Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Pamela M. Lee Object to be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark MIT Press, 1999. 240 pp.; 99 b/w ills. Paper (0262122200)

Pamela M. Lee presents a compelling theory of Gordon Matta-Clark’s art in her monographic study. Her book is well-written and intelligent, and offers a thought-provoking discussion that positions his art in the historical, political, social, and aesthetic context of his period. In her introduction, Lee lays out her principle argument, that Matta-Clark’s practice of disassembly and cutting of derelict buildings slated for demolition represents a process of “unbuilding” that leaves nothing but fragments of documentary photographs and films. Lee believes that Matta-Clark “ultimately denied the [art] work’s condition of possibility,” and that he deconstructed architecture through “shifts in scale and vertiginous mode[s] of address [that] refused interpretive consolidation” (XIV). She argues that he eschewed the dominant economy of growth, while celebrating entropy and seeking to create “non-productive use as artistic and social play” (XV). Utilizing a theoretical framework that draws primarily on Henri Lefebvre’s concepts of the production of space and Georges Bataille’s notion of “sacrificial economy,” she emphasizes Matta-Clark’s materialist concerns and describes his aesthetic as one of “worklessness.” Lee explains that Matta-Clark rejected reclamation, accumulation, and progress in favor of “workless economies,” that “intervene in the collective imperative to waste” (XV). Matta-Clark, Lee concludes, succeeded in threatening the “ontological security” of the art object, and in destabilizing the very “terms of aesthetic experience” (XIII-XIV).

One learns a great deal about Matta-Clark’s personal biography and the singularity of his art from Lee’s monograph, even as she consciously distances her narrative from conventional biography and the allegations that such models uncritically celebrate artistic originality. In a discussion of Matta-Clark’s relationship to the sublime, Lee fixes his history in the intellectual and physical environment of Cornell University and its School of Architecture. She also locates him in a community associated with the burgeoning of alternative spaces for avant-garde art that was part of the gentrification of SoHo in the late 1960s. She cleverly discusses the artist’s politics of community and place, employing a range of examples to show the breadth of his practice. For example, Food was a restaurant he opened in 1971 with Caroline Goodden, Tina Girouard, and others, one year after Daniel Spoerri, who had been cooking meals and fixing the residue in combines since the early 1960s, opened his restaurant in Düsseldorf. The Anarchitecture group, an association of artists interested in transitional and non-instrumental aspects of architecture, is another example Lee gives of Matta-Clark’s politics of place and community. One of his Anarchitecture projects, Fake Estates, 1973, engaged Matta-Clark in the purchase of surplus land at auctions sponsored by New York City. Lee uses the example of his ownership of “gutterspace” and “curb property” to introduce a discussion of the rationalization and colonization of space in modernism. She argues that Matta-Clark’s acquisitions of leftover slices of land are symbols of defiance residing at the intersection between his urbanism and socialist politics.

Lee’s chronicle will become an official history of Matta-Clark’s art. But it is only half of the story. The cleft in her narrative originates in the ways she privileges the influence of Robert Smithson and the tendencies of Minimalism against the equally powerful aesthetic and conceptual impact of performance on Matta-Clark’s practice. In fact, Matta-Clark realized around two dozen performances between 1968 and 1977, and belonged to a circle of dancers and performance artists that included Girouard, Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Liza Bear, Willoughby Sharp, Joan Jonas, Robert Kushner, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden. John Baldessari even compared the “dreamlike” qualities of Matta-Clark’s cuttings to the work of Acconci and Burden. Matta-Clark appeared in one of Robert Wilson’s plays, and Wilson suggests that the impulse for Splitting, 1974 (the suburban house in Englewood, New Jersey that the artist transformed into a transitory but unique object by cutting it down the middle) may have been “a vertical slit about three feet wide that went from the floor to the flies” in his play The King of Spain.1 Jane Crawford, the artist’s widow, has explained that performance for Matta-Clark was a kind of “trigger to involve ‘the people’ in . . . the neighborhood and the culture.”2

Nevertheless, Lee all but ignores Matta-Clark’s performances, and overtly trivializes those at Food, placing this “work” and its “reception” in quotes, and writing: “[T]here was a more serious way that art into life took shape at the site of Food [namely the] wall sandwich[es] he cut through the wall and door” (72). Lee clearly disregards performance as a serious medium compared to excised sections of architecture cum sculpture. She thus revives an antiquated hierarchy of genres, privileging architecture during the very period when hybrid intermedia (from anti-commercial art and actions indebted to event-structured art like Happenings, Fluxus, and the burgeoning movement of Body Art) rendered such power structures obsolete. To the genealogy of Matta-Clark’s relation to performance one must add the distinguished Parisian art circle of his father, surrealist Roberto Matta, and godfather, Marcel Duchamp (for whom Matta-Clark made his first performance in 1968). Duchamp attended artist-poet Jean-Jacques Lebel’s infamous Festival of Free Expression in Paris in 1964, where Carolee Schneemann performed her renowned Meat Joy; Matta-Clark was in Paris that year, studying poetry at the Sorbonne, and was well acquainted with Lebel, the son of Marcel Duchamp’s first biographer.3

