PARIS — On view at Jeu de Paume in Paris, Anarchitect — a portmanteau of “anarchy” and “architect” — is an exhilarating exhibition of Gordon Matta-Clark’s post-minimal photography, photo-collage, film, and printmaking. Though Matta-Clark — who was, for better or worse, a key player in New York’s 1960s SoHo art scene — died of cancer in 1978, at the age of 35, I found the exhibit riveting and relevant to today’s anti-immigration political atmosphere, especially when read as a critique of the “build the wall” border security sentiment currently plaguing the US.
Border walls were anathema to Matta-Clark, an artist best known for making monumental cuts, holes, apertures, and excisions into the walls of derelict buildings in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and abroad. Indeed, in 1976 he proposed making an art hole in the Berlin Wall. In light of Trump’s Mexican border-wall proposal, Matta-Clark’s artistic holes have a gleam of renewed symbolism and allegory about them. Thus even decades after his death, Matta-Clarke’s avant-garde art interventions have not fallen into the hole of dry academic intellectualism; they remain in vital dialogue with today’s social, economic, and political realities; and this makes Matta-Clark an artist worth rhapsodizing over.
Matta-Clark’s iconic deconstruction practice of directly hacking into hard walls was a sophisticated negotiation of physical boundaries that insisted on the primacy of physical force tied to the artistic imagination. This negotiation is documented in some of the films featured in the exhibition, as well as in numerous books on his work. But beyond his socio-political street work, which includes his less interesting hand-painted photographs of early graffiti, Matta-Clark’s site-specific, abstract geometric cut-aways evoke (and subvert) much 20th century art historical discourse.
This is most obvious in the majestic cut he made at New York City’s Pier 52 in 1975, called “Days End”, with a flat arch shape that could be right out of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism playbook. Sited in the abandoned Pier 52, a monumental former industrial building on the Hudson River, across from a section of the collapsed West Side Highway, “Day’s End” was Matta-Clark’s most ambitious site-specific work in New York City and a thing of gritty grandeur. By slicing broad grooves in the pier’s floors and ceiling, Matta-Clark turned the abject abandoned building — previously a gay sex enclave and haven for prostitution and drugs — into a light-shifting post-industrial site of majesty.
Though the main puncture is the shape of a tilted slice of watermelon, the scale of the hole, and the quality of light entering it, had the impact of a visit to the Pantheon in Rome. While he envisioned the site to be experienced throughout the different seasons, the project was short-lived and closed to the public shortly after its unveiling. Matta-Clark undertook cutting the “Day’s End” project without filing for permission, and while New York City officials did not notice his activity during the artwork’s creation, priggish police showed up at the opening after reading about it in a newspaper. A police investigation opened just as Matta-Clark went to France; and he stayed abroad while his lawyer tried to convince the bemused authorities that “Day’s End” was art, not maladroit vandalism. Eventually the pending charge against Matta-Clark was dropped and that was the end of “Day’s End.”
His was a time when many artists were collaborating and experimenting with alternative methods and venues for making and viewing art. Matta-Clark’s writings from the era indicate that he was concerned about how the impersonal utopia of modernist architecture had failed to satisfy people’s interiority. As Matta-Clark’s friend, Tony Mascatello, told me, during a marathon performance soiree at The Kitchen in 1974 called Soup & Tart, produced by Jean Dupuy, Matta-Clark, a co-founder of the artist-run restaurant Food, brought out a white frosted cake in the shape of the Monopoly hotel and carefully split it in half — much the same way he did with his landmark intervention into a suburban New Jersey home, titled “Splitting” (1974). Then he kept cutting the cake until everyone present had a slice to eat.
Anarchitect debuted last year at the Bronx Museum, which placed a rightful emphasis on the cuts Matta-Clark made into abandoned tenements in the Bronx, such as “Bronx Floor: Boston Road” (1972), part of his “Bronx Floors: Thresholes” (1972) series. But the exhibit at Jeu de Paume emphasizes the Parisian elements of the artist’s life and work, starting with the first meeting of his parents, American painter Anne Clark and Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta, at a Surrealist exhibition in Paris in 1938. It also highlights his studies of French Literature at the Université Paris-Sorbonne in 1963, as well as his underground explorations of the Paris Catacombs and other sites in Paris, and peaks with what I consider Matta-Clark’s majestic masterpiece: the ambitious and comical “Conical Intersect” (1975) — a massive work he made for the Paris Biennale in 1975.
The work consisted of a cone hollowed out of two derelict seventeenth-century buildings in the city’s Les Halles – Plateau Beaubourg area, next to the site where the high-tech structure of the future Centre Georges Pompidou was rising amid medieval and pre-revolutionary buildings. Les Halles, known as the ventre de Paris (belly of Paris), had been the city’s marketplace since the Middle Ages. As Gerry Hovagimyan (aka G.H. Hovagimyan), Matta-Clark’s assistant at the time, told me, the starting point for the conical holes is outside the building, the angle of the central axis being something like 45 degrees. At the points of intersection, between the walls, floors, and ceiling, it produces ellipses, and the end result resembles an oculus.
Shaped like twisted cones, the cuts in this work were inspired by Anthony McCall’s 1973 film, Line Describing a Cone. They also drew on the art world’s general fascination with the literal and figurative artistic voyeurism exposed by Marcel Duchamp (Matta-Clark’s godfather) in his peep show installation “Étant donnés” (1946–1966), as well as a broad interest in the history of dioramas as a space of transformation.
Such circular openings are typically meditative passageways to reverie. The cone shape of “Conical Intersect” might even be said to have functioned like a symbolic lens looking down from the future Centre Georges Pompidou, through the past derelict cut-up edifices, and opening up onto the present Parisian street scene. Hovagimyan tells me that Matta-Clark always wanted to make sure that his cuts were as precise as he could make them, but part of what was important about the artwork was the spectacle of the hard work itself. There was an elevated street performance component to “Conical Intersect”, as Matta-Clark considered the loud physical actions of cutting open walls part of a performative piece, not just a means towards a sculptural-architectural end.
Yet the fevered brilliance of Matta-Clark’s photo-collages of “Conical Intersect” still allow the viewer to sink into the skin of the old buildings. These buoyant photo-collages show, with phenomenal transparency, a number of views from within the dissected buildings, and are themselves jaunty comments on conventionally strict architectural perspective systems. They are to be praised for capturing the complexity of Matta-Clark’s work with such spry sensitivity while engaging us in a radical rethinking of the status, history, and purpose of city building walls and their rapport with diversely populated streets – something along the lines of the earlier décollage works of Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains. Like Matta-Clark’s “Conical Intersect,” their affiches lacérées displayed a basic theoretical concept suggestive of the political art positions of the Situationist International movement, which challenged the boundaries between everyday street life and high art.
Gargantuan actions defined Matta-Clark’s artistic process, yet the poetic achievement of “Conical Intersect” lay in its intricate combination of monumental scale with intense interior exposure. In addition to undermining the homogeneity and repetitiveness that characterizes so much neo-modernist architecture, Matta-Clark’s provocations punch holes in the postmodern city’s monoculture, helping us to think about what is proper(ty) and what is improper.
Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect continues at Jeu de Paume (1, place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris) until September 23, 2018.