words Justin McGuirk
An insightful book on Gordon Matta-Clark captures the infectious spirit of fun that informed the work of this oddly neglected figure.
In 1971, under the Brooklyn Bridge, Gordon Matta-Clark did something that I’ve always wanted to do: he roasted a pig on a spit. Five hundred pork sandwiches later, he had a filmed performance piece called Pig Roast. You have to admire the bravado with which Matta-Clark turned lunch into art. He didn’t do things by halves – except apparently the pork, which Thomas Crow describes as having made “only an imperfect transition from raw to cooked”. But aside from it revealing an ambitious nature, there’s something quintessentially Matta-Clark about Pig Roast: the showmanship of it, the pre-gentrified urban location and a political bent, tied to his perception of “a growing wave of ‘pig culture’ repressors”. It presages an attitude that, in his “building cuts”, would soon be giving vent to some of the most compelling art of the 1970s.
Crow wonders why Matta-Clark is not more famous. Not because of the strength of his work, but because of two more determining factors: image and life story. As the tousle-haired rebel, Matta-Clark was a pivotal figure in the SoHo art scene. He was a catalyst, whether it was opening Food, the SoHo restaurant-cum-artists’ hangout, or in persuading many of his most prominent peers to boycott the São Paulo Biennial in protest at the arrest of 30 young architects in Brazil. But there was also a tragic metre to Matta-Clark’s life that began with his killing of a friend in a car crash as a student, and persisted in his struggle with Addison’s disease and the presumed suicide of his twin brother, and ended with his death from cancer at the age of 35.
Crow starts his book by playing up to Matta-Clark’s image, with the artist breaking for Europe in 1975, on the run from the police for an “outlaw intervention into the fabric of Pier 52”, Manhattan. Matta-Clark had cut a huge sail-shaped hole out of an abandoned waterfront warehouse, making a cathedral of sorts from the former domain of furtive S&M cruisers. Day’s End was the most outwardly visible intervention that Matta-Clark had yet undertaken. His first large-scale building cuts had been the Bronx Floors series, in 1972. Working clandestinely in derelict buildings, he excised sections of wall and floor to create strangely, and dangerously, porous spaces.
The building cuts were largely experienced through Matta-Clark’s photographs and, in negative, through the uncanny ready-made sculptures that were the wall sections. None of the interventions, which were in buildings slated for demolition, survived long. And it was precisely this idea of architecture as urban currency in the hands of developers that Matta-Clark was, in part, criticising. Crow tells an amusing anecdote about how Matta-Clark stuck the needle into the architectural establishment when he was invited to exhibit with the New York Five in 1976. He made Peter Eisenman furious when, as part of a piece called Window Blow-Out, he shot holes through all the windows in the gallery of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Resources. If only briefly, Matta-Clark had displaced the institute to the South Bronx.
Crow is very good at weaving the biographical details of Matta-Clark’s life into the analysis of his art. He makes a great deal of the paradox between his illness and the overt physicality demanded by the work. He also manages to use Matta-Clark’s distracting preoccupation with alchemy to explain how he – the son of Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta-Echaurren and godson of Marcel Duchamp – made an artist of himself by confronting the privilege of his own “myth”.
Given Matta-Clark’s inspirational nature, the filmic narrative of his life and the visual impact of his work, I defy any writer to make a boring book out of him. And Crow, who is an insightful art historian, also tells a good story. Then there are the generous illustrations. The pictures of Matta-Clark at work among friends and accomplices convey an infectious spirit of creative fun. It has infected me – I’m thinking about when to roast that pig – and the people at Phaidon have been moved enough to cut a piece out of the book’s spine.
Gordon Matta-Clark, by Thomas Crow, with essays by Judith Russi Kirshner and Christian Kravagna, Phaidon, £45