‘Architecture is the expression of the very being of societies [...] In fact, only society’s ideal being (that which authoritatively orders and prohibits) is expressed in actual architectural construction.’ Georges Bataille wrote these words in his essay, Architecture, which originally appeared in 1929, and has now been republished in the fascinating catalogue that accompanies the Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect exhibition, currently on show at the Bronx Museum in New York.

For the European Bataille, writing in the early part of the 20th century, this architecture was ‘In the forms of cathedrals and palaces through which the Church or the State addresses and imposes silence on the multitude.’ It inspired ‘Social sobriety and often even veritable fear.’ Fast forward to New York in the 1970s, in a city nearing bankruptcy, entire neighbourhoods were left to rot in decay following the principle of what Matta-Clark called: ‘Exploit it or leave it.’ For him, growing up in the post-war years, the city was transforming itself into a ‘glass and steel megalopolis’. Built in an International Style, at the same time, whole residential areas were being abandoned – like Lower Manhattan, where the Rockefellers were building the now gone Twin Towers, a monument to corporate power (the new Church and State), which had evicted and bulldozed a big part of a historical residential neighbourhood. ‘For Gordon, architecture had failed the common man,’ says Sergio Bessa, co-curator of the exhibition and director of curatorial and education programmes at the Bronx Museum. In a way, the Anarchitecture project was a sort of anarchism against the architectural order of power – a little boutade to Le Corbusier’s Vers unearchitecture.

Matta-Clark, the son of American artist Anne Clark and surrealist Chilean painter Roberto Matta, was trained as an architect, like his father. However, unlike the father – who moved to painting after having worked for a short period with Le Corbusier – Matta-Clark didn’t abandon the field of architecture. On the contrary, he stood tall at its limit, to better shed a light on the failures of modernism. And as he said, ‘We can see the whole problem of modernity and the International Style proliferation in the development of post-war American imperialism. This architecture mirrors the western capitalist axis’ iconography. I am against this abuse of Bauhaus and its initial purist ideals.’

Even though he had a short life and career, the importance and influence of his work remains incredibly resonant. It’s tempting to reduce his interventions to the sculptural poetics of his famous cuts, something that has happened time and again in art history narratives, but his practice is more that of a social activist. With Thoreau’s famous line that ‘Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty,’ (Civil Disobedience, 1849), echoing through the years, in a city that was abandoning its citizens, this freedom and liberty was what Matta-Clark wanted to bring awareness to, empowering people who were left behind to reconquer their lives and the spaces they lived in.

For Jessamyn Fiore, the other curator of the show and co-director of the Matta-Clark Estate, this exhibition explores ‘This direct engagement with the city – direct confrontation of the failure of urban architecture and city planning to meet the needs of its people – the failure of government to address the plight of those most desperate [...] and his desire to inspire empowerment of one’s own space and architecture, rather than become a prisoner to it.’

‘When Gordon was finishing school he actually helped with the installation of the legendary Earth Art exhibition conceived by Willoughby Sharp at the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art (Cornell University’s first art museum) in 1969,’ says Bessa, ‘and there he meets Robert Smithson and other land artists and gets very excited about the possibilities of working with landscape, without building stuff.’ The meeting with Smithson was pivotal. A pioneer of land art, he had all these theories on architectural entropy with its ‘cold glass boxes,’ as Smithson described corporate architecture. He (Smithson) relentlessly questioned established attitudes and used the natural environment and the everyday as the material for his work. Once Matta-Clark returned to New York, his own questioning of his intended field amplified. For Bessa, ‘This dichotomy, between architecture and art, was never resolved.’

Another essay in the exhibition’s catalogue is by Cara M. Jordan, who makes the poignant analogy between Matta-Clark’s work and the social sculpture of German-born artist Joseph Beuys. For Jordan, the two artists shared a pursuit of a social sculpture as a means to transform society. ‘His (Gordon’s) philosophy revolved around the relationship between urban architecture [...] and the everyday life of residents,’ she says. It is an attempt, ‘To harness human creativity to combat man’s destructive habits,’ one that shapes ‘Man’s relationship with space through a redirection of creative energy.’

Matta-Clark died at the age of 35, and as Bessa tells us, ‘Towards the end of his life, he had all these works that somehow were about community and collaboration. He applied for a grant for the Guggenheim to create a centre to train the youth. You know, New York back in the 70s was a dangerous town; there was no future for young people. So he wanted to create a kind of school to train youth about architecture and building techniques. He even got a site in the Lower East Side but unfortunately he passed away. And one or two years before, he also wanted to open an art school in the Bronx together with Alanna Heiss, and couple of other friends. He really was on to this idea of working with the community and making the community embrace its own future. This concern with social justice was at the core of Gordon’s practice.’

The Bronx Museum has this interesting double edge, in that it is really engaged with its community, as well as simultaneously having a global programme and outreach. This show, which will travel to the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris and then Estonia’s Kumu Art Museum and the Rose Art Museum in Massachusetts, crystallises its paradigm. ‘I wanted to bring the focus to the Bronx,’ says Bessa, ‘so the graffiti and the Bronx pieces became sort of the core. If there is a thesis for the exhibition, it is the role that the Bronx played in Matta-Clark’s vision of art. So we are showing what survived from the work he did in the Bronx, which is called Bronx Floors. MoMA has one sculpture, which we are borrowing, and then we have almost all the photographs that he did here. The cover of the book is actually one of his cuts in the Bronx. I think there were a couple of actual Bronx Floors, but it is difficult to find out who the collectors are, and I didn’t want to go too much into the object. I wanted more photography, and that’s what makes up a lot of the display. In a sense, he was a performer, and the exhibition is a highly visual experience. We are going to have these big projections, and I want people to go in and immerse themselves in that phase.’

Importantly, the exhibition features Matta-Clark photographs of graffiti, a form he captured right at its beginning, but unlike his contemporaries, in the context of the city. Bessa feels that he approached it both as writing and painting, and for that reason alludes to a comparison with Raymond Hains, and those kinds of artists that were looking at the city and its residue as artwork. There will also be two major ‘cuts’ in the show, the one at rue Beaubourg (Conical Intersect, 1975) and the other at Pier 52 (Day’s End, 1975, New York). As Bessa says, ‘Of course there’s going to be Anarchitecture, which is those photographs that he exhibited early on, and a little display about Food [the restaurant Matta-Clark co-founded in 1971]. And with some of the teenagers in our educational programme we are going to rebuild the garbage wall. So in a sense, there is this play with architecture and this critique of architecture that we are trying to articulate. You know, by giving up building he actually became a visionary architect.’

Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect is at the Bronx Museum, New York, until 8 April 2018.

This article appeared in DAM65. Order your personal copy.
Graffiti pictures by Gordon Matta Clark
Graffiti pictures by Gordon Matta Clark
Conic intersect
Curator Jessamyn Fiore and Sergio Bessa. Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván