By Chris Chang
Further excavations of Gordon Matta-Clark
Descending Steps for Batan and Conical Intersect
To describe the art Gordon Matta-Clark made in the last few years of his life as “late work” is not exactly accurate. Matta-Clark died of cancer in 1978. He was 35. His professional career began roughly 10 years earlier. “Late work” implies late style; tragically, the man never had the opportunity to reach the far side of “lateness.” Nevertheless, “Above and Below,” curated by Jessamyn Fiore at the David Zwirner Gallery, focuses on the final period of the artist’s life, and does so in a manner partially attuned to late-style aesthetics—particularly with its oblique emphasis on mortality. Two years ago Fiore (born 1980) curated an intriguing show that centered on 112 Greene Street, an early-Seventies communal artists’ space co-founded by Matta-Clark. Her interest is, in part, a family affair: she’s the daughter of Jane Crawford, the artist’s widow, with whom she helps manage the Matta-Clark estate.
The new show, pegged primarily to Matta-Clark’s work as a filmmaker, follows not so much a storyline as “a journey,” Fiore explained to me. The trip has distinct biographical elements, and begins and ends with allusions to an event that devastated the artist: the death of his twin brother, Sebastian, aka Batan. The first thing one sees upon entering the gallery is City Slivers (76), a silent 16mm short. It’s one of a handful of Matta-Clark films that do not specifically relate to any of his iconic architectural interventions—projects in which buildings slated for demolition were surgically altered with his signature cuts and openings. The 15-minute experimental work features glimpses of New York pedestrian life in thin vertical slices that appear in a black field: fleeting vérité views down streets and avenues of moving traffic, catching people passing through revolving doors, etc. It is a mute and truncated city symphony.
Conical Intersect in progress
What is visible on screen is deliberately obstructed by the film’s technique—a procedure whose exact nature remains in question. “The artist directly cut and glued the negative,” wrote curator Corinne Diserens (in 2006). “She’s confusing it with Substrait,” responds Fiore, referring to a 30-minute 1976 film, also featured in the Zwirner show. Betsy Sussler, BOMB magazine honcho, assisted with both camera and editing but has hazy recollections of the shoot: “I seem to remember that we simply used black matte board to block off portions of the lens . . . I was worried about the light bleeding in, but then decided that it might look good anyway.” Jane Crawford (who made a film, as it happens, about Matta-Clark’s father, the great Chilean surrealist, Roberto Matta) concurs: “One strip, re-exposed, using a matte box.” The family plot thickens: Robert Fiore, wife of Jane, father of Jessamyn, friend of Gordon, and co-director of Pumping Iron, suggests that “optical printing effects may have been used for the film’s climax.”
The moment to which he refers is also the film’s ostensible credit sequence. At approximately the 11-minute mark, one of the slivers expands to a full-frame view from the top of the World Trade Center (the effect was clearly achieved through the manual opening of a matte-like device mounted in front of the lens). After the WTC vista, the film cuts back to multiple strands—handheld, shaky, disorienting. An almost illegible typewritten sliver credits the filmmaker, Sussler, and two grant organizations. And then, nearly imperceptible, unless you know what to look for, appear the words: “he just hit the pavement / out good as dead / face down in the… ” It’s an epitaph to Batan, who fell to his death from the window of a SoHo apartment that the twins were sharing at the time. Following the curator’s layout, the last work in the show, like a punctuation mark, is a 1977 photomontage titled “Descending Steps for Batan.” It’s a collage of five images from a Matta-Clark performance in which the artist carved a hole in a Parisian gallery floor, and then continued to dig into the earth of the basement below. At the end of the exhibition the hole was filled in.
Relic from Conical Intersect (Medieval Statue’s Hands)
Next to the City Slivers projection, resting on a pedestal, is the artifact known as Relic from Conical Intersect (Medieval Statue’s Hands). This undated limestone fragment—in contrast to the film, video, drawing, and photography on display elsewhere in the exhibition—is the only ostensible object in the show. (Proviso: Cut Drawing Pad , a thin stack of paper displayed in a frame, like a drawing, is also, technically, a multi-dimensional piece.) Relic is definitely an object, and it possesses a great backstory, some details of which may be apocryphal, but they’re too good to not be repeated: while at work on Conical Intersect—the architectural intervention that Matta-Clark undertook in Paris in 1976—a sculptural pair of praying hands was accidently dislodged from a hiding place within an interior wall. In the process, the artist fell flat on his back, and the hands landed on his chest, creating the impression of a fallen supplicant.
