During his studies, Matta-Clark mingled with the students in the art department instead of his own and helped to organise the first Earth Art exhibition held in 1969 at Cornell. Matta-Clark outwardly expressed his distaste for the architectural education he received: “…the things we studied always involved such surface formalism that I never had the sense of the ambiguity of a structure, the ambiguity of a place, and that’s the quality I’m interested in generating what I do.” His views continually conflicted with the tenets of high modernism: the endorsement of science and rationalism, an adherence to rigid form, and the detachment of architecture from the political, social and economic order.
In 1969, Matta-Clark returned to a chaos-ridden SoHo, marked by violent civil protests against the Vietnam War and the government’s plans to demolish entire neighbourhoods to build a steel and glass metropolis. Despite beginning his artistic practice in this tumultuous period, he formed a tight-knitted artist collective later colloquially known as the Anarchitecture group (1971). The group opposed the systemization and machine tradition of high modernism, preferring to engage in what Robin Evans terms as positive interference: a change that permits “an expansion of possible actions but does not produce any restriction of existing possible actions”. The group met weekly at FOOD Restaurant, which Matta-Clark co-owned, to socialise, cook, perform and chat over a meal. Matta-Clark’s idea of dissecting a building originated from renovating the space by cutting up the existing counters and walls.
“ANARCHITECTURE ATTEMPTS TO SOLVE NO PROBLEM BUT TO REJOICE IN AN INFORMED WELL-INTENDED CELEBRATION OF CONDITIONS THAT BEST DESCRIBE AND LOCATE A PLACE.”
Gordon Matta Clark, written notecard, c.1973
Due to the urban blight, many of the buildings in Lower Manhattan had fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair. Matta-Clark began to utilize these “free properties” for his building interventions, explaining that he felt a need “to relate to those buildings that have been abandoned by a system that doesn’t look after them, that imposes the rise and fate of property only as an end in itself.”
One of his first dissections was Bronx Floors: Threshole (1972). Rectangular holes were cut through the floors of deserted buildings located in the South Bronx, then displaced from their original homes and exhibited in an art gallery. The South Bronx was an area of widespread poverty and crime that the government had let deteriorate until they could start slating derelict establishments for redevelopment. Matta-Clark’s choice of location was an expression of the failure of the urban utopia ideal that modernism promoted. The act of razing through both floor and ceiling mirrored the verticality of the superstructures that would soon replace them. Rather than ‘destruction’, Matta-Clark enacted a form of reverse building that exposed the underbelly of the edifice. Some of the holes align with internal thresholds- door frames and windows- enhancing the sense of the vertical extending beyond the horizontal plane, freeing up the liminal space from within.
In Splitting (1974), Matta-Clark performed a bolder move, making a direct vertical cut through the middle of another abandoned house that was soon to be demolished. As its title suggests, the house literally appears as if it were frozen in time, about to split into two separate halves, with the split receding in size as it reaches the base of the edifice. Slivers of daylight seep through this crack, imbuing the once pitch-black space with an ethereal quality.
Photocollages of the work by Matta-Clark show how light carves out new spaces in the building, and video documentation depicts how the boundaries of these spaces change with time.
Stephen Walker notes that Matta-Clark disapproved of the domineering, deterministic nature of the traditional labyrinth that could only be easily navigated with access to the plan, an “omnipresent view” that forms the basis of architectural drawing conventions. In Splitting, Matta-Clark created a literal sectional cut through the building. The act of sectioning the building creates transient, alternative spatial compositions instead of clearly defined spaces. Although Matta-Clark himself could not deny the “clean-line brutality” of his building cuts, the consequential views they offer are introspective, transformative, perhaps even subliminal.
“I would make a labyrinth without walls. I would create a complexity which is not about a geometry, not about a simple enclosure or confinement, and also not about barriers, but about creating alternatives which aren’t self-defeating.”
Gordon Matta-Clark in an interview for Avalanche, 1974
THREE: FROM THE OUTSIDE, IN
In 1975, Matta-Clark adopted an abandoned warehouse along the Hudson River which had fallen into decrepitude. Described by Matta-Clark as a “nineteenth century industrial relic of steel and corrugated tin looking like an enormous Christian basilica”, the building embodied a past era that would soon be excised from the fabric of the city.
