Les Levine on Gordon Matta-Clark: An Interview

Bronx Floors: Threshole; Double Doors; Floor Above, Ceiling Bellow; 4-Way Wall, 1972-73. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner. Copyright The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artist’s Rights Society (ARS) New York.

By ERIK LA PRADE, September 2020

ERIK LA PRADE:  The 1985 exhibition catalogue, GORDON MATTA-CLARK: A RETROSPECTIVE, which accompanied the exhibition, contains a number of written encomiums and short personal memoirs on Matta-Clark. In your written piece for the catalogue, you wrote how Gordon Matta-Clark never came to terms with the sense of being “abandoned” as a child.

LES LEVINE: What I said was, no matter how hard you try, you can’t keep your “self” out of the work.  The work turns out the way it does is because that’s the way you are.  So, what I always thought about Gordon, knowing him very well as I did, his abandonment in his childhood was something he never got over and it became a subtext in all his work.

ELP: When you say abandonment, do you mean abandonment by his father?

LEVINE:  Yes.  I just felt that Gordon went in search of those things that were abandoned, took pieces out of abandoned buildings and said, “Hey, look at this.  You thought this child was of no value and here it is.  It has a certain beauty and there is something to be said about it.”  Gordon also was very much involved with, at a certain level, young people.  Street kids, etc.  You know, I am not a psychiatrist or equipped to talk about those issues in any in-depth way, but I can tell you I very much felt a strong feeling that Gordon felt he had been abandoned as a child and that he was recovering these abandoned items.  He was sort of saying; “Don’t discard this. Don’t ignore it.”    Somehow, I think the narrative was more related to a psychological event that occurred in his life.  

ELP: Today, there is Gordon Matta-Clark the person and Gordon Matta-Clark the legend and we have to deal with both.  

LEVINE: He never seemed like a legend to me.  We hung out quiet a-bit. He hung-out a lot with (James) Ingo Fried, the designer of the Holocaust Museum.  Gordon had this idea of architecture and art.  If you think about it, the works Gordon brought into galleries were like bringing part of a building into a building.  My sense of it was, he was bringing the nature of things back into the thing.  This is how this thing is (was) originally made.  That sort of thing.  So, when you see a cut of a piece of building, you can see a side of plaster, the lathe, a concrete block or whatever it is that has made this thing and put it together.  The making process is put into the finished space, seemed to have something to do with what he was trying to say.  The difference between, as example, esoteric and exoteric.  That which is hidden and that which is revealed.  

ELP: Literally?

LEVINE:  Yes.  Or, at least in metaphor.  If not in reality.  So, in a certain kind of way, thinking about them as being his metaphoric understanding about his body is the most fruitful way to go.  These pieces are not buildings in reality.  They are not to be taken literally.  If you take them literally, they don’t work.  Or, if you say here’s a chunk of a building, it doesn’t work.

Conical Intersect. 1975. Black-and-white photograph. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner. Copyright The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artist’s Right’s Society (ARS) New York.

ELP: Or, here’s a hole in the floor. 

LEVINE:  Yes.  The implication is there.  It is a subtext and it is not about the hole in the floor.  It’s about breaking through space or it’s about something else.  Or, it’s about trying to come to grips with something you don’t entirely understand and creating a metaphor that might help you understand it.  

ELP: Robert Smithson has spoken about Robert Morris’s work being infused with “Duchampism.”  

LEVINE:  There is more of it now than then.  The point is, soon as you bring up Smithson, you could say that’s performance.  If you want to say Gordon’s work had a performance element in it, you would have to say Smithson’s work had a performance element in it.  

ELP:  Dennis Oppenheim too?

LEVINE:  Definitely Oppenheim.  Dennis was always interested in the performance elements.  The action.  You can look at those cuts and say, depending on what your bent is, you can say, well, this is just a window in the wrong place.  This is just, how do we let light in?  But, Gordon did have a background in architecture.  He went to Cornell. Gordon was Dennis’s assistant at Cornell’s Earth Art show, 1969, when Dennis was cutting paths through ice with a chain saw.  

I think there is this odd sort of thing, this melding of architecture and art in Gordon’s work.  Even through people in the architecture world find it interesting, it would never work in that world.  To some degree, if you think about the people at the time, people like Archigram, and other architectural groups, although they had a lot of ideas, not much of anything they ever came up with ever got built. 

ELP: About where or how people could live without buildings?

LEVINE:  No.  About architecture and how it in some way could be radicalized. But the point is, it has to have a function.  It has to be something that can be used by people.  Gordon’s work made certain references to architecture at a certain level, and of course, it was using old architecture as its main thing, it never could have survived as architecture.  The architectural world would only put up with it as comment, never as real architecture.

ELP:  Would they say, this is architectural art, if there is such a thing.

LEVINE:  Well, they would be pleased with it as art for a simple reason, that it is something they do that is now represented as separate art work.  

ELP:  It reflects back on what they do.

