Gordon Matta-Clark — Artist, Activist, Anarchitect

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Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, 1974

Completion through removal. Abstractions of surfaces. Not-building, not-to-rebuild, not-built-space. Creating spatial complexity, reading new openings against old surfaces. Light admitted into space or beyond surfaces that are cut. Breaking and entering. Approaching structural collapse, separating the parts at the point of collapse.
— Gordon Matta-Clark, 1971

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks researching the work of Gordon Matta-Clark for a paper for my Art Theory & Criticism class this semester. The assignment was to choose an artist and/or specific work to tie in with some of the theories we had been discussing in our readings. Deconstruction theory* is very interesting to me, so I started with a Google search on that term and came up with Gordon Matta-Clark. As soon as I saw the images that came up, I remembered having seen a slide of his work in an earlier art history class. The slide we saw was from his work Bingo, in which he cut out sections from the side of an old condemned house. Some of these sections were saved, and this slide shows them placed in a pristine museum setting — a striking contrast of particular interest for me because I find abandoned structures so compelling.

Gordon Matta-Clark was quite an interesting guy. He was the son of two artists — Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta and American artist Anne Clark. Marcel Duchamp was his godfather. He was active during the early 70s and died an untimely death from cancer when he was only 35. His work is somewhat difficult to categorize, consisting of elements of sculpture, drawing, film, performance, social activism, and “semantic deconstruction,” a label applied to his fondness for word play in his documentation.

His most well-known works are probably those often referred to as the “building cuts.” The earliest works involving cutting of buildings were “urban guerilla acts” in which he illegally entered abandoned apartment buildings and cut out parts of what would have been a floor on one level and a ceiling for the level below. These cut-out fragments were displayed in a gallery setting as Bronx Floors.

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Gordon Matta-Clark, Bronx Floors, 1972-73

As he gained notoriety, Matta-Clark was able to gain legal access to various condemned structures in order to perform his interventions. Splitting (top) is probably his most iconic work, consisting of a house which he cut completely in half. He and his collaborators were able to remove part of the foundation on one side so that the affected half tilted back and transformed the opening into a dramatic wedge, widening from bottom to top.

Matta-Clark was interested in the social aspects of how abandonment and urban renewal would affect and displace communities. His ideas about consumerism and capitalism seemed to be taken almost directly from the Situationists: the concepts of psychogeography, dérive, and détournement. In explaining his “dualistic habit of centering and removal,” he said,

Here I am directing my attention to the central void, to the gap which, among other things, could be between the self and the American Capitalist system. What I am talking about is a very real, carefully sustained mass schizophrenia in which our individual perceptions are constantly being subverted by industrially controlled media, markets, and corporate interests. … This conspiracy goes on every day, everywhere, while the citizen commutes to and from his shoe-box home with its air of peace and calm, while he is being precisely maintained in a state of mass insanity.

Matta-Clark was trained as an architect, having received a B.A. in architecture from Cornell University in 1968. But he spent a lot of time in the company of artists while in college, and he expressed some disaffection with the field of architecture, and especially with the type of modernist ideas he encountered there. After leaving Cornell, Matta-Clark moved to New York City, to an area now known as SoHo but which was then called the South Houston Industrial area. At that time, the area was in a state of decline, a prime example of urban decay, with numerous abandoned buildings and streets lacking lighting and maintenance. Since the 1950s, artists had been attracted to the area for the cheap rents, living illegally in buildings zoned for commercial, not residential use. In the late 1960s, the city’s urban planners and wealthy landowners wanted to transform the area into a modern corporate and financial center, an idea which was met with no small resistance by the inhabitants.

At this time, much of Matta-Clark’s work involved a spirit of community, calling attention to the plight of the poor and homeless and involving neighbors and other artists in the work’s creation. He had several ideas for making building materials from discarded bottles and other trash, with thoughts of developing some of these ideas into places for the homeless to live.[ii] He explained his motivation:

As a native New Yorker my sense of the city as home runs deep … [and] my attitudes are still keener as regards an awareness of prevailing conditions and their need for improvement. Among the conditions my training and personal inclination have taught me to deal with is neglect and abandonment. There are words which when applied to children or human beings of any age evoke a profound call for alarm and rectification, yet when existing in massive proportions throughout our urban environment evokes only bureaucratic or juridic ambivalence and in-action.[iii]

Matta-Clark’s ideas about the social content of his work grew clearer to him as he progressed in his career. In a 1976 interview with Donald Wall, after he had done several building-cut projects, he reiterated his commitment to fighting against what he saw as a flawed system:

By undoing a building there are many aspects of the social conditions against which I am gesturing: first, to open a state of enclosure which had been preconditioned not only by physical necessity but by the industry that profligates suburban and urban boxes as a context for insuring a passive, isolated consumer—a virtually captive audience.[iv]

In 1975, Matta-Clark began work on Conical Intersect, one of his more complex building interventions. In Paris at this time, the old section of the city known as Les Halles was being demolished to make way for modernization, including the building of the then-controversial Centre Georges Pompidou. Matta-Clark obtained permission to work on two 17th-century houses that were the last to be demolished to make way for the modernization project.