The history of performance also dovetails with the concerns of Anarchitecture, especially Wolf Vostell’s notion of dé-coll/age (the simultaneous destruction and construction of objects and events), which anticipated Matta-Clark’s “unbuilding” practices by more than a decade. The image of a derailed train that Anarchitecture published in Flash Art in June 1974, bears a striking resemblance to Vostell’s famous 1964 happening NEIN-9 Dé-coll/agen, which featured a staged train crash with a Mercedes Benz. Vostell’s and Dick Higgins’s book, Fantastic Architecture, 1969, is a remarkable antecedent to Anarchitecture that Lee overlooks. Fantastic Architecture features transient and eccentric architectural proposals from a host of artists associated with performance, among them: John Cage, Alison Knowles, Joseph Beuys, and Dennis Oppenheim (on whose environmental sculptures Matta-Clark worked the very year Fantastic Art was published).

The projects in Fantastic Art reside at the intersection between urbanism and architecture, the territory to which the Situationist International and Asger Jorn with his Imaginist Bauhaus (also absent from Lee’s account of Matta-Clark’s work) contributed so much. In this context, Matta-Clark used his cutting actions to expose layers of life lived in the interiors of the built environment, and he demonstrated how physically and psychologically dangerous such a social act was. Although Lee ostensibly writes about these ephemeral practices, she favors the objecthood of Matta-Clark’s work rather than the more fugitive nature and context of his acts. She also never refers, in her extended discussions of “worklessness,” to Walter De Maria’s extraordinary text “Meaningless Work” (March 1960), or its unforgettable first sentence: “Meaningless work is obviously the most important and significant art form today.”4

As lamentable as these absences are, in a book ostensibly on the subject of destruction Lee’s failure to discuss Matta-Clark’s work in relation to the history of destruction in art—dating from Gustav Metzger’s 1959 manifesto “Auto-Destructive Art”—is even more regrettable. For Metzger proposed public monuments that would auto-destruct, visualizing aspects of decay and disaster related to culture of crisis and the negative effects of capitalism. Metzger also organized the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) which took place in London throughout September 1966. This multi-national international event attracted the pioneers of performance and Concrete Poetry from fifteen countries, and was highly publicized in Studio International and Art and Artists. There were exhibitions associated with DIAS in the late 1960s at the Judson Church Gallery (around the corner from which Matta-Clark once lived and which he frequented). Most importantly, like many artists who used destruction as a means for creation, Matta-Clark was committed to transformation, and studied alchemy as many of them did. The emphasis on destruction in Lees book, then, needs to be tempered with the understanding of its uses in the context of transmutation rather than violence, which Matta-Clark detested.5

The historical oversights in Lee’s book raise larger questions of scholarship and historiography. Her work bears the imprimatur of art historians associated with the journal October, whose intellectual agenda clearly informs her own. At the expense of a more balanced consideration of the complex interactions of artists, and of more ephemeral practices she celebrates a roster of theorists and a constellation of media—architecture, sculpture, photography, and film—familiar to the journals readers. In doing so, she continues to fracture the building/splitting artist, who already felt himself rent and reconstructed; a twin, Matta-Clark “felt he was born once and a half,” because his own boundless energy had left Batan, his twin brother, with “just a half.”6 Ironically, Lee opens her book with an extended discussion of Splitting, which is also the fulcrum of her interest in the “holes of history,” namely “the commonality of loss, endlessly played out in the space of the city, that is the heart of the modern itself” (209). The history she constructs, however, is an example of the very kind of art historical elision that she herself theorizes. As for Lee’s utopian thesis that ephemeral acts threaten the ontological security of art objects, the history of performance and destruction in art have proved that art is more robust than anyone imagined.

Kristine Stiles
Department of Art History, Duke University

1 John Baldessari and Robert Wilson in Mary Jane Jacob, Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985): 19 and 100.

2 Jane Crawford, email to the author, July 18, 2000.

3 Jean-Jacques Lebel, fax to the author, July 11, 2000.

4 See De Maria’s essay in La Monte Young, ed., An Anthology (New York: La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, 1963), reprinted in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996): 526.

5 Matta-Clark’s library contains many books on alchemy and Eastern philosophy. I am grateful to Jane Crawford for this list.

6 Caroline Yorke Goodden in Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective, 40. Sebastian [Batan] Matta committed suicide by jumping from the window of Gordon’s studio-loft in 1976.

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