The Full Matta-Clark

An exhibition at the Whitney Museum revisits the artist-architect in all his dissonant glory.

Billing itself as the first major retrospective of the late Gordon Matta-Clark’s work in more than 20 years, an exhibition opening this month at the Whitney Museum takes a deeper look at an approach to architecture that counted destruction as one of its chief virtues. But although previous shows typically focused on one aspect of his oeuvre, Gordon Matta-Clark: You Are the Measure aims to present a fuller view of the artist as an interdisciplinary auteur moving from one seemingly disparate creative form to another across a broad spectrum of media.

Schooled as an architect at Cornell University, Matta-Clark rebelled against the vocation after graduating in 1968 and moving to Manhattan, where he gradually began fashioning works that attempted to subvert architectural forms by slicing houses in two or chopping away half of a building’s foundation. He documented the process in photographs and films and displayed parts of the cut-up buildings in gallery installations. “Architects tend to talk about Matta-Clark in a highly theorized way, and his work certainly merits that,” Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman says. “But at the same time he was exploring other media, like film, which gets overlooked a lot. I think everything he did informed everything else he did and provided another way of seeing, of approaching a building.”

Few people have ever thought to approach architecture like Matta-Clark did. His building fragments form the core of the exhibition: hulking edifices like the “four corners”—essentially four roof fragments—that remain from his infamous 1974 Splitting, in which the artist vertically bisected a New Jersey frame house. Violence is inherent in Matta-Clark’s art, yet there is also a strange poetic beauty to his “cut” pieces: architecture’s version of a postmortem, a glimpse into the very guts of joint, arch, and mortar.

Matta-Clark’s films and photographs are also plentiful at the Whitney, offsetting the overwhelming physicality of the building fragments. “You can almost think of them as miniatures in some cases,” Sussman says. “At the same time, by giving us a look at entire buildings, they show how he thought compositionally in terms of staging the ‘cuts’ to create what’s virtually a new structure out of an existing one.” That the wrecking ball would then come along and level Matta-Clark’s creations seems fitting, destruction having proved so crucial to his own design experiments. “Form was malleable for Matta-Clark,” Sussman says. “You never knew what he might do with it.”

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