Gordon Matta-Clark and the demolition of the white bucket | Ángel Cerviño

“Why hang things on a wall when the own wall constitutes a half so stimulating? It is the rigid mentality that establishes that the architects install the walls and the artists decorate them, what more offends my sense of both professions.”

(Gordon Matta-Clark)

A good part of the works minimalistas produced from finals of the years sixty of the past century could understand like a detailed and obsessive investigation of the space expositivo, a dialogue (a very polite struggle) with the “white cube” of the museum or the gallery of art. Hardly a decade before the pop-art had looked for his references in the images and the speeches of the media and in the reproductividad hallucinated of the products of massive consumption; an artistic practice that would open –of form more evident in the “concienciado” European pop- a road of penetration for the social questions and politics of the moment, implicit in the mechanisms of communication and consumption: alienation, confusion interested of information and propaganda, passive acceptance of patterns of class or gender, espectacularización of the situations of life, “detournement” political of the advertising images…

With the advent of the minimalismo like dominant poetics for the following generation of artists, the work lives basically of his relation with the architectural container, his logical compositiva results of the uninterruptible formal exchange with the space built of the interior of the gallery. In his best moments the art minimalista turns into an analysis of the subtle process by means of which “the specific architectural elements and functional of the interior of the gallery prescribe the meaning and determine concrete readings for the clear-cut art inside his architectural frame”1.

From the minimalismo the work takes full consciousness of the importance of the physical space in that it is situated and begins to produce his own surroundings. From the decimonónicos surrealist living rooms, and the accumulations indiscriminadas of the historical avant-gardes, until the extreme asepsis expositiva contemporary there is an abysmal distance that have saved with a jump of hardly three decades. Precursor, also in this as in so many other things, the Soviet constructivism loaned special attention to the space expositivo (“In 1926 began my more important work like artist: the design of exhibitions”2 El Lissitzsky), although later it derived, by obvious reasons of political propaganda, in a direction anti-modern to approaches more linked with the architectural decoration and the muralismo religious. Duchamp, that seems to arrive to the places always a bit before that all the other, did us take consciousness of the ceiling of the room of exhibitions installing in him 1.200 sacks of coal (Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, 1938), …And of the inner space of the gallery, doing it literally intransitable with 1.600 m. Of rope tended from all the possible angles until doing almost impossible any attempt of approximation to the exposed works (First Papers of Surealism, 1942).

Gordon Matta-Clark, “Garbage Wall for Fire Boy at the Brooklyn Bridge” (1971)

Ascensión And fall of the white cube

In the white cube fulfils  this part of the modern artistic project that demands for the works of art a radically separate existence, no contaminated by any extraneous circumstance to them same, and situates them even out of the time and his vicisitudes because, somehow, “belong already to the posterity”3. Enclosed windows, zenithal light, floor enmoquetado to cushion the sounds of the steps, solemnity and recogimiento, behaviours perfectly encoded of the viewers that determine a space, physicist and mental, very next to the ensimismamiento contemplativo typical of the religious anointing. The triumph of the white cube supposes also the end of the frame like psychological container and the opening of the work to the game of perspectives of the architectural space that contains it.

“We go in in a period in which the works of art conceive the wall like a no man’s land in which project his concept of territorial occupation /…/ The wall turned into an aesthetic strength, began to modify all what placed  on her.”4

Now we know that the extreme sterilisation that operates the white cube is not more than a ceremony of distraction, the illusion that pretends to hide a powerful device of ideological production: the staged of the work of art. The enclosed space converts  like this in emblem of the extrañamiento of the artist regarding the society (O´Doherty), false limbo that disguises of transparency the muddy entramado speculative of the artistic system; escenificación of the posterity ensured (promise of eternity) like financial guarantee for the investment of the collector. Acaso The greater triumph of the minimalismo historical have been the one of enmudecer his own works until the estruendoso silence of the exposed force to speak to the space expositivo, force –acaso without being totally conscious of this- to the white cube to desvelar splits of his ideological program.

In March of 1969, Robert Barry carries out an especially significant action: the day of the inauguration of his exhibition closed the doors of the Gallery Eugenia Butler of Los Angeles, that remained closed during the three weeks that lasted the sample, so that this empty space, invisible from the outside, uninhabited, out of the scope of the look of the viewer, went the only work of the exhibition: a work only abarcable with the effort of the mind. Like this they were the things when Gordon Matta-Clark realises his first artistic interventions.

