... like a modern-day Charlie Chaplin, shaves, brushes his teeth and showers with a garden hose while balancing on the edge of the clock face. Then he reclines in a harness, covered in shaving cream, before casually spinning the arms of the giant clock. The camera pans at the end to show the panorama from Broadway, where Matta-Clark is a speck high on the skyline, nearly invisible.
He looks so blissful up there in the soot and sunshine, having what was clearly a great time, reminding us of that less regulated New York City wherein a cheeky young man, if so inclined, might dangle from the outside of a tall building for a while and not attract undue attention. If there's a metaphor for what the downtown art world was, but no longer is, that's it.
The much anticipated, excellent Matta-Clark retrospective that just opened at the Whitney recalls this charismatic Pied Piper of experimentalism from the frontier days of what came to be called SoHo, which he helped establish as a lively art community. Thanks partly to him, we got the groundbreaking exhibition space at 112 Greene Street that evolved into White Columns, where he grew mushrooms in the basement and melted bottles into gorgeous colored bricks. He also cooked up the idea for the fabled Food, an artist-run, community-spirited restaurant-as-be-in on the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets, catering to hungry neighborhood artists and pioneering hippie-ish taste for global cuisine, fresh produce and sushi in the days when exotic seasoning in New York still meant salsa and soy sauce.
There's a photograph of Matta-Clark, long-haired and shockingly boyish, in too-short jeans, with his partner Carol Goodden (who, not surprisingly, nearly lost her inheritance bankrolling Food), outside the failed Puerto Rican bodega that Food was to occupy. Elisabeth Sussman, the Whitney's curator, writes in the show's catalog that the place represented "the best picture of an artists' utopia, in all its extraordinary ordinariness, that Matta-Clark imagined."
It didn't last long, naturally. Alas, neither did Matta-Clark. When he died, from cancer, in 1978, at 35, he seemed to have taken with him much of that messianic, carefree ethos that arose when New York was a crumbling capital with mean streets, cheap rents and bad air, and when art wasn't worth much either, so nothing was impossible.
He arrives back in town not a minute too soon, a prophetic inspiration to artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Olafur Eliasson and other collaborative, socially inclined, architecturally venturesome figures attuned to the scrappy 1970s spirit. He's also an implicit rebuke. Matta-Clark represents a whole different notion of the art world from the youth-besotted, money-sick one we've got today. How sweet that this retrospective opens at the same time the art fairs do.
I have no doubt that Matta-Clark is now being turned into a hot commercial commodity as quickly as you can say David Zwirner Gallery, but at least at the Whitney you can see what he aspired to be. Aside from Food, he came up with various wonderfully harebrained ideas. Literally, in one case: after letting his hair grow for a year, he cut it off as a kind of performance and phrenological gag. The preserved hair, dutifully tagged piece by piece, opens the show, like a holy relic.
He also sautéed a Polaroid of a Christmas tree in grease. The copy he sent to Robert Smithson, golden brown on the outside, is here too, and none too appetizing, I might add. With his friend Juan Downey he proffered oxygen from a kind of makeshift hot dog stand with back-to-back wheelchairs. At Documenta, in Kassel, Germany, in 1977, he climbed up a smokestack. (Matthew Barney, who famously assaulted an elevator shaft there later, was just following in his footsteps.)
And most notably, often under cover of darkness, he pursued his version of tool-belt conceptualism. He chopped up abandoned buildings, making huge, baroque cuts in them with chain saws, slicing and dicing like a chef peeling an orange or devising radish flowers. (The food analogy wasn't lost on him.) As at the Clocktower, he loved playing the daredevil, and, for all the heavy equipment and immense scale, he had a surprisingly delicate touch.
At the center of the show is "Splitting." To a plain single-family suburban frame house in Englewood, N.J., he made a cut straight down the middle, bisecting the building, then severing the four corners of the roof like so many trophy heads. It was spectacular but not quite like the times he sawed tear-shaped holes into floors of an office building in Antwerp, or conical openings into a pair of antique houses in Paris slated for demolition next to where the Pompidou Center was being built. What resulted were vertiginous, Piranesean spaces, uncannily beautiful and kinetic, preserved on film and in drawings and in collaged photographs that, as you can see in the show, are like Rubik's cubes or Eschers.
Closer to home, before the New York City police locked the place up, he transformed a ghostly turn-of-the-century industrial shed on Pier 52, near Gansevoort Street in Greenwich Village (where he grew up), into a temporary cathedral of light. He even made a moat inside, by removing a 10-foot-wide section of the wood floor. And with a blowtorch he cut an enormous elliptical window out of the tin wall at the far west end.
In the film, which is slow but worth the effort, you see him suspended, his face brightly reflected in the sparkly glare of the torch, cutting the ellipse, then slowly removing it with a winch. Late afternoon sun pours around the edges, making a kind of drawing out of blinding light. The effect resembles a lunar eclipse, and it's just plain magnificent.
