Gordon Matta-Clark: Out of the rubble

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

It’s New York in the 1970s. The optimism of ’60s America has faded into cynicism and despair. The city is so broke that it’s almost bankrupt. People are fleeing to the suburbs and industry New York is shutting down, leaving abandoned warehouses, homes and tenements scattered throughout. Meanwhile, artists flock to the city from all around the world in search of cheap, or free, housing and camaraderie.

A New York native, Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-78) saw other endless possibilities in the rubble of the decaying metropolis.

Matta-Clark is best-known for the works he created by cutting out sections of buildings — warehouses, abandoned tenements and others slated for demolition — but he also worked in a variety of mediums, including film, photography and food. The current exhibition of his work at The Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, is the first retrospective of his work to be shown in Asia.

Though an early death from pancreatic cancer meant Matta-Clark’s career lasted less than 10 years, due to his multidisciplinary approach, his work continues to be influential in a variety of fields, including architecture, film, visual arts and cooking. A well-designed and organized retrospective, the exhibition features a wide range of Matta-Clark’s works — photographs, plans, films and models of hi s building cuts, other films he made, printed matter and most amusingly, four corners of a house that the artist preserved after demolishing a house.

Through the models and reconstructions, visitors can get a sense of the works he created, almost all of which have since been destroyed. Overall, it’s a fascinating showcase and surprisingly accessible for a retrospective on a seemingly esoteric conceptual American artist. The quality of the English and Japanese captions is very good, while the analysis provides insight into both Matta-Clark’s life and the historical moment he was working in.

The curators have created an amusing but interesting perspective by using industrial materials — plywood, metal rods and particle board — instead of the typical white boards for the installation. The recreation of Matta-Clark’s “Garbage Wall,” made from found objects and concrete, was a hit with children visiting the museum on a sunny Sunday afternoon, something Matta-Clark himself would probably have loved.

Upon leaving the museum however, one can’t help but think how much Matta-Clark would laugh if he knew that he was the subject of a well-funded international retrospective. Much of his work is critical of museums. In addition, almost all his work was designed to be uncollectable or displayable — it was either too big or too ephemeral. In many ways, he represented the anti-museum movement of ’60s and ’70s American conceptual art. The fact that his work, much of which is featured courtesy of the world famous David Zwirner gallery, is displayed with such devotion and care shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of Matta-Clark’s work within the context of American postwar art.

Perhaps the most Matta-Clark-like exhibit is the museum’s Instagram campaign. Visitors are encouraged to post images of the “Gordon Matta-Clark-like” things from their daily lives. Think construction sites, graffiti, decrepit buildings. Curators will choose the best images, print them out and put them up in the museum. If that isn’t conceptual ephemeral art about cities in the style of Gordon Matta-Clark, I don’t know what is.

“Gordon Matta-Clark: Mutation in Space” at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, runs until Sept, 17. ¥1,200. For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp/english/am.