Tropolism Exhibitions: Gordon Matta-Clark You Are The Measure


For anyone who has been a regular visitor to Chelsea art galleries in the last eight years, the new Gordon Matta-Clark show at the Whitney will hold little that is new. At some point, most of the works in the show have been on display. In fact, the only works I cannot recall seeing were the film of Day's End, the hair piece, the Anarchitecture photographs, and some of the early energy-force drawings (in fact, some works are missing, like Graffiti Truck.) Yet what the show does offer is collecting all of these works in one room, the top floor of the Whitney, in a sassy-titled show You Are The Measure.

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The curators have wisely resisted the tendency to domesticate dead, action-oriented conceptual artists through a monumental one-person show. While the show is filled with artifacts--indeed most of the surviving artifacts of Matta-Clark's career seem to be in the show--there is a palpable sense of someone at work here. And by "at work" I mean, of course, "at work with a Sawzall". One is never far from an object or photograph or film that documents Matta-Clark's blowtorching, sledgehammering, or chainsawing a building. The big actions are but one of the draws out of the museum: the second is the conceptual documentation. Matta-Clark was a horrible writer of anything except puns and declarative statements, many of which are captured on index cards, like notes on punch lines a comedian would make to jog his memory. The show captures all the visceral aspects of conceptual art, and leaves the art history interpretation in the museum lobby.


One example of this capturing is the film of Day's End. You know the story: Matta-Clark and crew entered Pier 52 in 1975 without permission, and proceeded to spend the next two months cutting large, structurally inadvisable openings the building. The film shows Matta-Clark suspended by a rope (no studio assistants working on this one), blowtorching a vertical structural member that will allow the huge elliptical shaped cut at the end of the pier building to be removed. The shot switches to all-white. As the cut piece is removed, one recognizes that the all-white is the exterior of the building, and the dark crack of the partially-removed building is the interior of the pier. In fact, as this shadow-crack slowly gets larger, the interior is very much visible on the film, as if New York was the void, and this abandoned, beautiful, interior, decaying New York were the figure, made visible from nothingness by Matta-Clark's illegal building cut. In addition, the shape, and the cropping of the film, is beautiful. The play of light on the water, inside of the pier, is beautiful.


The distance between Matta-Clark's New York City and our own is palpable. Long gone are the days when someone would be able to enter an industrial building, work for two months, and make huge cuts to a building's exterior. These days, getting in would be impossible because the structure would be in heavy use, security would be tight, and the activity would be interpreted as some new form of terrorism. Today, a work like this can only be recreated in a museum; the conditions that would support its location outdoors have been erased.


That his work reads as violent is palpable too. Two pieces of the Anarchitecture works seem to be a premonition of 9/11: the cropped photograph of the space between the Twin Towers (taken shortly after their completion), and a sketch in his notebook of a tall, WTC-proportioned building behind a low sunrise and trees, that reads "11. The Perfect Structure." The building has a large X through it, next to which is written "Erase to a new horizon." I'm not claiming, as others have done, that 9/11 was an artistic act: that interpretation is too simplistic, and does not take into account Matta-Clark's intentions. Yet the coincidence of these sketches to events on 9/11 do signal how far we are from Matta-Clark's time, from his New York, in that we would be able to interpret his work as an unacceptable violation of social norm were they to happen today. Were Matta-Clark to undertake the Day's End cuttings today, he would be seen as automatically transgressive to society, as unpatriotic, as a security threat. We have grown fond of our security blanket, and in doing so we have successfully prevented art from undertaking anything more intrusive than a glimpse underneath it.

Yet these echoes are only for us to debate, nearly 40 years after Matta-Clark moved to New York. They are interpretations that arise because of events in the intervening decades. For Matta-Clark, the work is bound together not by its techniques, but by its intentions. There is a constant dance of people in his work and life, visible in all the films (particularly the film about Food). Matta-Clark is attacking icons of modern architecture, derelict buildings, and interior-exterior boundaries in an attempt to locate the hidden life of the city, and make that hidden city visible. One of the Anarchitecture punch line cards reads "Opening up view to the unvisible." He isn't even looking for art: he simply uses art to make the city he sees available to others.


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