Gordon Matta-Clark trabajando en “Bronx Floor” (1972)

This is the territory in which the minimalismo deploys his singular catalogue of forms and procedures, and these same formal categories will be those that Gordon Matta-Clark will move –altering monumentalmente the scale and radicalizando the procedures- to abandoned buildings and industrial ships of the areas depressed of his urban surroundings, in shape similar to as the artists of the Earth-Art carried these same geometrical structures to the natural stages (suffice to remember the lines traced by Walter of María in the desert of Mojave, the espirales lacustrine of Robert Smithson, or the circles of stones of Richard Long). And perhaps it do not lack interest signal here that one of the first artistic works of Matta-Clark, recently finished his studies of architecture in the University of Cornell (Ithaca), was to collaborate like assistant in the realisation of the work “Beebe Lake Ice Cut” (1969) of Dennis Oppenheim, where very probably already would have seen  impelido to use the motosierra or some similar tool to cut the layers of ice. The relation that in these dates establishes with Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson will leave definitely a deep footprint in the future artistic path of the young architect.

Grammar of the dismantling

Through the immoderate fissures and the geometrical figures (scale Earth Art) that Gordon Matta-Clark opens, taladra and recorta in abandoned buildings of the extrarradio, penetrate in the big work variety of social conflicts and all his symbolic contents associated: rights of speculative property that cercenan any possibility of use and enjoy community cross , in the same performance, with the will to open –in literal sense- new visual perspectives to discern the possibility of a different distribution of the space or, what is the same, of the conditions of life; of step  desentierran personal conflicts (very significant the excavation in the floor of the gallery Yvon Lambert of Paris, in search of the brother suicidado, “Descending Steps for Beat”, 1977) and communities, to the time that undermines  the architectural grammar, opening hollow, freeing empty by subtraction, signalling intersticios that look to inaccessible properties, generating spaces out of place, activating wishes no regulated.

Gordon Matta-Clark, actuando en “Clock shower” (1973)

It treats  to open brechas, physical and mental, in the lines of escape of the urban space, leave step to a new light, question the look established by the dominant ways of organisation of the surroundings; excavate, redefine the place, leave to the discovered the real and metaphorical structure of the building; the space built like place where cross  all the conflicts, like part indisociable of the urban fabric5. The building turns into sculpture and the resultant sculpture contaminates  –poisons – of urbanismo and of political criticism of the situations of daily life, turns into vigorosa metaphor of the urban labyrinth, with his showy façade and dark private spaces, terraces and sótanos, covers and cimientos soterrados. Sculpture that –in the most extreme cases-  desmaterializará until transforming  in pure process of research and documentation, like sucedió with the film of his explorations of the subsoil of Paris (Sous-sols of Paris, 1977), realised photographing and filming the constructions of this city invested that it expands  by the plots of the urban sewerage.

“ /…/ I have interest in an expedition to the subsoil: a research of the spaces forgotten and buried under the city, well like historical memory, well like surviving reminders of projects and fantasies lost /…/ Although the original idea comported possible subversive acts, now interests me more look for and discover. This activity would have to take out the art of the gallery and enter it in the cloacas.6

In this same sense, the experience of autogestión and work with the collectivity that purchased collaborating in Milan with an autonomous cultural group would carry it, this same year, to the set up, using any of the a lot of abandoned buildings of the depressed neighbourhood of Lower East Side of New York (Loisaida), of the project of social centre “To Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for Loisaida”, a communal space of recycling of waste and environmental activity, that pretended to offer a frame of social activities and professional training to the youngsters of the neighbourhood.

They are this type of actions and escenificaciones of conflicts those that move away gradually to Gordon Matta-Clrak of the strict formal universe of his mates minimalistas and, in occasions, carry it to a frontal collision with the conventional devices of exhibition and reception established by the artistic system, questioning, of step, the notion of viewer. In 1976, prpers having been invited to participate in the exhibition “Contrives ace Model” (The idea like model), organised by the “Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies” of New York, Gordon Matta-Clark presented  the morning of the previous day to the inauguration with a carabina of air compressed, loaned by his fellow and mentor Dennis Oppenheim, with which shot from the outside against all the glasses of the windows of the destined building to house the exhibition, afterwards pretended to place in each frame of window the photography of a house of the Bronx burned and arrasada by the vandalism of his own moradores; hours before the opening the members of the Institute, capitaneados by his director Peter Eisenman (that indignamente arrived to compare the performance of the artist with the Kristalnacht of the nazi), decided to delete the work of the exhibition, call to the glassmakers and repair the desperfectos, completing of this way the work (Window Blow-out, 1976) that the artist had begun.

