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The Film and Video Works of Gordon Matta-Clark

To convert a place into a state of mind. . . .
—Gordon Matta-Clark, 19761

The son of Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta and Anne Clark and the godson of Marcel Duchamp, Gordon Robert Matta-Echaurren (1943–78) studied architecture at Cornell from 1962 to 1968, including a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied French literature. In 1971, he changed his name to Gordon Matta-Clark, adopting his mother’s last name. Frustrated with the limitations of his chosen profession, Matta-Clark used his training in architecture instead as a base for his artistic explorations of space. He was an extremely prolific artist in a career barely spanning a decade that combined minimalist, conceptual, and performance practices. Best remembered for site-specific projects known as “building cuts,” these architectural interventions consisting of direct cuts into actual buildings scheduled for demolition now exist only as sculptural fragments, photographs, drawings, collages, and film and video documentations.

Dating from 1971 to 1977, the eighteen films and videos included in this program—all transferred to DVD—document many of Matta-Clark’s well known performances and architectural interventions in New York, Poughkeepsie and Niagara Falls (NY), Englewood (NJ), Paris, Antwerp, and Berlin. Not only documents, these moving-image works also reveal Matta-Clark’s aesthetic attitudes and philosophical and political inquiries, all the while playing with the texture and space of the cinematic image.

Working in New York City in the 1970s, “Matta-Clark was among those at the center of the avant-garde,” giving primary importance to the individual and to considerations of everyday life, an emphasis, which was in complete opposition to the focus on formalism during his education at Cornell. “War, political and racial assassinations and street riots, conflict between generations, all contributed to the feeling that a new order was evolving. Matta-Clark sensed both the dissolution of the old and the invigoration of seeking the new. . . . He proceeded like an inspired alchemist—experimenting, remaking what art can be, and turning unexpected things, acts, and sites into poetic and memorable aesthetic experiences.”2

Matta-Clark’s radical explorations into space and structure, which he referred to as Anarchitecture, called “for an anarchistic approach to architecture, marked physically by a breaking of convention through a process of ‘undoing’ or ‘destructuring,’ rather than creating a structure—and philosophically by a revolutionary approach that sought to reveal and later alleviate societal problems through art.”3

While the buildings that he cut into have long been demolished and even the neighborhoods that he worked in—Soho and the meatpacking district, for instance—are completely different places today, Matta-Clark’s dynamic engagement with the urban environment not only garnered high regard from his contemporaries but has influenced many artists since, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tobias Putrih, Hans Schabus, Olafur Eliasson, and Marjetica Potrc, whose practices are similarly collaborative, socially minded, and performative, and involve architecture in a variety of ways.

Andrea Inselmann
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

 

Notes
1  Gordon Matta-Clark as quoted in Mary Jane Jacob, Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985), 8.
2  Michael Danoff, “Foreword,” ibid., 6.
3  Mary Jane Jacob, ibid., 8.

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art gratefully acknowledges Jane Crawford’s gift of a complete set of these titles in honor of Gordon Matta-Clark, Class of 1968.

 

Chinatown Voyeur (1971; video, B&W, sound; 60'; camera: Gordon Matta-Clark)
This is Gordon Matta-Clark’s first videotape. It documents the view of Chinatown from an apartment on Chatham Square in New York. Showing the skyline of Chinatown, it also includes shots of domestic interiors that Matta-Clark took using a long lens.

Tree Dance (1971; Super 8 film and 16mm film, B&W; silent; 9' 32")
Matta-Clark’s original idea for the exhibition called Twenty-Six by Twenty-Six (curated by Mary Delahoyd and held at Vassar College Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie, New York, in May 1971) was to stay in a structure of rope and canvas in a huge oak tree for the duration of the show. University officials, however, did not allow him to take up permanent residence in the tree in front of the gallery. Instead, Matta-Clark and several of his friends did a performance piece inspired by spring fertility rites.

Open House (1972; Super 8 film, color, silent; 41')
In May 1972, Matta-Clark installed a dumpster in front of 98 Greene Street in Soho. It was filled with architectural fragments and construction-site detritus that created three corridors with several doors installed in them. On opening day, a performance took place, featuring the artist himself, Carol Goodden, Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Barbara Dilley, and others, dancing in the rain with umbrellas.

Fire Child (1971; Super 8 film, color, silent; 9' 47")
Matta-Clark produced various pieces for the exhibition Under the Brooklyn Bridge, organized by Alanna Heiss. This film documents the making of a sculpture that consisted of garbage found in the vicinity, which was also a place for many homeless people. Carl Andre, Dorothea Rockburne, and Sol LeWitt also participated in this exhibition.

Freshkill (1972; Super 8 film, color, sound; 12' 56"; camera: Rudy Burckhardt, Burt Spielvogel; producers: Holly Solomon, Burt Spielvogel)
The film records the process of destruction of Matta-Clark’s truck, called Herman Meydag, by two bulldozers. The action takes place in the Fresh Kills garbage dump on Staten Island.

Day’s End (1975; 16mm film, color, silent; 23' 10"; camera: Betsy Sussler and Jack Kruger)
This film documents Matta-Clark’s cuts into the decrepit shed of Pier 52 , near Gansevoort Street in Greenwich Village, that transformed this industrial structure into a temporary cathedral of light. In the film, we can see him suspended, cutting the ellipse and removing it. Matta-Clark left the country to avoid arrest for his illegal cuttings.