This work, titled Day’s End: Pier 52, marked a shift in the building cuts from straight edges to curves, from frames to apertures. Unlike the previous domestic buildings, the warehouse had a singular, open interior, a dark volume of space owed to the lack of proper windows. The artist created several incisions in the warehouse, the main one being a teardrop-shaped “rose window” along the west wall facing the river. The incised piece of metal was hung from a chain and reattached to the hole, forming a partial eclipse. These punctures allowed different amounts of daylight to filter in, along with glimpses of the gushing river, creating what Matta-Clark termed “a sun and water temple” (11). In spite of the rational pragmatism promoted by high modernism, Matta-Clark continued to harness the intangible elements of nature in his architectural interventions to transform the warehouse into a sacral space. However, Matta-Clark’s illegal adaptation of the warehouse led to the city filing a lawsuit against him shortly after completing the project.
FOUR: THE SEVERED EDGE
A month after Day’s End: Pier 52, Matta-Clark created Conical Intersect, his most seminal work of art. As a contributor to the ninth Paris biennale, Matta-Clark was allowed to use two townhouses that would be demolished in a redevelopment of the Les Halles-Plateau Beauborg district. The Centre Georges Pompidou, a new cultural center named after the late French president, was being built adjacent to the townhouses (12). Matta-Clark’s schematic shows a truncated cone with its central axis at a forty-five degree angle to the street driven through the two townhouses. To create this, a line of concentric circles that receded in diameter had to be cut along this central axis. At some points, the apertures were intersected by other arcs, creating even more spatial complexity. The trajectory appeared to point towards the Pompidou as if a ballistic missile had been launched at it. Each end of the cone looked onto two diametrically opposing eras: the Centre Georges Pompidou on the smaller end and the ruins of demolished buildings on the wider end. The exterior coalesces with the interior, conveying a strange subliminal quality, a contradictory stillness in spite of the physicality of the act. The severed edge of the hole, lined in white plaster from the walls it bore through, produces what Matta-Clark called “the element of stratification… which reveals the autobiographical process of its making”(13).
Matta-Clark extensively documented his cuts through photography, collage, and film, as part of an ongoing narrative of the building. As he progressed from drawing schematics, to choreographing cuts, performing them, then photographing and filming them, representations of the work metamorphosise from two dimensions to three dimensions and back to two, uncovering new perspectives at every stage. This medium fluidity is also evident in his other works, which include puns, poems, photos, films, collages, graffiti and performance art— countering Clement Greenberg’s view of “medium purity” in modernist art (14).
Despite the fact that he was labelled as a rebellious anarchist and as someone who “violated the sanctity and dignity of buildings” (15), the artist himself expressed his wish for the audience to look beyond the alleged surface brutality of his work16. These were not blind acts of rebellion against authority. Matta-Clark’s oeuvre represents a branch of anarchy that deals with the more metaphysical aspects of the human condition that were repressed by the overbearing modern movement. By instigating the act of cutting, Matta-Clark foreshadowed these buildings’ eventual destruction, the predetermined fate that they were resigned to. However, this act also released confined spaces from the very boundaries that defined them. His voids were breaks in an impervious barricade: by allowing light to permeate these forgotten, imprisoned areas, he reminds us of the innate ambiguity of space before walls and roofs defined them. To him, these abandoned buildings symbolised the plight of the lower classes, who had been failed by a system that abetted social stratification and racial segregation.
In retrospect, it is questionable whether his intentions were successfully conveyed to a wider audience. For instance, Pamela Lee notes that “[g]roups of pedestrians are seen scratching their heads while staring up at the buildings” (17) in the film documentation of Conical Intersect, as if perplexed by the sight of the huge void. His building dissections could be criticised as too insular, too removed from society to be termed political and social activism. The artist himself acknowledged this, choosing to participate in more community-based work such as the Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for Loisaida (1976) nearing his premature death from cancer in 1978, aged 35. Despite his early passing, Matta-Clark’s architectural eloquence left a legacy that continues to redefine how we think about space.
“What I do to buildings is what some do with languages and others with groups of people: I organize them in order to explain and defend the need for change.”18