A new retrospective at the Bronx Museum highlights the legendary artist’s ability to bring disparate communities together in the spirit of radical creation.
As the legend has it, New York City in the 1970s was both terrifying and exhilarating.
On the one hand, it teetered on the brink of total fiscal collapse, with crime rates soaring and whole neighborhoods falling into dereliction. Meanwhile, areas like Soho and the East Village had just begun a cultural renaissance, with an influx of young artists, new galleries, and avant-garde performance venues. Straddling two worlds, rebelliously attempting to bridge both, was Gordon Matta-Clark.
The son of Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta and American artist Anne Clark, Matta-Clark came to the city fresh from studying architecture at Cornell with the air of a revolutionary. Here, surrounded by half-demolished buildings and a staggering lack of basic public services, he took a punk-like approach to urban planning, sculpting cuts, holes, abscesses, and excisions into the facades of decaying homes and historic buildings in an attempt to subvert traditional bureaucracies of money and power.
Considered vandalism to some, public art to others, Matta-Clark's works challenged the role of artist and architect within a broader capitalist system, asking questions about who owns public spaces, and which forces get to reimagine a city. Now, with a new retrospective, “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitecture,” on view through April at the Bronx Museum, his legacy is on full view at the home of its conception, coming at a time in the city’s history when it most resonates.
Matta-Clark passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1978, but the artist presciently tackled many of the issues cities are struggling with in 2018—hyper-gentrification, growing inequality, the plight of the homeless. Using social activism and direct community engagement as a medium, he tapped into collective community-building networks decades before Twitter and Facebook.
As part of the current exhibition, over 100 rare artworks are on view showcasing rarely seen materials from his archive, immersive film projections, graffiti prints, and short videos. The last of these offers one of the more illuminating peeks into the joyful daily life of 1970s bohemia by way of a 60-minute video Matta-Clark recorded at FOOD, his iconic semi-communal restaurant and performance space. On the corner of Wooster and Prince Streets in SoHo, the present site of a Lululemon, the artist created a community-oriented dining space where folks of all stripes could sit together to enjoy fresh produce and global dishes as a makeshift family. Revolutionary in an era when class and other social divisions dominated the New York dining world, FOOD was a beloved breath of fresh air, so much so that it even made a brief “reappearance” at the 2013 Frieze Art Fair.
Other works on view in this inspired show include “Substrait” (1976) and “Day’s End” (1975), which explore the city’s underground and inaccessible spaces, the latter illuminating the area’s legacy of clandestine queer meet-up spots.
In many ways the anti-Robert Moses, though both chose to make their literal and figurative mark in the Bronx, Matta-Clark imagined a better city through more egalitarian public spaces.
“In 1971, when many people were moving out of the Bronx amid the chaos and destruction, a group of local activists thought that culture could turn things around,” according to Sergio Bessa, Director of Curatorial Programs at the Bronx Museum, in reference to the museum’s conception. “In the following year, Gordon starts to visit the surrounding area and begins his pivotal series of works Bronx Floors. I was personally very inspired by this symmetry, and by the fact that both Gordon and the Bronx Museum's founders did not shy away from the situation.”
While Matta-Clark took his “architectural subversions” across the U.S. and, later, to Europe, this particular exhibition focuses on Matta-Clark’s direct involvement with New York City. “His concerns were not merely aesthetic or architectural but political,” said Jessamyn Fiore, who co-curated the show. “His practice drew attention to a failure in contemporary architecture and urban planning, a failure of the city to address the needs and everyday reality of the people who lived here. The questions he asked and potential solutions he proposed are still relevant to today.”
“He’s often categorized as this vigilante, this criminal, this rebel, but in fact, he really tried to get permits to do all of his work,” says Joan Kee, professor of art history at the University of Michigan, explaining that, unlike his enfant terrible reputation, he really did hope to work within the system to improve it.
“He challenged this idea of property being tied exclusively to monetary or exchange value,” said Kee, who also points out how Matta-Clark’s work has been a great inspiration to her students, especially those from Detroit.
“They look at him as almost a template in imagining what we can do with the buildings and the resources we have now,” she explained. “The cuttings that he did touch a nerve for artists who were thinking of ways to put work around established structures.”
In addition to Matta-Clark’s direct work, a series of zines and illustrations from the hip-hop era (mainly culled from IGTimes), compiled by the artist are also on view. They showcase the many ways in which Matta’s “Anarchitect” style fit into the zeitgeist of the early ‘70s Bronx and dispelled any notion that the artist chose to dwell solely in the rarefied climate of the New York art world.
Ultimately, in addition to being a tribute to Matta-Clark’s clairvoyance, the show is a must-see for New Yorkers wondering where they can find a home in an increasingly inaccessible, socially stratified city.
Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect runs through April 8, 2018 at the Bronx Museum.