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with a B.Arch. in 1968. 1 Yet he decided while still in college to become an artist, and his métier became uselessness, fracture, and the renegade inhabitation of urban space. His professional life was packed into a hectic period between his return to his native New York City from Cornell in 1969, and his death from pancreatic cancer nine years later. In this short decade, he executed seven major site-specific works, now customarily referred to as “building cuts,” in which an abandoned building was infiltrated in toto with geometrically complex voids, cut by the artist and a few helpers using handheld tools. One of the cuts was located in Manhattan, and two more within striking distance of the city. Three were in Europe, and one was in Chicago. Some were sponsored by institutions or patrons, and some were illegal, executed guerrilla style. All were destroyed, sometimes before they were finished.

From these Piranesian environments, Matta-Clark occasionally saved sculptural chunks for exhibition. He also made films, photographs, drawings, and artist’s books. He was a pivotal figure at the artist-run gallery 112 Greene Street, a center of the Soho scene in gritty downtown Manhattan, at a time when developments in conceptualism and minimalism were meeting innovations like the Portapak video camera and the corollary emergence of performance and installation art. In collaboration with the dancer and photographer Carol Goodden, Matta-Clark cofounded FOOD restaurant on Prince Street, and with Goodden and a tight-knit group of friends — among them Laurie Anderson, Tina Girouard, Jene Highstein, Suzanne Harris, Richard Landry, and Richard Nonas — he organized the freewheeling and now semi-legendary artists’ group that called itself Anarchitecture. He is credited with having helped to establish the site-specific and performative modes of art-making now gathered under the rubric of postminimalism.

His preoccupation with literal deconstruction has overshadowed the importance of language in Matta-Clark’s art.

In the decades since his death, Matta-Clark has entered the art-historical canon as a hands-on, shirt-off materialist, a bandana-wearing daredevil vigorously involved with the experience of site, whose labor-intensive yet ultimately ephemeral endeavors resisted commodification in the art market. This reputation is deserved, and he consciously helped craft it. He really was a devil-may-care character, and he really did do most of the filthy, exhausting work of cutting buildings up himself, by hand, for the benefit of visitors who found a way to enter them in the days or weeks in which they might survive. From hardscrabble regional cities like Genoa, Italy ( A W-Hole House , 1973), Englewood, New Jersey ( Splitting , 1974), and Niagara Falls, New York ( Bingo/Ninths , 1974), to grimy waterfronts in New York City ( Day’s End , 1975) and Antwerp ( Office Baroque , 1977), and even in swiftly expanding cultural hubs such as the Plateau Beaubourg in Paris ( Conical Intersect , 1975), and along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile ( Circus , 1978), Matta-Clark specialized in aggressive disruptions of built space.

And yet, in the posthumous reception of his art, this swashbuckling image has tended to obscure the more conceptual elements of Matta-Clark’s practice. More specifically, the artist’s undeniable preoccupation with literal deconstruction has overshadowed the fundamental importance of language and semiotic structure in his thought.

For Matta-Clark, the physical and the poetic were halves of a whole. He wrote constantly, and punning wordplay, surreal quasi-narrative provocations, and conversational exchange were integral to his understanding of sculpture, performance, and filmmaking alike. He was not, like his somewhat older contemporaries Donald Judd and Robert Smithson, a reviewer of other artists’ work, nor an essayist composing for publication. Neither was he a diarist, writing to fulfill inner needs. Much of his verbal output occupies, instead, a liminal zone between presentational and off-the-record or off-the-cuff. In place of polemic or confession, he gave interviews, drafted long-shot proposals, and kept aphoristic notes on index cards; he confected neologisms on the spot. He was probably dyslexic and his spelling was atrocious — yet these errors cannot be discounted wholesale, since his puns often turn on intentional misspellings and multilingual plays on words. There was method to his madness, and he returned continually to his flights of verbal fancy and invented terms, reworking phrases on the page and weaving a mesh of nuances based on use.

It is in his interviews, letters, and writings that Matta-Clark’s grappling with radical activism is most visible.

An equally important — and closely related — element of Matta-Clark’s career is his commitment to collaborative and politically inflected art-making. Like the vivid physicality of his site-specific cuts, the sociopolitical symbolism of his production has frequently been taken as a given in critical reception. “Matta-Clark’s work is a politics of things approaching their social exhaustion and the potential of their reclamation,” observes the art historian Pamela M. Lee — whose 2001 book Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark reignited interest in its subject after years of posthumous neglect. “It is a politics of the art object in relation to property; of the ‘right to the city’ alienated by capital and the state, of the retrieval of lost spaces; of communities reimagined in the wake of their disappearance; a politics of garbage and things thrown away.”

