In 1975, Gordon Matta-Clark, dangling from a beam on a scrap of plywood sheeting, used an acetylene torch to cut an airplane-size crescent in the steel wall of an abandoned warehouse on New York’s Pier 52. He didn’t ask permission, which was part of the point.
Charges were laid, but he was already gone to Paris, where he bored a large cone-shaped hole through the exterior wall of a 17th-century apartment building slated for demolition. When the charges were dropped, Matta-Clark returned home, where he had previously sliced suburban houses in half in New Jersey and cut sections of floor from tenements in the Bronx. By 1978, he was dead, the victim of aggressive pancreatic cancer. He was just 35.
This is the stuff of which legends are made, and so “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect” has a near-mythic air. The trim, punchy display of the artist’s gleefully radical interventions is now at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. It’s charged with both urban decay and unruly, grand scale civic activism. Matta-Clark, in the short burst of his life and career, embraced both, and left an outsize mark.
You’ll see films of both “Day’s End,” on Pier 52, and “Conical Insert,” in Paris, and an array of Matta-Clark’s photographs of New York’s virulent graffiti culture — a sign of both urban life and entropy that the artist adored. Another film here, “The Wall,” represents perhaps the artist’s most pinpoint venture, left mostly unfulfilled. Matta-Clark had planned to blow a hole in the Berlin Wall, though friends counseled otherwise. At the height of the Cold War, he settled instead for stenciling MADE IN AMERICA at various intervals on its concrete surface, and pasting ads over scribbled graffiti. For most, the wall was a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of totalitarian oppression; for him, the wall was an emblem of another, more dangerous tyranny: American-made capitalism, and architecture’s symbolic power within it.
For Matta-Clark, dismantling buildings wasn’t an aesthetic exercise or an outsize prank. It was an absurdist gesture aimed at socioeconomic schism. Matta-Clark, who trained as an architect at Cornell University in the late 1960s, had a keen sense of the built environment as the blunt instrument of economic development. Born and raised in Lower Manhattan with artist parents — Roberto Matta, a painter, and Anne Clark, who was also a fashion designer — he grew up amid worsening decay brought on by both postwar suburban flight and ham-fisted urban renewal projects railroaded through by the city’s planning czar, Robert Moses.
These were aimed at the city’s heart, leaving it hollowed to serve the masses who fled over bridges and through tunnels to the suburbs. Overtones of race and class shrouded “renewal” efforts like these all over the world. Swaths of the Bronx and Queens had been razed for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, shattering immigrant communities in its wake. SoHo was next, to be replaced by the Lower Manhattan Expresway, though local activism, led by Jane Jacobs, saved it by a hair. Matta-Clark, a child of ruin, returned from Cornell to find recently-spared SoHo lofts repopulated by squatting artists reconnecting dead plumbing and electrical services by guerilla means (Philip Glass and Richard Serra, another legend has it, were among those doing the honors).
Matta-Clark saw renewal in anarchy, and rejuvenation in laying claim. More important, maybe, was his grasp of the inevitability of urban change, which could be grinding or glorious, depending on who was in charge. To him and his early-’70s band of artist-activists, who saw in Modernism’s wipe-the-slate-clean ethos a violent erasure of history and culture both, “Anarchitecture” — their word — was a fight-fire-with-fire response.
“Conical Insert,” carved in buildings about to be demolished to make way for the ravenous Modernism of the Pompidou Centre, excavated centuries of lived experience within those walls. Matta-Clark and crew carefully preserved decor choices including wallpaper — evidence of lives lived — as they burrowed into the building’s depths. On Pier 52, with the warehouse flayed open and cathedral-like with light streaming in, Matta-Clark — arrest warrant notwithstanding — had imagined a public park.
In other words, in his wild gestures at architectural scope, he saw an opportunity for these tumbledown shambles to be remade, at human scale. Well, so much for that. He never lived to see the SoHo story become emblematic of artist-led gentrification that now seems to repeat itself in every disused industrial neighborhood in America, or the art world itself evolve into slick commodity for an increasingly-distant elite. And what Matta-Clark might have made of the New York of today, where multiple millions in private profit are squeezed square foot by square foot, with barely a breath of a civic agenda, we can’t say. But here’s a good guess. It might start with a blowtorch and end with wall carved open, to let the light in.
GORDON MATTA-CLARK: ANARCHITECT
At the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham, through Jan. 5. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose/