Prowling the streets of 1970s SoHo, New York City, equipped with a transgressive spirit and a kinetic mind, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark — in many ways hard to classify — was firmly self-defined as an urban creature. Trained as an architect and best known for his “building cuts,” in which he incised large geometric voids into condemned structures, Matta-Clark also produced films, ephemeral sculptures, performances and a restaurant. And, as thoroughly explored by Frances Richard in her ample new book, Gordon Matta-Clark: Physical Poetics, he produced writing. Though he composed very little for publication, words, along with Sawzalls, were an indispensable blade in his arsenal. “Language is thought’s infrastructure,” Richard writes. For Matta-Clark, then, language was both the blade and the skin.
Examining the titles of Matta-Clark’s works, as well as private notebooks, aphoristic notecards, letters and loquacious statements he made to various interviewers, Richard — herself a poet — maps with obsessive precision the ways in which the artist’s language use frames and enlarges his artworks, many of which exist now only in the form of documentation. None of the building cuts survive, and Matta-Clark himself died in 1978 at the age of 35. But even in his lifetime, Richard argues, spoken and written language was so central to his practice as to constitute a material in itself — and Matta-Clark, for all his fascination with concepts, was always attuned to the material.
Personally, as someone who’s lived mostly in rural places, I’m tantalized by the thought experiment of applying this artist’s methods to a non-urban milieu — or to the globe as a whole in the age of accelerating climate change. Richard is our tireless guide to the intricate interplay of pun, punctuation, etymology, allusion, and possibly intentional misspelling that marks Matta-Clark’s language use. He was the coiner of neologisms “anarchitecture” and “non-u-ment,” the witting or unwitting punster who labeled his own approach “WORKING AT SEVERAL DEMENTIONS.”
Here Richard parses a capitalized phrase he wrote (“DESTRUCTURAL PUNCTUATION CENTERING ON CRITICAL POINTS OF STRESS”) to accompany four photos of an early building cut:
“”Point” and “punctuation”…are etymologically related, both deriving from the Latin pungere, to prick or pierce. DESTRUCTURAL PUNCTUATION is therefore not as contrary as it seems. Holes made by piercing a built fabric and dots or dashes laid down to punctuate a text perform analogous functions, creating order by introducing spaces. Thus inflected…although [the building] has been destroyed, it WORKS.”
Land-space, too — wilderness, fields, ore-bearing rock — is constantly punctuated by roads, rows of crops, fracking fluid, as humans create anthropocentric order by introducing spaces and voids that make the earth WORK (as in both function and labor) for us. Its fullness of its own purpose is terrifying to us, as when European settlers stood on the coast, overwhelmed by the vast teeming interior of the continent before them. The opposite is also true: We have seen the land as empty (of civilization), and have responded by relentlessly inscribing a technological tract over its surface. Matta-Clark’s interests in emptiness, fullness, and writing as a physical act might productively apply, in typically paradox-loving fashion, to such concerns.
The son of two artist-intellectuals (his father was the Chilean-born Surrealist painter Roberto Matta) and the godson of Marcel Duchamp, Matta-Clark inherited their iconoclasm. Yet his relationships to Dada, Surrealism and the more contemporary Land Art movement (in this study exemplified by Matta-Clark’s acquaintance Robert Smithson, of Spiral Jetty fame) were complex and unresolved.
Whereas he was cleanly opposed to Corbusian modernism, Matta-Clark danced in and out of his debt to his father and the father of Dada. Richard locates many coded references to Duchamp in Matta-Clark’s language, as well as deep underlying affinities, including a shared interest in what Duchamp called the “infrathin” and the younger artist named “the thin edge.”
Richard manages to deftly weave these cousin-concepts together without conflating them. For our purposes here, consider that a revealing cut, explored by Matta-Clark in the context of urban decay, is a ubiquitous byproduct of human activities on the land. Those of us who don’t live in cities regularly view roadcuts with their geological strata on display; logged forests; acreage denuded and sculpted for new subdivisions; harrowed fields. Less visible but equally relevant are mountaintop-removal sites and gas-well shafts, which echo a recurring interest in digging and subterranean environments in Matta-Clark’s work. Given his fascination with the psychological effects of cutting into built environments, it’s worth asking what he might have made of these non-urban cuts and incisions.
In Richard’s words, “Constitutive violence in Matta-Clark’s art arrives in the split, the cut. A cut manifests division, distinction, the differentiation of this from that on which all significance is based.” Divisions also pertain to mapping and to the Jeffersonian grid that turned North America into a series of square-shaped plots we can now clearly view from planes. Where 2D lines become 3D cuts, a “thin edge” appears. Rather than executing a heroic figural gesture on a passive ground, Matta-Clark was trying to operate in a liminal space where cut and thin edge, positive and negative space, action and reception, could churn, interplay, and sow a generative uncertainty.
This leads us to Smithson, an obvious foil for Matta-Clark as viewed through an ecological lens. While Smithson’s spiral enters a limited dialogue with its surroundings — slipping in and out of view as the Great Salt Lake’s water level fluctuates — it remains more essentially a static mark on a landscape that it conceives as a blank slate. Contrasting himself with earth artists, Matta-Clark once told an interviewer, “I prefer to work in context.” Whereas Smithson set out to create monuments that reach toward a time scale so vast it nearly transcends the material, Matta-Clark — perennially drawn to cycles of decay and regeneration — worked in a messier, more bodily arena.
Matta-Clark was a trickster, with all the devotion to purposeful humor that term implies. One function of the fool is to flip or merge opposites. While Matta-Clark did engage many dialectics in his lifetime, he did not specifically tackle the fundamental binary that casts urban and rural places as opposites. But we can do that work, and in the course of confronting our disastrous relationship to our home planet, we must.
To conceive of non-urban places as outside time, or outside language, is to deny both the social and cultural context that supports a piece like Spiral Jetty and the network of meaning that allows a mountaintop to be sliced away for access to coal. Urban and rural places are deeply united by the network of human signification, notably through food and energy economies. Language is a powerful enough tool to shift the climate and precipitate extinction, and these changes touch every part of the globe.
Richard’s nimble exegesis of her subject and his language sets the stage for conjuring a vision of Matta-Clark working in the landscape. Biased toward the built environment though he was, Matta-Clark might nonetheless furnish a model for artmaking that addresses our current crisis of planetary occupation.
It’s tempting to imagine what he might have done with abandoned mineshafts in Western ghost towns, given his attraction to inaccessible and hidden spaces. Or with waste apples gleaned from large commercial orchards, considering how he repeatedly worked with themes of food, garbage, consumption and uselessness. Or what kind of building cut he might have performed on a shuttered small-town mall. Or how his interest in voyeurism might have been awakened by the rise of drone and GPS technology. Or, having undertaken projects that addressed property valuation in the New York real estate market, whether he could have made work around the issues of private property and mineral rights that animate the fracking economy.
Matta-Clark considered any building he cut as a kind of dance partner, engaged in a give-and-take with him and his tools. And the earth, which steadily reclaims and remakes all human artifacts, is more largely active than any rational gesture. I think of how, down the road from my current home in rural Virginia, an old house trailer down the road collapsed several years ago and has been steadily overtaken by vegetation and mold ever since, with upholstered furniture — still arranged conversationally in the living room — now barely discernible under waves of wild grapevine.
Though Matta-Clark did not go back to the land like many others in the 1970s, he was undeniably earthy, and work performed with the body was essential to his practice. In our own times, the stakes feel higher, and Matta-Clark’s projects that touch on apocalyptic survival and ad-hoc homesteading feel prescient.
On a series of index cards, he once penned a call for a Cagean commitment to paying attention. Characteristically chaotic, it speaks to art’s promise of enlargement. “A CLOSER AWARENESS OF ALL THE SENSES,” he wrote, and then summoned an optimistic vision for a kind of self-reliant alertness, useful to any resident of this planet: “…TO REJOICE/REJOYCE IN
THE AN INFORMED WELL-INTENDED BEST CELEBRATION OF CONDITIONS.”
Gordon Matta-Clark: Physical Poetics
By Frances Richard
University of California Press
March 26, 2019