Originally published in ArtCritical. ◊◊
The introduction to Gordon Matta-Clark’s 2007 Whitney retrospective catalog muses that “in many ways, an exhibition of [Matta-Clark’s] art is an oxymoron.” That’s not an inaccurate or infrequent assumption. An artist best known for his architectural modifications (called “cuts”) on now demolished structures, Matta-Clark exists to his contemporary audiences primarily through photographic documentation of his work. His enigmatic career also loses some of its tangibility because of its tragic brevity; Matta-Clark was active for less than a decade before he died from cancer at the age of 35. Still, the idea that Matta-Clark’s oeuvre is at odds with a traditional art exhibition—an idea that the Whitney ultimately flouted—overemphasizes the transitory quality of his work, at the expense of appreciating his cross-medium interest and foresight. Matta-Clark made sure to find multiple ways to present each of his projects, in part to give his ideas longevity through material. Lest we forget, he was the author of the vast body of photographs, films, drawings, artist books, and sculptural objects that serve as the base of his scholarship and these exhibitions.
David Zwirner’s current exhibition of Matta-Clark’s work [Above and Below], its fifth since taking on representation of the artist’s estate in 1998, is devoted to some of the understated parts of his career and goals. It presents work from the last four years of Matta-Clark’s life with a particular emphasis on his films and film-based photographic collages. The selection of work, according to curator Jessamyn Fiore, has been chosen to demonstrate the artist’s frequently overlooked idealism, and anticipate what would have been the new pursuits in his career. “At that point, he wanted to be known as more than the guy who cuts buildings in half,” Fiore said. “He was ready for the next thing.”
Above and Below follows Matta-Clark’s interest in the structural layering of cities, and architectural possibilities both above and below ground. The show’s title refers to the lateral theme that unites this particular selection of works, and the exhibition’s diminutive king pin: an eponymous photo diptych from 1977 featuring a topical and subterranean view of a city street. This work, coincidentally, doubles as a map for the exhibition’s layout. The first room is devoted to his works on and above street level, anchored by the iconic Conical Intersect (1975) and Office Baroque (1977)—in which Matta-Clark cut a series of tapering circles to create a monocular shape across two uninhabited seventeenth-century buildings near the Centres Georges Pompidou, and sawed concentric tear-shaped holes through five floors of an office building in Antwerp—are present in the form of photo collages made from disjointed and tunneling sequences of film frames. The next room features two black and white 16mm film projections, Substrait (Underground Dalies) (1976) and Sous-Sols de Paris (Paris Underground) (1977), which document the artist’s exploration of manmade underground tunnels. His expeditions took place in labyrinths that ranged broadly in use and historic origin, from the catacombs beneath Paris to the underbelly of Grand Central Station in New York. These works were markedly different from those in the preceding room, from earlier years, because they were envisioned as film projects in themselves, not as documents of an action or performance. The films and a number of drawings and sketches that offer context and alternate views of Matta-Clark’s formal interests, finely demonstrate a medium-specific dexterity and a mastery of both space and two-dimensional representation.
The exhibition then proceeds to rise up into the air with two lesser-known Matta-Clark works: An installation for Documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany, called Jacob’s Ladder (1977), a beautifully delicate aerial structure suspended fifteen feet off the ground, rendered all the more poignant when we learn that visitors were too afraid to use it, and a series of sketches for the never-realized Sky Hook (study for a balloon building) (1978), a network of houses that would float above an urban environment, buoyed by a city’s radiating heat. These two projects, envisioned in the final two years of Matta-Clark’s life, perhaps best articulate the show’s thesis by suggesting the artist’s positivist vision of urbanism and architecture. It underscores a sometimes neglected but hopeful notion, that Matta-Clark left Cornell University not having forsaken architecture as a practice, but in search of new approaches to constructing spaces for society.