You Are the Measure
Whitney Museum of Art
February 22–June 3, 2007
Asked to create a work for the Institute for Architecture and Urban Planning, Gordon Matta-Clark arrived with a BB gun and shot out their windows, intending to cover the broken glass with black-and-white photos of rundown houses in the Bronx. He explained: “These were the guys I studied with at Cornell. These were my teachers. I hate what they stand for.” Furiously rejecting the ivory-tower approach to architectural design, Matta-Clark’s work centered on human beings and their experience of this world. He used the real world as his art, emphasizing transformation, rebirth, and decomposition while opening up connections to water, light, and air. You Are the Measure is the first inclusive overview of his work in the United States in more than 20 years.
When Matta-Clark first arrived in New York in 1969, straight out of Cornell, the city was deteriorating and crime was up—but artists were pushing boundaries. Attracted by cheap rents and the availability of large commercial loft spaces, they poured into the industrial and abandoned parts the city. Rejecting the commercialization of art, many favored non-object-based work, often ephemeral and political in nature. The atmosphere was fiercely antimaterialist, punctuated by urgent demands for social justice, including racial and gender equality, and a cessation of our involvement in the Vietnam War. Cross-fertilization between disciplines, including architecture and the visual arts, was in the air. Modernist doctrine in architecture was under attack as elitist and out of touch with human needs; this was also the heyday of earth art, process art, conceptual art, performance art—a perfect fit for Matta-Clark’s sensibility.
For “Splitting” (1973), probably his best-known work, Matta-Clark literally cut a vertical slit through the center of a single-family home in a blue-collar neighborhood of Englewood, New Jersey. With the help of other artists, he then jacked the house off its foundation—clearly a dangerous undertaking—and lowered the back half, causing the slit to slightly widen into a thin “V” shape and opening the once-solid structure to natural light. A beautiful image witnessed in its physical reality by relatively few people, the work was demolished three months later to make way for urban renewal.
Because of the ephemeral quality of his work, the artist documented everything he did with photographs, videos, and films. Shirtless young men, including Matta-Clark, wield hammers, jacks, and other heavy equipment to physically alter these doomed but still-standing structures—an activity that could be related to performance art. Similarly, Matta-Clark sometimes celebrated the completion of his projects with “banquets,” offering sustenance to not only his colleagues but also the homeless. A preoccupation with food and celebration, not uncommon among downtown artists at that time, led him to open (with his partner Carol Goodden), the legendary restaurant Food, which was staffed by fellow artists who were also loyal customers. Pretty much the only direction in art Matta-Clark did not pursue was painting, possibly because it had already been covered by his father, the surrealist painter Roberto Matta.
Many of the cuts he made into exposed homes are almost painful to look at: In “Bingo” (1974), a family home in Niagara Falls is cut into nine rectangular sections that are all removed except for one in the middle, revealing the interior of the house and making outside inside and inside outside—much as Frank Lloyd Wright had prescribed. The cuts also suggest an almost human vulnerability, with the interior staircases, doors, and walls, now fully exposed, as mute reminders of the people who once lived there. Also on view are the last physical remains of “Bronx Floors” (1973): three rectangular segments of ceilings and floors, now upended and so becoming walls.
Illegal occupation of large commercial spaces as residences and studios was a common practice among artists at that time, but Matta-Clark carried it several steps farther when, in “Day’s End” (1975), he took possession of a large structure on Pier 52, replacing the locks with his own. He then proceeded to make large cuts in the walls to let in air and light, as well as the floor, which revealed the water beneath. All went well until city officials got wind of the project and issued a warrant for his arrest.
This led him to Paris, where he made another famous series of cuts, this time in a late 17th-century building in a neighborhood scheduled for demolition in order to, once again, make way for urban renewal. This “non-umental” (his word) project involved a more complex, cone-shaped cut that rotated on a central axis through the floors of the building at a 45-degree angle, creating a sense of spatial disorientation. Matta-Clark’s actions brought further attention to the already unpopular demolition, seen by many as a wound in the heart of the city.
In the past, Modernism in architecture worked only in the hands of geniuses backed by developers with deep pockets—a relatively rare convergence. When interpreted by less talented architects and developers watching the bottom line, it spawned sterile boxes that alienated and diminished the humans who inhabited them. The construction of these edifices often went hand-in-hand with the destruction of thriving neighborhoods that had the misfortune of being in their way.
Tragically, Matta-Clark died of pancreatic cancer in 1978 at the age of 35, but in less than a decade, he and others like him made their point, which resonates to this day, A new generation has developed more organic, sometimes breathtaking, approaches to the built environment, demonstrating greater attention to the human presence. Even Modernism has taken promising new turns in the hands of architects (like Thom Mayne) whose designs manage to convey its excitement and optimism while avoiding its major failures.
On the other hand, the manipulation of art and the art market to ensure financial gain is more pervasive than ever. All that effort in the 60s and early 70s to change things came to nothing. Why? The fault lies not in the work of the artist, but the intention of the buyer. If art is treated like a piece of real estate—the art market will continue to be manipulated in order to enhance the value of the purchase. In other words, the fix is in.
It would be foolish to suggest that there is no good art out there, but an overheated market is not a climate that produces great art or great movements. Ironically, if Matta-Clark’s documentation and the remaining fragments of his ephemeral projects had not become much-sought-after “objects,” most of his work would now be lost to us. As the gap between the essence of art and the wandering attention of the marketplace widens, now is a good time to take another look at the humorous, biting, disorienting, and light-filled work of Matta-Clark. You might find an answer there, or at least a clue.