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The Reading Life: Gordon Matta-Clark's 'Conical Intersect'

July 15, 2011 |  5:55 pm

ConicalintersectWhat was he up to? That's the question at the center of any consideration of Gordon Matta-Clark, an architecture student-turned-installation artist who died of cancer in 1978, when he was just 35.

Matta-Clark doesn't have the name recognition of contemporaries such as Robert Smithson, whose work his superficially resembles, or Laurie Anderson, who was part of an "informal collective of downtown artists he brought together under the banner of anarchitecture," writes Bruce Jenkins in his monograph "Gordon Matta-Clark: Conical Intersect."

Nonetheless, Jenkins suggests, his influence is significant -- if not for the public, who remain mostly ignorant of his large-scale, space-specific installations, then for other artists who share his experimentalism and his belief in art as a social force.

For Matta-Clark, Jenkins argues, this pair of interlocking imperatives came together most vividly in "Conical Intersect," created for the ninth Biennale de Paris in 1975. The idea is simple, but with implications -- which could be said of all of Matta-Clark's work. A block from the Centre Georges Pompidou, then under construction, the artist cut into two 16th century townhouses that had been scheduled for demolition, creating a vast circular opening "contracting from the exterior towards the interior of a building (from four metres to two metres) in the manner of a spyglass."

The experimental aspects are obvious; the social, perhaps, not so much. But, notes Jenkins, part of the point was to comment on what the Pompidou project was doing to its neighborhood, while also offering a new way of looking at (and thinking about) two buildings that would be destroyed. As Matta-Clark noted in a 1977 interview:

The first thing one notices is that violence has been done. Then the violence turns into visual order and, hopefully, then to a sense of heightened awareness.... You see that light enters places it otherwise couldn't. Angles and depths can be perceived where they should have been hidden. Spaces are available to move through that were previously inaccessible.... My hope is that the dynamism of the action can be seen as an alternative vocabulary with which to question the static, inert building environment.

For his Paris project, Jenkins suggests, Matta-Clark was influenced by the son et lumiere tradition, with its sense of architecture as spectacle. But equally important was his desire to comment on "the street-drama of the construction and demolition," his sense of urban renewal as a source of flattening, of forgetting, in which the old (people, buildings, communities) are consistently uprooted or left behind. A native New Yorker, he has seen this in Manhattan in the 1950s and '60s, when Robert Moses sought to remake the city in his own image.

In the early 1970s, Matta-Clark began to express a counter-sensibility in his artwork, most notably "Pig Roast," in which he "roasted a whole pig in the derelict Lower East Side environs under the [Brooklyn Bridge] and served it up to the resident homeless population and his fellow artists," and "Fresh Air Cart," a public art collaboration in which oxygen was offered to "air-starved passersby."

There's a bit of the put-on to such projects, or perhaps more accurately of the spectacle -- again, son et lumiere. But what Matta-Clark was really exploring was the hidden intersection between the conceptual and the everyday. How does art shake us out of our complacency? How does it help us reframe the world? For Matta-Clark, the issue was never permanence -- "Conical Intersect" existed for only a few weeks before it was demolished -- but rather the challenge of teaching a new way to see.

-- David L. Ulin