Matta-Clark, Urban Decay & Renaissance

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Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End” (Pier 52), 1975. Photograph Courtesy the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / ARS / David Zwirner

Renaissance is a word that sounds like it means something good. But not necessarily so. Sarah Cowan has this review of a show in the Bronx that sounds worthy of a visit:

The Future Did Not Have to Be Luxury Condos: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark

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Gordon Matta-Clark (pictured left, in 1975) folded urban decay into his art. Move ahead forty years and the city’s debris is from new development. Photograph by Harry Gruyaert. Courtesy the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / ARS / David Zwirner

In the film “Day’s End,” the artist Gordon Matta-Clark rides a whale-size piece of corrugated metal as it is hoisted away from the wall from which he just cut it. He’s a young man, age thirty-two. The feat was filmed in the summer of 1975, in Chelsea’s abandoned Pier 52 building, where Matta-Clark attempted to make an “indoor park.” His silhouette, against the sunlight streaming in from his new view of the Hudson River, is heroic.

The exodus of middle-class whites and the manufacturing industry had left New York City sliding toward bankruptcy, and it was at this crucial point of economic transition that Matta-Clark turned his training in architecture toward art. He used the tools of construction, demolition, and scale to grip the edges of the city’s rupture and pull it into refined shapes, making urban decay (and possibility) more conspicuous. Of his choice of locations, he said, “The determining factor is the degree to which my intervention can transform the structure into an act of communication.”

Move ahead forty years and the city’s debris is from new development, which has seized vacant space throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. But the underlying inequalities that Matta-Clark addressed in his work remain. It’s fitting that “Day’s End” is currently screening in “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect,” an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The Bronx has become the contemporary battleground where the ideas that motivated Matta-Clark—gentrification, displacement, who decides a city’s future—are being disputed.

Matta-Clark was the son of two artists and grew up in downtown Manhattan, in the fifties and sixties. The activist Jane Jacobs was defending the neighborhood against Robert Moses’s vision of urban renewal, which had already cleaved the Bronx in two in order to build the Cross Bronx Expressway, devastating and displacing communities. Just before Matta-Clark left for college, the nineteenth-century cast-iron loft buildings of SoHo were slated for demolition for Moses’s next project, the Lower Manhattan Expressway. But the urban planner Chester Rapkin’s study of the area revealed that the lofts were not obsolete but filled with factories that employed the city’s low-income minorities, and he, along with Jacobs and other activists, convinced the city that moral imperative and economic interest should leave the lofts intact.

In the years between Moses’s retreat and Matta-Clark’s return, in 1969, SoHo’s buildings were increasingly vacated, and unexpected tenants moved in: artists. The historian Aaron Shkuda, in his book, “The Lofts of Soho: Gentrification, Art and Industry in New York, 1950-1980,” writes, “SoHo artist groups posited a new postindustrial future for New York City that did not rely on slum clearance or urban renewal,” and, in the process, “established a new role for artists in the contemporary metropolis: as property developers, urban ‘pioneers,’ and small business incubators.”

Matta-Clark embodied all three personae. In 1970, he helped open 112 Greene Street, a collaborative gallery and performance space, in a former rag-picking factory. A year later, he, Caroline Goodden, and Tina Girouard founded FOOD, often referred to as SoHo’s first restaurant, to provide jobs, healthy meals, and a community space for the artists living downtown. In the Bronx Museum show, a 1972 film charts a day at the restaurant. A long-haired man brews coffee, Goodden haggles at the Fulton Fish Market, gumbo bubbles on the stove, and, after closing, another man bakes the next day’s bread.

Beyond the physical innovation of the restaurant’s open kitchen, in which about three hundred artists worked over the years, Matta-Clark made space at FOOD for artistic experimentation and performance. On Sundays, meals were hosted by individual artists, including Yvonne Rainer, Donald Judd, and Keith Sonnier. Matta-Clark himself devised the “Matta Bones” dinner, in which necklaces made from the remains of animals were given out as souvenirs to those who had eat­en them. His widow, Jane Crawford, once said that Matta-Clark “had cooking all through his mind as a way of assembling people, like choreography.”

“One of the earliest times I can remember using cutting as a way of redefining a space was at FOOD Restaurant,” Matta-Clark said. The renovations of that space and 112 Greene Street gave him the idea for what would become known as his “building cuts,” and he soon made his first foray, with trips to abandoned buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He photographed from disorienting angles the odd windows that he opened, and even took cross-sections of the buildings to exhibit at 112 Greene Street, under the title “Bronx Floors.” The remains of wallpaper and molding around his dissections emphasized what the artist said of a later work: “The shadows of the persons who had lived there were still pretty warm.”…

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