Matta-Clark’s efforts as an organizer of experiential environments has also led him to be claimed by artists and theorists as a forerunner for the participatory strategies that in recent decades have been framed as new-genre public art, relational aesthetics, and/or social practice — forms addressing audiences as co-producers of the events that constitute the art, as in the sharing of meals, or the staging of festive undertakings like dance parties or graffiti-writing sessions. (Matta-Clark used all these strategies, from food-giveaways like Pig Roast [1971] and Cuisse de boeuf [1975] to street performances with dancers like Open House [1972] and collective painting projects like Graffiti Truck [1973].)

Yet, as with the verbal elements of his work, Matta-Clark’s engagements with communally inhabited city spaces are more complicated and more subtle than can be accounted for by an exclusively stylistic interpretation, in which such interests drive his doings in aesthetic terms but remain distinct from politics-as-such. The great problem of producing art that would be not only formally adventurous but also politically effective was as vexing to him as it was important, and he grappled throughout the 1970s with the possibilities for effecting grassroots change through artistic means, and the degree to which he could or should cede control to people who might have been using a place before he got there. All seven of his large-scale cuts involved derelict structures; indeed, the evacuation or condemnation of a property were the only conditions under which he ever gained access. But this, he realized, did not insulate him from the contradictions of deindustrialization and ghettoization. He knew that his affinities for abjected zones did not negate the fact that other squatters, cruisers, and adventurers might be occupying buildings he went into, nor absolve him of responsibility when redevelopment swept away dilapidated neighborhoods and displaced their tenants. It is in his interviews, letters, and writings that these struggles are most visible.

It was the era of civil rights organizing, antiwar protest, expanding ecological awareness, countercultural communalism, and feminist and gay liberation movements.

Matta-Clark was a product of what is sometimes called “the long 1960s,” the era of civil rights organizing, antiwar protest, expanding ecological awareness, countercultural communalism, and feminist and gay liberation movements; he died in the midst of the Jimmy Carter administration, when it was still possible to take for granted a leftist political understanding among young people who were embracing alternative lifeways and making site-responsive art. Such concerns surface regularly in his verbal exchanges — as, for instance, in an interview with the curator Judith Russi Kirshner, who had brought him to Chicago to make Circus , which as fate would have it turned out to be the last building cut he made before his cancer diagnosis. Matta-Clark worries aloud in this conversation about the conundrum of individual ambition versus mutually binding ethical imperatives. Eventually he settles on situation and communication as joint foci for his work — but all the while he acknowledges that the social turn enacted by his generation is  not sufficient to save art from a crisis of relevance:

So for me, basically, it seems that I know what I want to do, I know how I’m going to try to solve my personal guilt, let’s say social, political, guilt, but I don’t really know how to describe it for other people. I don’t think that there is a formula. I think that basically art in society, in our community, is an incredible dilemma, and I don’t think that there are any pat or generalized ways of doing it. I think you have to deal with a specific situation and the character of your dealing with that specific situation is the piece, the work. If you can work with people in addition to working out your ideas, and so forth, then that can become an interesting ingredient in the art.

Most of his friends in Soho felt the same. From individuals who had taken part in campus protests in the ’60s, to activist groups like the Art Workers Coalition who organized against the Vietnam War and raised funds for causes from the Black Panther Party to Biafran refugees, downtown artists in the ’70s thought of themselves as “bohemian outsiders and almost Marxists — against capitalist culture,” as the painter Mary Heilmann recalls in a recent oral-history interview.  The period, wrote the critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard in 1972, “confirmed my belief in ‘ideas in the air.’” 5

Such shared horizons of belief — their “in the air” ubiquity — are difficult to reconstruct and easy to minimize all these years later, when conditions in art and activism (and real estate) have changed so drastically. As we look back from a vantage in the new century, we may find ourselves discussing a given art work as conceptually or symbolically political, or as a proleptic experiment in social practice, while bracketing the real-time pressures exerted on that work by events beyond the downtown art community. We may, in short, deemphasize context. Stripped out of this larger context, however, Matta-Clark’s political thinking risks being neutralized.

He was committed to undermining systems he found oppressive — whether they were architectural or economic, spatial or semiotic.

Bringing specificity to the discussion of Matta-Clark’s activist sympathies is all the more important in that here — as with most issues related to his verbal sensibilities — he gave no single, overwhelming statement regarding his convictions. It is, rather, the preponderance of detail and resonance that affirms his commitment to undermining systems he found oppressive — whether those systems were architectural or economic, spatial or semiotic. Real-world implications are almost always embedded in Matta-Clark’s art. But they are usually indirect or intentionally scrambled, and he would have rejected readings that privilege a reflection of social conditions over the direct exploration of materials.

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