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Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975

Having been to the Pompidou myself last summer, I found this especially interesting. The pictures are fascinating, but how amazingly cool it would have been to be able to experience this first-hand. These works could only exist, and for only a short time, because they would subsequently be destroyed. All that remains are photographs and film of the process.

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Interior view of Conical Intersect

I can’t help feeling nostalgic when older buildings are demolished to make way for the new. I know that’s a kind of sentimental attitude, and we must have progress and all that, but I just like the character of old buildings better than new ones. If I never saw what was there before, of course I couldn’t give that too much thought, but Gordon Matta-Clark did want people to think about that, and that’s why I love his work so much.

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*Deconstruction is a literary theory credited to Jacques Derrida, who is maddeningly difficult to read. I found a very understandable explanation of deconstruction in Literary Theory for the Perplexed by Mary Klages. (Wow – Amazon seriously wants $132 for this book? Good thing we have libraries!)

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[i]Gordon Matta-Clark, Interview by Donald Wall, 1976, in “Gordon Matta-Clark’s Building Dissections,” in Gordon Matta-Clark: Works and Collected Writings, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2006), 58.
[ii]Christian, Scheidemann, “Material and Process: Gordon Matta-Clark’s Object Legacy, in Gordon Matta Clark: You are the Measure. Exhibition catalog published by the Whitney Museum of American Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 119.
[iii]Gordon Matta-Clark, notes from the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, quoted in Judith Russi-Kirchner, “The Idea of Community in the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark,” in Gordon Matta-Clark, ed. Corinne Diserens (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2003), 148.
[iv]Matta-Clark, Wall interview, 57.

2017-10-15T16:16:30+00:00 November 29th, 2009|Influences, Interesting Artists, School|Comments Off on Gordon Matta-Clark — Artist, Activist, Anarchitect

Art & Fear — Part II

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Several weeks ago, I posted Part I of an assignment for my Painting V class, a written response to a particular book, in my case Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland. The book is divided into two sections, which was convenient for the 2-part assignment.

Response paper – Art & Fear, Part II

By the time you get to part II of the book, you’ve become familiar with the book’s rhythm of bad news, good news. It’s a comforting seesaw going back and forth, first saying here’s a problem, but then don’t despair, here’s how you can deal with it.

Chapter VI, “A View Into the Outside World,” begins with all of the other things one must worry about in addition to the relatively simple matter of just making the art. One of the biggest is the way the work will be received by the outside world. People in general are fearful of anything that goes against the status quo, and stories of moral outrage or other negative feedback often result in artists’ self-censoring out of survival instinct. Along with this, there’s the problem of getting others to be interested in and to accept your work. The so-called “art world” has its predefined standards, and gaining acceptance in this world can be tricky. Without some level of ability to play the game, an artist has little hope of success in this world.

This chapter also raises the sticky subject of competition. Human nature being what it is, artists are also instinctively inclined toward competing with other artists. This inclination, if not kept in check, can get out of control. Competition can have positive consequences; for instance, if it drives an artist  to create work at a very high level, to make one’s best work at all times. But the downfall here lies in determining what one’s best work is. We may rely on the outside world to tell us. The danger here is that you might just make work that you know will gain easy acceptance and thus avoid challenging yourself. In my own experience, I often find that the work I think is my strongest is greeted with a big yawn by others, while some that I think is less than stellar gets very positive responses. It’s a battle to keep myself true to my own vision and resist using certain combinations of colors or visual devices just because I know people have reacted positively to these things in my past work.

