A trip uptown to the Bronx Museum is well worth it this winter. The exhibition Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchist offers both a fascinating take on 1970s New York City and an inspiring vision of the far reaches of what an artist can do. The curatorial point of view and the presentation of Matta-Clark’s oeuvre in the context of the contemporary Bronx is quite compelling.
His signature series of “cuts,” site-specific interventions into the dilapidated architectural landscape of the Bronx in the 1970s, are presented in a series of photographs that document the results of his actions. The project involved Matta-Clark entering into intensely run-down or abandoned buildings and cutting out large-scale geometric shapes into floorboards, allowing viewers to see through to lower or higher levels depending on the vantage point. One of the actual cutouts was preserved and is presented in the exhibition as a sculpture.
The images, in black and white, simultaneously reveal the audacity and ingenuity of Matta-Clark, as well as the neglect and invisibility of the Bronx as a borough in the 1970s. The work was clearly, in part, a response to the legacy of Robert Moses’ (a controversial New York City urban planner) late 1960s Cross Bronx Expressway that displaced approximately 5,000 people and contributed significantly to class divisions and neglect still rampant today in the borough.
Another series of photographs capture the early years of a prolific and widespread fever for graffiti tagging in the Bronx. Anyone who has kept an eye on graffiti culture over the decades will most likely find the images mesmerizing. Small scale letters in assorted colors and coded language appear to be a deeply embedded form of hieroglyphics specific to a particular time and place. Matta-Clark’s eye seems to work like an urban anthropologist, one who had actual entree into the community as opposed to being a voyeuristic outsider.
After discovering these two bodies of work, visitors to the exhibition will encounter another astounding urban architectural intervention that Matta-Clark conducted in the center of Paris.
Not far from what would be the site of the future Centre Pompidou, the work titled “Conical Intersect” was Matta-Clark’s contribution to the Paris Biennale of 1975. The work involved the cutting of massive concentric circles into the structure of a seventeenth century building earmarked for demolition. The piece and its making were captured in video, which is shown on a large screen installed in the center of one of the museum’s gallery spaces.
It’s hard to imagine this type of work taking place in the 21st century, although Matta-Clark’s monumental critiques of urban gentrification are still extremely relevant. Part of Matta-Clark’s dream as an artist and activist was to empower communities to take and feel a sense of ownership of their surroundings. To that end, prior to his death in 1978 at the age of 35, he began to develop an unrealized art center in the South Bronx and a Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for the Loisaida (Lower East Side), for which he received a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1977.
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