Gordon Matta-Clark: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Article excerpt

THE ALL-TOO-BRIEF, mercurial career of Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978) has attracted increasing interest over the past ten years. Thanks to monographic studies by Pamela M. Lee and Corinne Diserens, published in 2000 and 2003, respectively, and several recent exhibitions in San Diego and New York, Matta-Clark's ten years of frenetic productivity are becoming known to a larger public. The show currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is, however, the first retrospective of Matta-Clark's work since that held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1985. The many objects on display include fragments from his celebrated cuttings and splittings of condemned buildings; photographs and photomontages of the results of these cuttings; drawings and sketches; notebook pages; index cards; and, of course, films of the more important actions. In keeping with Matta-Clark's well-known aversion to traditional gallery and museum spaces, "Gordon Matta-Clark: 'You Are the Measure'" is staged on the fourth floor of the Whitney as if the space were one of his loft studios. There is also a beautifully produced catalogue, with many large color and black-and-white illustrations and several informative essays, which was edited by Elisabeth Sussman, who organized the exhibition.

On entering the galleries from the main elevators, the visitor is immediately confronted with the outside faces of three of the nine building fragments left from the cutting Bingo, 1974. These rectangular pieces--rust-colored shingles on the outside, green-and-white-painted plastered walls on the inside--seem at first sight to have been cut almost arbitrarily: Windows, doors, beams, and stair treads have all been sliced through with little regard to their former roles. But photographs of the cutting procedure show how carefully Matta-Clark divided the facade of this little two-story house into nine rectangular portions before cutting, in a gesture that seems intended to mock the "nine-square" formal grid that was such a preoccupation for architects of the time, above all Matta-Clark's erstwhile teacher John Hejduk of Cooper Union in New York. These fragments of the Bingo cutting also offer, so to speak, an appropriate "facade" for the exhibition itself: They pose a puzzle for the uninformed visitor, which is gradually to be solved through the comprehensive display of a range of representations of each of Matta-Clark's major projects.

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Such an approach means that the familiar difficulties of exhibiting Matta-Clark's work--often part performance, part object-oriented, and in part photographs or film--have been largely overcome in this show, which groups together records in various media so as to provide as complete an experience as possible. Particularly benefiting from this curatorial approach is the much exhibited Splitting: Four Corners, 1974, comprising the material remnants of the building that was also used for the most celebrated of Matta-Clark's actions, Splitting, 1974, in which he carefully cut a suburban house into two equal parts, gently lowering the back half in order to open up a band of light through the structure. These "corners"--which themselves both evoke the scale of the cutting process and leave one with a strong impression of the historical "aura" of this traditional wooden house, replete with all the traces of its former inhabitation--are here complemented by generous documentation, including film footage and many photographs of the cuts being made. In this way, a work that is in one respect entirely transitory, with a defined and historical beginning, middle, and end, is given its proper extension into the present, allowing the viewer--albeit with some effort--to piece together Matta-Clark's procedures, starting with the numerous preliminary sketches, following the actual cutting in the film, and examining the resulting remains in the gallery.

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Matta-Clark's practice took many forms--photography, film, installation, action, and others he invented--so it is gratifying to see that, alongside the variety of media recording the cuttings, the exhibition also covers an impressive range of his other work, including vitrines displaying the index cards that were so much a part of his "systems" approach to research; the tresses of his hair, cut off, numbered, and organized to recombine into a wig; the bricks he made from discarded glass bottles in a kiln installed in the basement of the exhibition space at 112 Greene Street in New York; documentation pertaining to Food, the SoHo restaurant Matta-Clark cofounded in 1971; and Super-8 film of Tree Dance, the exceptionally moving performance Matta-Clark staged at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1971. …