“Navigating the System” deals with the subject of commissions and the necessity of making art that can produce monetary returns. If you’re not fortunate enough to be completely independent of the need to make money from your art, then you probably have to make some concessions to complete freedom of self-expression. You have to figure out how to strike a balance between making work for others and making work for yourself, and which is more important to your survival. For me, making commissions has been a good and bad proposition. When I’ve been constrained to colors I’m not used to working with, it feels unfamiliar and forced. And even when there’s complete creative freedom, there’s also the anxiety of wondering whether the end product will be accepted by the client. The rewards, both financial as well as in the form of exposure, have so far been worth it. I won’t seek a commission, but if requested, I’ll give it a try if I feel I can work within the parameters given and also if I feel a good rapport with the client.

Chapter VII, “The Academic World,” discusses issues related to learning about art in school, from the viewpoint of both student and teacher. The discussion of the problems faced by an artist who decides to teach sound so formidable, I can’t imagine myself ever wanting to do it. But following the bad news–good news cycle, there’s the reminder that in spite of the soul-killing administrative requirements and lack of time artist-educators have to create their own art, there is the very fulfilling prospect of nurturing and learning from new artists and their fresh perspectives on life. For me, this has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being a student as well: mingling with other creative people and being inspired by their ingenuity and generosity.

Next, the authors discuss how books fit into the artist’s life. Besides technique and history, one of the most valuable aspects of reading about other artists is gaining “courage-by-association” (90). The more experience I have under my own belt, the more I enjoy reading about other artists and their processes, their fears and triumphs, and just simply their approaches to observation and life in general. Wisdom, insight, passion, logic, and introspection: all great things to be gained from reading the words of other artists. “Every artist could write such a book. You could write such a book” (92). Maybe I will!

Chapter VIII, “Conceptual Worlds,” is the seminal chapter of the book. Everything else rides on these three questions to be asked when viewing the work of any artist, as first proposed by Henry James: “What was the artist trying to achieve?”  “Did he/she succeed?” And “Was it worth it?” (93). These words really resonated with me.  I hadn’t thought to ask anything like this about my own work, but if I were to go back and do this with certain pieces now, I can see that these questions hold the key to understanding why I’m just not that excited about some of them. “Art that falls short often does so not because the artist failed to meet the challenge, but because there was never a challenge there in the first place.” Using the analogy of an Olympic dive, the authors stress that you get more points for degree of difficulty than for perfection. Technical perfection, while commendable and valuable, can also become a trap. Yes, you can keep doing the easy thing, that thing which resonated at the time, and seemed so fulfilling. But if you don’t challenge yourself to go beyond that, you don’t grow as an artist.

This chapter also contains the best explanation I’ve ever seen on the difference between art and craft, a question of vital interest to me. Using the Mona Lisa as an example, the authors ask: “Is this art?”  Probably supposing that no one would deny it, they next ask, “What about an undetectably perfect copy of the Mona Lisa?” (97). The point is that art vs. craft is a question that must be considered not in isolation for an individual piece, but in the context of multiple works by one person. The art aspect is achieved when there is a conceptual leap from one piece to the next. “There’s a greater conceptual jump from one work of art to the next than from one work of craft to the next” (98). To me, this means that even though the techniques might be the same, someone is making craft if the end products are the same or very similar, and it’s art if each piece is unique in a substantial way. The artist must be vigilant to keep pushing this difference as his or her career matures, to be sure the work “continually generates new and unresolved issues.”  The key difference between art and craft is not the tools but the ideas. “For the artisan, craft is an end in itself. For you, the artist, craft is the vehicle for expressing your vision” (98).

The book concludes with the assertion that in art (as in most of life), there are no reassuringly concrete answers to tell us how to get along on the journey. But you can find your way by asking the right questions. Each artist finds his or her own way through observation, working, and associations with other artists and activities, but in the end the thing that matters is making the work. If the artist doesn’t find a way to proceed, then that’s the end of his or her art-making. There is no single set of instructions that works for everyone. “The individual recipe any artist finds for proceeding belongs to that artist alone — it’s non-transferable and of little use to others” (117). If I choose to continue to make art, I face a lot of uncertainties, but as the authors conclude, “Curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice” (118).

2017-10-15T16:16:30+00:00 November 13th, 2009|Art|3 Comments

Article in Machine Quilting Unlimited

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Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine includes a regular feature called “Art Studio.” I’m the featured artist for the November 2009 issue. I enjoyed writing the copy for it, since the subject is one with which I’m intimately familiar — and I can always use the practice talking about my work. The magazine did a fantastic job with the layout, as you can see. This is a beautiful publication, with articles of interest to both traditional and art quilters. Single copies and subscriptions are available at their web site, http://www.mqumag.com/home/.

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2017-10-15T16:16:31+00:00 November 10th, 2009|Miscellaneous|4 Comments