Conical Intersect is, I believe, the only non-extant conceptual-art structure inspired by an avant-garde film. Matta-Clark had seen and been deeply affected by Anthony McCall’s 1973 Line Describing a Cone, a so-called solid light projection. McCall’s signature work is made palpable in the room in which the projection occurs via smoke in the air. The light carves its way through space—much as Matta-Clark cuts through buildings. Both artists thereby produce spatial disorientations that verge on surrealism, i.e., a seemingly uncanny juxtaposition of matter and void composed in ways that trigger unconscious or, at least, primal mental energies (fear and/or wonder being the most obvious examples).
Matta-Clark and McCall also share a peculiar relation in terms of audience: Matta-Clark’s performative actions were, technically speaking, off limits. Conversely (sort of) the more viewers who congregate at one time at a McCall solid-light projection, the more obstructed, and less effective it becomes. In Matta-Clark’s case no audience can attend the original act; in McCall’s, attendance beyond a certain point can be detrimental. Fantasy scenario: Imagine Line Describing a Cone projected (for an audience) within Conical Intersect.
Speaking of standard screenings, a thought-provoking (and mildly irritating) program took place on April 21 at Anthology Film Archives. It was titled “Above, Below & Around: Films of Gordon Matta-Clark,” and it included the de rigueur Splitting (74) and a new subtitled print of Sous-Sol de Paris (77). The latter, an eerie documentary exploration of the Paris underground, features, among other things, images of skulls in catacombs paired with stacks of wine bottles in a cellar (also a subject of one of the photo montages in the Zwirner show).
The bulk of the Anthology lineup was made up of work by McCall, Jane Crawford and Robert Fiore, Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, Ken Jacobs, and Joseph Cornell, and was related to Matta-Clark in ways, at times, so tangential as to appear free-associative. Jacob’s 2005 Let There Be Whistleblowers, for example, features the optically tricked-out movement of a train through a tunnel, thereby relevant, of course, to Matta-Clark’s subterranean obsessions—right? Whistleblowers also happens to have a soundtrack by Steve Reich, who also happened to be the composer-of-choice when Holt shot Super-8 footage documenting Smithson’s Mica Spread, clips of which appear in Crawford and Fiore’s 2004 documentary, Sheds.
Matta-Clark’s Splitting and Holt and Smithson’s 1971 Swamp—which run eleven and six minutes respectively—could, taken together, launch a boatload of dissertations. The diaphanous rift between the “artist’s film” and the “art film” is one key thematic, as is the subgenre within artists’ films in which said artists make films that do not take as their subject existing artworks, or the processes that created them. Swamp is a classic example of that subgenre: the artist couple are heard conversing, but not seen, as their camera struggles its way through a gnarly bog. Splitting, as a documentation of the making of an iconic artwork, is thereby disqualified from the subgenre. (Mandatory pop quiz: where does City Slivers fit in?).
Line Describing a Cone
Matta-Clark exhibitions can bring to mind, often melancholically, things that no longer exist. Photography and film are the means by which his extinct buildings and related exploratory projects live on (at least as far as art collections are concerned). There’s a bit of solace in the fact that, even though the viewer can never have the experience of standing within any of the artist’s quintessential sites, the curious sensations that the photo-collages produce is not merely an approximation. The combined (collaged) perspectives multiply points of view—on single sheets of paper. Some stitch them together, as in the top and bottom sections of the triptych, Office Baroque (77). Some are vertically stratified (i.e., layered) in an obvious echo of urban geology, as seen in the Sous-Sols de paris prints. In the latter case, it’s worth noting that Matta-Clark sourced his images directly from 16mm film, as opposed to when he was reworking 35mm still photographs (which he would also do, at times, in combination with 16mm material).
Late style, following Edward Said’s reading of Adorno, is not just a matter of the difficult “over-ripe” work of long-in-tooth masters (although that’s part of it). It also has something to do with eras, ages, and epochs, and the subjective perceptions of those things passing away or—even more poetic—lingering on after that time has passed. Matta-Clark clung to his building sites to the very last second. He was often on hand, for example, when the inevitable bulldozers arrived. But he was neither a preservationist nor mired in the past. What Fiore’s show reminds us is that the artist was—contra late-style melancholia—not only looking forward, but gazing upward. A cluster of crude pencil-on-paper preparatory sketches hints at a project that Matta-Clark was working on near the time of his death. His conception for “Sky Hooks,” i.e., a balloon-based form of architecture, is startling, yet it makes perfect aesthetic sense. After extensive subterranean excavation, and structurally playful demolition, what could be more natural than floating buildings?