LEVINE:  Yes.  

Splitting, 1974. Two Cibachromes. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner. Copyright The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/ Artist’s Rights Society (ARS) New York.

ELP:  Did you visit the Holly Solomon house Matta-Clark cut in half?

LEVINE:  I didn’t visit it but I’m well-aware of it.  

ELP:  That house seems to have been another comment on architecture, where people could come in, walk through it, crawl up and come out of that space.  But, again it comes back to me as a performance piece. 

LEVINE:  I wouldn’t argue that it is performance at a certain level, but that it is not performance art.  In performance art you are dealing with something entirely different.  The finished object was most important in Gordon’s work.  That you should see a house cut in half.  Even if you didn’t go into it, you could still see that it was a house cut in half.  That object was the thing you were supposed to be interested or concerned with.  It wasn’t the act of cutting it in half that you were supposed to be concerned with.  But, at a certain point Gordon started to feel that these activities were not going to be considered art. 

ELP: Why?

LEVINE: So, he would have something to present in an art gallery.  That’s why he started making photographs.  

ELP: Was he concerned people wouldn’t take him seriously?

LEVINE: That he wouldn’t be able to make a living doing it.  

ELP:  I think there is a train of thought that says he photographed these things because he was a conceptualist.

LEVINE: I don’t believe Gordon was a conceptualist. In my opinion, he wanted to have something that could be shown in an art gallery and sold.  That was the reason he did it.  And, we talked about it.  In actual fact, he spent a lot of time making these photographs.  In some photographs you have just one plate (image) but if you think about them when he started putting two or three negatives together, they have a kind of Rauschenberg feeling.  But, never the less, once he started making these photographs, he saw there was a strong graphic possibility for these things.  They became very unique photographs.  There was no other way to make a photograph like this than to do that to a building and then photograph it.  He was more interested in a photograph as an idea of evidence.  I think he was a sculptor and he was a physical sculptor in the sense that sculpture is a physical object.  And, these are photographs of sculptures that could not be dealt with in any other way.  And if you think about them, all of this, and then you have the issue of light; it’s photography.  I mean, that’s what most good photographers try to do, deal with light.  At some point he decided he wanted to make the photographs more interesting.  

ELP:  More graphic?

LEVINE:  Yes.  More graphic.  He decided to put various negatives together.  I mean, you have to take all of this stuff in context of Stella, and what might have been happening at the time.  It isn’t without some note that some of the photographic pieces look like what Rauschenberg did at the time.  Gordon knew Rauschenberg, he went to his studio.  Gordon doesn’t have to be a performance artist.  It is not something the work is begging to have.  The work exists in its own category.    I suspect too, the photographs have to do with the idea, if I don’t make these photographs, these things will go away and be forgotten forever.  The fact they are reference to some activity he did doesn’t seem as important as the fact he was making these photographs, putting them together in this way that looks like another physical sculpture.  It’s beyond documentation.  It is using photographs of that time but to make unique artworks.  

ELP:  Maybe the photograph changed the way he saw things?

LEVINE:  I’m sure it did.  Look at it this way.  The French word camera means room.  Gordon was taking rooms, cutting a hole in them and letting light in the way a camera does, essentially turning these rooms into a camera obscura.  The rooms with the holes in them actually made the pictures.

Office Baroque, 1977. Cibachrome. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner. Copyright The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artist’s Rights Society (ARS) New York.

ELP:  The photographs themselves have a sculptural element.

LEVINE:  Oh yeah!  He was going into the darkroom and attaching these negatives together until they had a certain look he wanted, and now they look like objects.  The photographs became strong objects.  Also, it was at a time when art had to look like art.  This is not just pure documentation.  This is not conceptualism.   This is definitely aesthetic object.  Another thought I just had was this was also the time of Arte Povera.  So, these cut pieces, I would say have more relationship to that than they do to performance art.  

ELP:  Was Arte Povera important to the process art being done then?

LEVINE:  Maybe.  But, I think I’d refer you back to Smithson’s remark, there’s too much Duchamp going on.  I always thought Arte Povera was a terrible title because I don’t think it had to do with povera.  And, who is to decide whether a material is poor or not poor?  It seems like a bad case of high classism.  

ELP:  A category.

LEVINE:  Well, it is a looking down category.  It was more about the idea as Gordon’s work is to some degree; there are things going on in the world where you live, where you go inside of, where you habitat, and maybe you haven’t noticed them.  That here’s a way to look at what surrounds you.  So, it is not about high class material or low class material, it is about perception.  I think in Gordon’s case it has all to do with the fact he studied architecture, he got involved with the art world, he saw that these things could be brought in at a certain level.  He may not have been an architect, but more likely, if he was anything, he was a conceptual architect, an architect who didn’t have to build a building. WM

Erik La Prade

Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College.  Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle.  His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010.  MidMarch Arts Press.  His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS.  Olympia, Washington. 2020

view all articles from this author