insightful intervention and reappropriation — reveal complex cultural, psychological and physically embodied meanings. Scheduled to travel to other parts of the country, the show deserves to be visited and scrutinized by those interested in the remaking of place.
A Broad Scope of Interest
Matta-Clark was best known for his building cuts and fragment displacements. But he had a broader range of artistic interests, and he was among the few artists in the 1960s and 70s who explored the social/performance dimensions of art.
Matta-Clark’s work emerged from an early exposure to architecture. He was an architecture student at Cornell University in the 1970s, and his estranged father, Roberto Matta Echaurren, was a surrealist artist who apprenticed for Le Corbusier and collaborated with Moholy-Nagy and Gropius. 1 But instead of pursuing university training, Matta-Clark chose to help develop a new form of art that would better allow him to pursue his critical and creative interests. Disdainful of formalist and utopian Modern architecture, and frustrated with the relative lack of freedom in architectural culture, he chose a renegade path, exposing the constrictions and awakening the possibilities of a liberated understanding of visual and material culture.
As an activist, Matta-Clark convened a gathering of artists that called itself “Anarchitecture” (fusing anarchy and architecture); the goal was to address transformational possibilities, neglected places and taboo ideas. 2 Their critique of architectural design focused on the limits of “cosmetic” or surface considerations, emphasizing insights about places made possible through removal, displacement and intervention. They pursued the revelatory, phenomenal and metaphorical possibilities of place, more than the advancement of any alternative, formal image or notion of space. Matta-Clark’s work in particular freely crossed disciplinary boundaries in an effort to expose the deep, often subconscious power of place.
Affirmation by Displacement
This exhibition attends exceptionally well to the diverse fascinations and modes of Matta-Clark’s enterprise, including (to name just a few) film, street theater, waste, landscape and food. But it is his poetic and daring interventions into derelict places that I still find most thrilling. His cutting, relocating, representing and reinterpreting of vulnerable buildings and places seems to me especially instructive to an understanding of place creation, alteration and stewardship.
As we have come to realize in recent decades, thanks to the preservation and sustainability movements, the embodied energy and cultural meaning that places gain over time and through use (how they come to support, protect and represent us) can be profound. Perhaps because little of Matta-Clark’s work remains today, it continues to tantalize, its power evident in evocative period photographs. For me this body of work has amplified the meaning of writings by authors as diverse as Yi-Fu Tuan, Jane Jacobs, Howard Mansfield and Colin Rowe. Matta-Clark underscored the sense of absence, and strangeness, in the quotidian settings in which he intervened, and so we (as designers and planners) are reminded of the potency of memory or association, whether based on real or imagined experience. Like nothing before or since, Matta-Clark’s interventional work reminds us that these can be sources of meaning, waiting to be engaged.