Gordon Matta-Clark, “Window Blow-out” (1976)

Like this a good part of his more known works, as Day´s End (1975) the famous intervention realised in an abandoned warehouse in the port of New York, had a character of situation produced in real time, many times rondando the illegal occupation and the police problems, and hardly survive in documentary format; happened the moment only remained in the place the watchdogs of security and the municipal employees disassembling the scene, or initiating the demolición preventive of the building taken part.

Also it will investigate the most absurd appearances of the system of property of the floor, unseen under the apparent rationality of the cuadrícula of the plane (Reality Properties: Fake Estates, 1973), purchasing in public auction some batches of terrains in Queens and Staten Island, tiny plots of impossible access whose local taxes had not been paid, excess spaces that bought, to the price of 25 dollars each one, with the intention to put in evidence the existential fragility of some conventions only sustentadas in the mercantilización bureaucratic of the daily life: spaces that can be possessed but never experienced, in words of the own artist.

“When I bought these properties in the auction of New York, the description that more aroused me was the inaccessible “word”. They were a group of 15 micro-excess plots of the plane of an architect. One or two of the most significant was a band peatonal beside an entrance of cars with a surface of 0’09 m2. The others micro-plots were kerbs of sidewalk and scuppers. Basically, what wanted to do was to designate spaces that would not be seen and that, of course, never would be busy.” 7

Excavate the floor of a gallery of art, …Cook photographies, …Cut buildings, …Rent and buy invisible terrains, …Shoot against the windows of a room of exhibitions, …Roast a cochinillo in some baldíos under a bridge of the river Hudson, …Compact demolitions and rubbish, …Film the subterranean constructions of the cloacas of Paris, …Shave and ducharse hanged of the needles of the clock in the high of the Clock Tower of New York, …Design spaces expositivos, …recortar Fragments of houses and carry them to the rooms of exhibitions, …Occupy abandoned buildings to cater them like social centres autogestionados, this is the class of actions that have converted to Gordon Matta-Clark in a reference ineludible for the history of the art of the last decades; an artist died before fulfilling the 35 years and that, in the very short lapsus of time of hardly 10 years of activity, has achieved to convert his work in a true compendio of the contemporary artistic practices, roturando an extremely fertile territory of the that follow  extracting powerful ideas, and procedures still valid to tackle the challenges of the present.

Ángel Cerviño

Vigo, november, 2012


[1] Dan Grahan, El arte con relación a la arquitectura. La arquitectura con relación al arte, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona 2009.

[2] Citado por Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Formalismo e historicidad, Ediciones Akal, Barcelona 2004.

[3] Brian O´Doherty, Dentro del cubo blanco. La ideología del espacio expositivo, CENDEAC, Murcia 2011.

[4] Ibídem.

[5] Darío Corbeira, “Designar espacios. Crear complejidad”, en ¿Construir… o deconstruir?. Textos sobre Gordon Matta-Clark, VV AA, Universidad de Salamanca, 2000.

[6] Gordon Matta-Clark, entrevista en Arts Magazine, mayo 1976. Citado por Darío Corbeira, Op. cit.

[7] Gordon Matta-Clark, catálogo de la exposición, Centro IVAM Julio González, Valencia, 1993.

Ángel Cerviño

Ángel Cerviño (Lugo, 1956) es artista visual y comisario de exposiciones. Su primer libro de poemas “El ave fénix solo caga canela” (DVD Ediciones, Barcelona, 2009) ha resultado ganador del XV Premio de Poesía Ciudad de Mérida. Ha publicado con anterioridad “Kamasutra para Hansel Y Gretel” (Ediciones Eventuales, Madrid, 2007), y numerosos textos críticos en torno a las nuevas prácticas artísticas y la creciente espectacularización de la industria cultural, en revistas, catálogos y publicaciones de arte contemporáneo. Ha sido miembro del consejo editorial de la revista SINAL (órgano de expresión de la Asociación Galega de Artistas Visuais) y ha participado en diversos proyectos editoriales, entre otros: Entrecruzar (CGAC, Santiago de Compostela, 2006), RETAL – Fragmentos de cultura contemporánea (Vigo, 2007-08).

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