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Drawn to startling drawing

Gordon Matta-Clark's clever use of materials -- most notably buildings -- is in evidence at MOCA.

September 17, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Is it possible to make a drawing with a chain saw?

Gordon Matta-Clark did. The output from his nine-year career was not large -- the New York artist died young, from pancreatic cancer in the summer of 1978, barely a month after turning 35 -- but virtually his entire output was drawings.

Pencil, ink and paper are much in evidence in the absorbing Matta-Clark retrospective that opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. So are other, more startling drawing materials, all uncommonly clever.

Sometimes Matta-Clark drew with a knife blade, cutting deep lines all the way through thick stacks of paper. Negative spaces become positive forms.

Often he drew with a camera. The physical edges of his photographs are played against flat and linear shapes within the picture, recorded on film with ephemeral light. Sometimes collaged together into irregular polygons, voluptuous spatial volumes get wonderfully transposed onto a flat surface.

Most memorably, Matta-Clark drew on full-scale buildings -- houses, offices, apartment blocks -- using chain saws, crowbars, chalk snap-lines, sledgehammers and other tools of the carpenter's trade. Formally he called his work "anarchitecture" -- a fusion of anarchy and architecture, meant to disrupt our habitual experience of the highly determined spaces that make up the built environment. Informally these transient works are known as building-cuts.

One cut was a simple void sliced into the wall of a derelict warehouse on a Hudson River pier. Among the last cuts was a section of a globe, which intersected the corner of a plain modern office building in Antwerp, Belgium -- Peter Paul Rubens' hometown. None of Matta-Clark's building-cuts survive.

The short-lived 1975 Hudson pier work has been grandiloquently described as an industrial rose window for a working-class cathedral of commerce. Documentary photographs instead show a rather more prosaic (and punning) hole-in-the-wall, shaped like the sail of a dinghy that might float by on the river. With sunlight streaming into dank interiors, the pictures recall Piranesi's imaginative 18th century prints of shadowy Roman interiors.

Interest in New York

Yet the reverent rose-window description does suggest the artist's hyper-local interest in New York, America's powerhouse financial center. The city was suffering severe economic hardship in the early 1970s, while facing rapacious business interests. The same Rockefeller family that supported the Museum of Modern Art uptown had spurred construction of an architecturally soul-crushing World Trade Center downtown, replacing dilapidated working-class urban neighborhoods with one of the largest, dullest Modernist building complexes ever erected.

For an artist, the difference between a benign patron and a sinister purveyor of social blight can be difficult to decipher. Matta-Clark had returned to Manhattan from Cornell's architecture school in 1969, just as the first of the twin towers was nearing completion. The later cut on the pier was unauthorized, executed as a guerrilla action, and its whimsical reference to a sailboat was telling. The sail embodied an individual imagination making its romantic mark on the rusting ruin of an industrial shipping hub.

Similarly, the 1977 Belgium piece was done at a derelict modern shipping agency. (Matta-Clark also executed this cut, "Office Baroque," on the sly.) Antwerp, a protected harbor-city, became a global trading giant more than 300 years earlier, in the Baroque era, with Rubens emerging as art history's iconic statesman-painter. Matta-Clark's best work is informed by layered cultural history, which might have something to do with his being the son of an artist -- the Chilean-born, Parisian-based Surrealist, Roberto Matta (1911-2002).

Surely his masterwork was "Splitting," a 1974 building-cut Matta-Clark executed in a rundown, two-story house in suburban Englewood, N.J. The work is the centerpiece of the MOCA show. It is represented in photographs, collages, a beautiful film shot by the gifted Liza Béar and actual building fragments cut from the house. They reveal a profound debt to the inspiration of Earthworks artist Robert Smithson.

Smithson died the year before (also young, at 35). His witty essay comparing the industrial ruins of nearby Passaic, N.J., to the monuments of Greco-Roman antiquity was published to great acclaim in 1967.

"Splitting" is a tall, narrow house that Matta-Clark sliced in half, with a pair of cuts about an inch apart and the material between them removed. Then, part of the rear foundation was dismantled, so the back of the house could be slightly lowered, dramatizing the transverse split.

The roof-to-basement cut was made crosswise. That meant that from the street, the house looked perfectly normal -- just like any other on the suburban block. But inside it was torn asunder, riven with gashes, precarious and insecure.

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