Gordon Matta-Clark: Conceptual and Digestible Art

The charismatic Gordon Matta-Clark was a beloved creative instigator within the flourishing arts scene of 1970s SoHo. Know for his “building cuts”—in which he would literally cut, or dissect, buildings slated to be demolished—Matta-Clark’s conceptual practice also took him into the realms of dance, film, and food. Artsy’s editorial director, Marina Cashdan, took a tour of the recent Matta-Clark exhibition “Above and Below” at David Zwirner Gallery with the show’s curator, Jessamyn Fiore, whose relationship with Matta-Clark is not only that of scholar and subject but one rooted in her personal family history (Fiore’s mother, Jane Crawford, is Matta-Clark’s widow). Read as Fiore sheds light on Matta-Clark’s dissection of not only buildings but also film, his dark times, and his digestible (literally) art.

Marina Cashdan: What makes this exhibition different from any other Gordon Matta-Clark exhibitions of the past?

Jessamyn Fiore: I’m trying to highlight works that tend to get overlooked. A lot of times when you hear Gordon Matta-Clark you immediately think of his splitting the house [Splitting, 1974] and other architectural innovations, but there’s a lot more to his practice that I don’t think people have been exposed to as much. Rather than focusing on the beginning of his career, I thought what about the end of his career—what were the trajectories that he was beginning to follow that he would have pursued had he not passed away so young, at the age of 35? And so with this exhibition I wanted to highlight where he was in those last couple of years, in particular his growing interest in filmmaking, and film being a very important part of his practice, which I think tends to get overlooked in a lot of other exhibitions.

MC: What is the significance of the exhibition title “Above and Below”?

JF: In these later years, he also began to look beyond just kind of the surface architecture of the city; he became interested in all the layers that were beneath the city, and also the possibilities of the sky space. So this exhibition is called “Above and Below” to really reflect that expanded vision on his part, of all the potentialities of the spaces within our urban environment.

MC: Can you talk about the show’s cornerstone work City Slivers?

JF: I open with City Slivers because I think it’s one of the best examples of him as a filmmaker and it’s a piece in and of itself—it’s not related to another, larger project. Basically, he would run the film through the camera, covering up the screen except for one sliver, which he would expose. He would run the film through, rewind it, cover that sliver up, expose another sliver, and wind it through again. In this way, he was collaging directly onto the negative. It’s a fascinating film visually, capturing these beautiful vertical moments within the city and sort of blending this architecture from different points, making it abstract. I wanted to show it here very big and sort of in your face. [That way,] you can notice the details of it, because it’s such a rich film.

It’s also an important work because it illustrates another theme of the show, which is the personal, psychological stories that are behind a number of Gordon’s works. He was working on City Slivers at the same time that his twin brother Sebastian died [while staying with Gordon Matta-Clark]. It was ruled a suicide. Obviously this was an incredibly traumatic experience for Gordon; they were very close, and he really felt very protective of him. So at the end of City Slivers, you go from these collaged views of the city, in this vertical [perspective], and then it goes to this expansive view that opens up and takes over the whole screen, which is from a very high point, most likely the Twin Towers looking down through the city. And then that view closes, and you go back to the slivers, but there’s a bit of a difference—there’s a lot more of light beams on the film, so this has a strobing effect. Then the perspectives change—rather than on the street looking across, you are on the top of the building looking down. And there’s a strip of barely visible text that says, “he just hit the pavement...face down.” It’s obviously a tribute to his brother. It’s very, very moving and very subtle. You wouldn’t notice it unless you were really looking for it or you really sat down and watched this film with patience. And so this theme of his brother’s death, and Gordon coming to terms with it, is another [theme] that runs through the show.

MC: Matta-Clark is known for transforming obsolete architecture. How does this relate to his later use of film as a medium?

JF: Obviously he used his training in architecture to create these cuts. But you needed a lot of money to create new buildings, and he was much more interested in doing works that reflected the reality of the age, which was that there was terrible economic crisis, and [as a result] there was a terrible homelessness crisis. And so the cuttings would often be in abandoned buildings and buildings that were set to be demolished. And of course time plays an integral role in that because what you have is architecture that when it was first built, was built with a great deal of optimism—that this building was going to serve a family or community—and yet somehow that building failed to evolve as the neighborhood did and is now left obsolete. So time plays a major role. And film, of course, is all about time. So it’s a way for him to capture time, it was a way for him to also give the audience another way to view what it was like to move through these cuttings and be in these cuttings in a way that the still photographs cannot.

MC: Carol Goodden and Matta-Clark’s 1971 SoHo restaurant-cum-artwork FOOD is being revived this week as part of Frieze Projects. Can you talk about that period in art history in New York City and how the FOOD was conceived?

JF: FOOD restaurant is part of the 112 Greene Street period. Food was opened in September of 1971 by Carol Goodden, who was Gordon’s girlfriend at the time. So she opened it along with Gordon, and then artist and dancer Tina Girouard helped out a lot, as well as a number of other people. It was a sister space to 112 Greene Street—112 Greene Street being the exhibition/performance venue and FOOD being a restaurant but also a place, a gathering place for the community, a place where if you needed some work, you could go there and get a job and if you needed cheap or even free food, you could go and ask them for it. It became a kind of venue where they would host these food performances. For Gordon, I think FOOD took on an even larger role because it became an artwork; it’s pretty amazing how he was able to integrate and create this art from the everyday, which again was very unusual at the time. Gordon also did his first cutting [piece] in FOOD  when they were renovating the building. He cut part of the wall away to reveal a counter. And then the following year when he had his first solo show at 112 Greene Street, he displayed this cutting along with a photograph of where the cutting was from in the restaurant. He also did a number of food performances there, including "Matta Bones," which was a dinner where everything was served on the bone; then at the end, your leftovers were cleaned, a hole was drilled through them, and they were put on a necklace so you could wear your leftovers home. In 1972, he made a film about FOOD [see it here]. He worked on that with Robert Frank and some other filmmakers who were around at the time. It’s kind of a day in the life of Food, beginning with them going to the Fulton Fish Market and buying the fish, and then opening up the restaurant and cooking, and the customers coming, and it ends with that whole group sitting around a table. It really captures that moment.

MC: Why is FOOD so important, and will you go to see the homage at Frieze, called FOOD 1971/2013?

JF: That was a really amazing moment in SoHo where you had this community [of artists] that were working without the pressure of commercial obligations. It really making art for art’s sake at that point. Most of them had day jobs renovating these factory spaces [and other jobs] and FOOD was just another sort of meeting place, a locus of that energy from ‘71 to ‘73, when they had to sell it unfortunately, because they were great artists, not as great businessmen [laughs]. And yes I’m excited to see the FOOD project. I’m going to go and check it out when Tina Girouard is cooking!

Check out FOOD 1971/2013 at Frieze New York, running through Monday, May 13th. Learn more here.


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The trailer at right is for a documentary film addendum to a film that was realised by Cherica Convents in the 1970s. The film consists of never before released images of Matta-Clark while preparing one of his last building cuts Office Baroque.

Credits from Top: (All works by Gordon Matta-Clark) Conical Intersect, 1975. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York/London; Conical Intersect, 1975. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York/London; Installation view of the 2013 solo exhibition Gordon Matta-Clark: Above and Below at David Zwirner, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London; City Slivers, 1976. 16mm film, 15 min, color, silent. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York/London; Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden, and Gordon Matta-Clark outside the restaurant FOOD prior to its opening, 1971. Photograph by Richard Landry. Courtesy Richard Landry, the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, and David Zwirner, New York/London.

Portrait by Hiroki Kobayashi; Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

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