Installed in an airy, open plan on the Whitney's lofty top floor (Matta-Clark might have liked the space), the retrospective consists of the films, as well as drawings, photographs and some of the architectural pieces he cut out of buildings. I wish the catalog were a better read, and easier to use, but it is densely illustrated. By necessity, the show is heavy on documents, reflecting that just-the-facts style popular among '70s Conceptualists. This lends the display an initially gray and forbidding veneer. But give it time. It's got a light, mischievous heart.
The best rooms are devoted to "Conical Intersect" in Paris, "Office Baroque" in Antwerp and "Splitting" in New Jersey. The drawings are casual and not too interesting, but the luxurious black-and-white photographs from Paris speak more to Matta-Clark's formal elegance. His collaged photos of "Splitting" mix elegy with ecstasy, which neatly sums up his sense of architecture. Glossy Cibachromes, hybrid documents and collages express his late fascination with a new technology. Cibachrome let him make big, dizzying, gaudy color images, which were the closest he ever came to catering to a market.
The big sculptures are the only serious letdown. You see irregular chunks of floor-cum-ceiling, from a building in the Bronx, which make colorful, multi-textured, pentimentoed readymades. They're archaeological collages. Part of the outside of the Englewood house has a visual geometry that derives from the syncopation of clapboard and window frames.
But scraps of architecture, even big ones, ultimately look inert, while Matta-Clark's actions entailed forms of pyrotechnical, swashbuckling athleticism that come across best in the films and the photographs, and which speak to his glamorous roots.
He came from art royalty. Matta-Clark's father was the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta. A notorious womanizer and all-around piece of work, Matta skipped town and moved to Paris when his twin sons were babies. Gordon eventually added his mother's maiden name to his own. From Matta, he got something of his cosmopolitanism, his taste for the surreal and an interest in architecture, which he studied at Cornell, not to mention good connections. ("Did you ever call on Marcel Breuer, the architect?" Matta wrote to Matta-Clark in 1962, just before Breuer designed the Whitney. "He is a very good friend of mine.")
One wonders whether Matta-Clark's faith in community, his crusade for urban affairs, his general bravado, came in reaction to his negligent father. He straddled worlds, as did his parents. The cuts in buildings spoke to issues of decay and civic renewal, which were at the forefront of public debate in New York, at the same time that the shapes he concocted out of his arabesque cuts conjured up three-dimensional versions of abstractions by European artists like Fontana, Boccioni or Kandinsky, whose stylish Modernism was Matta's heritage. His photographic collages make me think of Rauschenberg, while the syncopated lines that Matta-Clark sliced through some of the buildings bring Mondrian to mind, especially the project in Genoa; likewise the cut drawings, which he made by slicing a chain saw through stacks of paper.
In other words, as with the food at Food, he occupied a kind of limbo, culturally speaking. Maybe that's why his work kept pointing toward those in-between spaces we occupy but pass by, the invisible ones we all share.
He often talked about edges: about the areas between walls, between a floor and a ceiling — about gaps and voids, which he made into art. In the show are photographs that he took of the spaces under chairs, between the floors of buildings, on the ceiling of a loft, where the sprinkler pipes were: places people don't usually bother to notice. "Opening up view to the unvisible" (he loved wordplay), was something he jotted on a note to himself. It might be his manifesto.
Which partly accounts for the scheme he came up with during the early '70s to buy parcels of "gutterspace" — tiny, useless pieces of land, the remnants of surveying errors and zoning anomalies that New York City auctioned off to raise petty cash. Matta-Clark had a video shot of him (by Jaime Davidovich) as a kind of hipster Harold Lloyd knocking on doors in Queens, trying to locate his properties, chalking off six-inch strips of driveway and peering through chain-link fences at patches of weeds that he determined were his.
He also took photographs of the parcels, which, when strung together, make glorious Cubist collages. Look at all these unloved places abandoned by bureaucratic neglect, as are the people who sometimes live near there. Property, Matta-Clark seemed to be saying, can have its own metabolism (again, the food analogy). Its use changes, along with its value, depending on what we choose to make of it.
The big message was: Life as art and art as life, a philosophy dependent on our being properly attuned and keen to the moment. During a career barely a decade long, everything Matta-Clark did somehow reinforced this idea.
You may wander through this show in any direction, a democratic touch by Ms. Sussman in keeping with Matta-Clark's approach. This lets you encounter "Tree Dance," at either the beginning or the end. In 1971 Matta-Clark enlisted dancers to hang from branches of a big tree at Vassar College. They squirmed and lay around in netted wombs, like hammocks. He filmed them.
Less instantly catchy than the buildings, "Tree Dance" is a slow-burn affair. I passed it by at first, then turned back.
Everything's in it. The play of light. The vertiginous space. The ways the branches draw complex lines in the air. The communal endeavor. And, looking skyward, it suggests all those organic allusions to passing time, which, as with Matta-Clark on the Clocktower, give a slightly melancholy twist to his unprepossessing comedy.
Maybe that's just nostalgia talking. Or maybe it's the hope the work conveys that the world is infinitely compelling if we keep our eyes open. Either way, it's heavenly.
Coming fron NYTIMES