You Are The Measure
A long rope hung, draped dramatically across a ravine in Ithaca, New York from whose heights some have thrown themselves. It was the late 1960s. What has become known as post structuralism was just beginning, and so was Gordon Matta-Clark's thwarted career as an architect. A student at Cornell University, Matta-Clark was more concerned about overcoming the utopian tyranny of Le Corbusier and other members of architecture's zeitgeist than he was about getting hired at an architecture design firm. Acting in the name of 'anarchitechture', he created works influenced by Robert Smithson which were closer to the land art that was sweeping through the art world at the time. Space, non-space and entropy were what preoccupied the artist, who also co-founded an experimental restaurant, Food, staffed entirely by artists like himself.
Matta-Clark's well-known building cuts, which involved the alteration and subsequent transformation of existing buildings, comprise only a small portion of his ephemeral body of work. In the retrospective “You Are the Measure”, on display at the MOCA on Grand Avenue until January 7th, Matta-Clark's dynamism is attested to by the relics of his work– like the Rope Bridge that once hung in Ithaca, much of Matta-Clark's work no longer exists. All of the lovingly-carved buildings have now been demolished, the shot-out windows of New York's Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies have been replaced, and the culinary experiments eaten. Now, all that remains are sketches, videos, photos, memories– the residue of the artist's experimentations with what he referred to as 'un-building.'
But with destruction being a central theme within Matta-Clark's discourse, the fact that the works have now disappeared becomes a minor detail. Realizing the majority of his (unauthorized) work by breaking and entering, the artist recognized and challenged the fact that the possibility of eventual removal was an intrinsic quality of site-specific art, and used this to discuss notions of property, progress and the right to reclamation. In much the same way 'graffers' take back the streets by turning public property into surfaces to be painted, Matta-Clark attempted to defy the conventions of architecture by allowing abandoned spaces to metamorphose into something other than functional- they became ambiguous other-spaces accessible to the public.
While the current exhibition at MOCA is a rich collection of the artistic output of Matta-Clark, (who was the son of surrealist painter Roberto Echaurren Matta, and had a mentally unstable twin who committed suicide from his studio window) it is regrettable that his rather particular intimate life, which certainly guided and informed his work, isn't gone into in more detail. “Confusion guided by a clear sense of purpose,” he noted in one series of sketches. Much of Matta-Clark's work may be rooted in decay and decomposition, but he was also searching desperately for a way to construct something from the ashes of all that's been lost.
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Cynthia Valdez is a writer in LA.