Food (also called Day in the Life of Food; 1971–73; 16mm film, B&W and color, sound; 43'; camera and sound: Robert Frank, Suzanne Harris, Gordon Matta-Clark, Danny Seymour; editing: Roger Welch)
This film chronicles a day in the life of the restaurant that Matta-Clark cofounded at Prince and Wooster Streets in Soho in 1971. The restaurant was designed and built largely by Matta-Clark, who also organized art events and performances there. Artists such as Mark di Suvero and Donald Judd served as guest chefs there. The restaurant remained open for ten years. “It was a landmark in the history and mythology of Soho in the 1970s.”

Sauna View (1973; video, B&W, sound; 61' 30"; camera: Gordon Matta-Clark)
Shot on video, this film documents a sauna party at Matta-Clark’s apartment on Fourth Street in Manhattan. The window is just at crotch level, creating sight lines that are at once disorienting and revealing.

Automation House (1971; video and 16mm film, B&W, sound; 32'; camera: Gordon Matta-Clark and Suzanne Harris; producer: Carlota Schoolman)
Matta-Clark’s interest in spatial perception is continued in this piece that was his contribution to a project at New York’s Automation House. The many windows and reflective surfaces of the building were used to create a multilayered cinematic space.

Clockshower (1973; 16mm film, color, silent; 13' 50")
This film documents one of Matta-Clark’s most daring performances. He climbed to the top of the Clocktower Building in New York and washed, shaved, and brushed his teeth while suspended from the hands of the clock reminiscent of silent movie stars Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. According to Jane Crawford, “Gordon initially wanted to perform in the nude but complaints by neighboring office workers to the police forced him to don his rain gear.”

City Slivers (1976; Super 8 film, color, silent; 15'; camera: Gordon Matta-Clark)
The title refers to the slivers of New York City that Matta-Clark recorded in-camera by matting the lens and then rewinding the film to expose another part of the negative. It was planned to be projected on the exterior façade of a building.

Splitting (1974; Super 8 film, B&W and color, silent; 10' 50"; camera: Gordon Matta-Clark, Susan Ensley, Liza Béar, and others)
Primarily filmed and edited by Matta-Clark, this film documents his best-known building cut made in a house on Humphrey Street in Englewood, New Jersey. It took the artist four months of careful jacking and tilting to create the cut right through the middle of the house. The cut reached from the roof to the foundation, creating new vantage points and new relationships between walls, ceilings, windows, and doors. The house was demolished soon after Matta-Clark’s intervention. Four corners of the house are now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Bingo X Ninths (1974; Super 8 film, color, silent; 9' 40"; camera: Gordon Matta-Clark)
In this case, Matta-Clark obtained permission to use a typical two-story, red-shingled house at 349 Erie Avenue in Niagara Falls, New York. He had ten days to complete the project, which involved dividing one side of the house into nine equal five-foot by nine-foot sections. Eight segments were removed, leaving the center of the grid intact. Originally titled “Been-Gone by Ninth,” Matta-Clark ended up changing the title to Bingo X Ninths in reference to the game’s grid.

Substrait (Underground Dailies) (1976; 16mm film, color, sound; 30'; camera: Gordon Matta-Clark)
In this film, Matta-Clark explored New York City’s underground. The various sections were filmed on different occasions and were meant to be projected on adjacent screens in the gallery context. The artist chose various places to show the variety and complexity of underground spaces and their myths and legends.

Conical Intersect (1975; 16mm film, color, silent; 18' 40"; camera: Bruno DeWitt, Gordon Matta-Clark)
For the Paris Biennial in 1975, Matta-Clark carved a series of circles into the abandoned shell of a town house in the working-class section of Paris, alongside the skeletal frame of the Pompidou Center. Working on many levels, the cuts suggest a sense of physical and visual instability. “The conical shape cutting like a periscope through the old Paris into the new, was inspired by Anthony McCall’s film Line Describing a Cone,” according to EAI’s program notes.

Sous-sols de Paris (Paris Underground) (1977 and 2005; 16mm film, B&W, newly restored sound; in French; 25' 20")
In this film Matta-Clark explored the underground of Paris, documenting sewers, wine cellars, and catacombs.

The Wall (1976–2007; 16mm film and video, color, sound; 15' 4"; music: Peter Gordon; assembly: Jane Crawford; post production: Alex Gunuay)
Matta-Clark’s initial idea was to blow up a section of the Berlin Wall in 1976 as his contribution to the exhibition New York/Berlin. Friends, however, discouraged this suicidal gesture. Instead, Matta-Clark affixed advertising posters to several parts of the wall to highlight the role of consumerism in the complex relationship between East and West.

Office Baroque (1977–2005; 16mm film, B&W and color, sound; 44'; a film by Eric Convents and Roger Steylaerts, with music by Richard Landry; includes an interview with Gordon Matta-Clark)
Office Baroque was Matta-Clark’s final film. It documents a building cut in a five-story office building in Antwerp, Belgium.

The descriptions of the films are based on Electronic Arts Intermix program notes and Gordon Matta-Clark’s widow Jane Crawford’s recollections in City Slivers and Fresh Kills: The Films of Gordon Matta-Clark, edited by Steven Jenkins (San Francisco Cinematheque, 2004).