The artist and musician Laurie Anderson, ostensibly reminiscing about her friend Gordon Matta-Clark’s style as a conversationalist, handily summarized his work as an artist: “He really liked fragments…. He was a deconstructionist; his approach was to pull things apart. And I think when you pull things apart you can really see what’s there.” Matta-Clark is the subject of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through June 3; the show then travels to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art). You’ll find lots of fragments there, sometimes in the bluntest, most literal way–for instance, pieces of walls and floors sliced out of their architectural contexts and quite simply standing there in all their raw vulnerability–but often pieced together into new and complex wholes.

More important than the fragments, though, are the spaces left behind by their removal. Matta-Clark is the artist who is most famous for having carved a house in half from top to bottom so that the two halves split apart, opening a gap between them through which, if you’d been there to peek in, you could “really see what’s there.” Just as Robert Smithson, the subject of a fine recent retrospective that also appeared at the Whitney, left a single iconic work that everyone knows, Spiral Jetty (1970), along with a mass of equally fascinating works for the cognoscenti to immerse themselves in, so did his slightly younger, equally meteoric colleague. In Matta-Clark’s case, the iconic work was Splitting (1974), an early example of the sculptures he made by cutting through existing (though usually about-to-be demolished) buildings: Over a period of about three months, he made two parallel vertical cuts straight through the middle of a nondescript two-story suburban house in Englewood, New Jersey, removing the material left between the cuts as well as some of the foundation blocks on which the house stood so that one half slightly tilted away from the other, creating a wedge-shaped aperture between them. He also cut away the four upper corners of the house, subsequently exhibiting them as free-standing objects.

Like the spiral-shaped earthwork Smithson built in the Great Salt Lake, Matta-Clark’s gesture is simple to describe, hard to execute and larger than life–crazy, almost hallucinatory. In contrast to Smithson’s piece, it was not about adding something to existing place but about taking something away; not imposing a new reality but exposing more of the reality that is already there. In this, his work turns out to be a surprising extension of an old sculptural idea, one that would have been familiar to Michelangelo: that “carving is an articulation of something that already exists in the block,” as Adrian Stokes put it in his book Stones of Rimini, back in 1934. For Stokes, an emphasis on carving over modeling was the hallmark of modern sculpture, and he even maintained that “a carving approach to the canvas…underlay the modern movement in painting” even more than in sculpture–though of course in his day no painter had ever taken a blade to his canvas for any other reason than to rid the world and his own reputation of a botched effort. That wouldn’t happen until the ’50s, when the Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana began slashing and gouging holes in canvases that were sometimes elegantly monochromatic, sometimes gaudily encrusted with bits of glass–always with the intention of opening the virtual space of the picture up to the reality of the surrounding space, including the wall, the architectural support that pictures normally hide.

A different way of articulating reality by cutting through material was soon seen in Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, performed several times beginning in 1964, in which an audience was invited to cut away at the artist’s clothing, an act with social and psychological overtones one can well imagine. That Ono had the sculptural tradition of carving in mind is confirmed by something she wrote about Cut Piece two years later: “People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me. Finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.” The melodrama is partly about the reversal of roles: The artist has challenged the audience to act as artists–with all the freedom to express aggressive impulses, among others, that this implies–while she becomes the mere material; but because she is the artist, because the proposition and the situation belong to her, there must have been a tacit struggle for control over the event, its result and its meaning.

Such gestures of cutting or piercing are extreme and discomfiting; the same is true of Matta-Clark’s. Splitting, painter Susan Rothenberg remembered, “invited you into some very macabre participation.” Not surprisingly, he has been described by another fellow artist, John Baldessari, as “both a Minimalist and a Surrealist.” A Minimalist is supposed to work in an impersonal manner, but a Surrealist works with dreams and desires; and insofar as he is a sort of Surrealist, there is no escaping the importance of Matta-Clark’s family romance. His father was the Chilean-born Surrealist painter Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren, who usually went by the single name of Matta. But the father was mostly absent, having separated from his American wife, Anne Clark, four months after the birth of their twin sons. A high school friend recalled repeated visits to MoMA, “to look at the pictures and the girls. Surrealism was our least favorite.” Matta had studied architecture before finding his way as an artist whose work was always concerned with imaginatively disassembling the “Euclidean world” of everyday life; his son would do the same, leaving Cornell with an ingrained disdain for architects and the practice of architecture but an insatiable fascination with buildings.

You’d think showing an artist whose best-known works no longer exist would be a trying exercise for a museum, and seeing it a dry chore for viewers. That this exhibit is so involving is thanks in part to the Whitney’s presentation–dense but always lucid–but mainly to the fact that Matta-Clark was nearly incapable of letting anything he touched become visually inert. How to exhibit “dematerialized” conceptual works, ephemeral performances and geographically inaccessible earthworks was a problem that had been confronting artists well before Matta-Clark. “Documentation is fragmentary, incomplete and an inadequate surrogate for the reality of the work, leaving the viewer unequipped to do more than barely comprehend the experience,” a critic complained in Artnews in 1973. One feels this, too, with many of Matta-Clark’s earliest works. And a relic may not be much better than a document. A charred Polaroid from Photo-Fry, a performance from 1969, the year Matta-Clark moved to New York City from Ithaca, doesn’t really do much more than say, “You had to be there.” The metaphor of cooking is recurrent in Matta-Clark’s early work; it represents the idea of a sort of alchemical transformation of materials, even if the results were rarely palatable. For instance, he cooked up pots of agar that he would mix with all sorts of organic and nonorganic materials and then ferment and dry in flat trays; he hung the moldy, rumpled results like paintings.

The culmination of Matta-Clark’s fascination with cooking was Food, both an art project and a functioning restaurant–the first in SoHo–which he opened in 1971 with a number of artist and dancer friends. No loner, he was always part of a network, a community–well reflected in the catalogue to his first big posthumous exhibition, in Chicago in 1985, whose text (the source of many of my quotes here) is composed largely of interviews with some forty friends and associates, mostly artists. Food was also the beginning of his architectural cuts; while refurbishing the space, one of the team remembered, “Gordon decided to cut himself a wall-sandwich: he cut a horizontal section through the wall and the door and fell in love with it.” Also around this time he cut a piece from the wall of his studio and displayed the extract as a sculpture. He then began scouting out abandoned buildings, not hard to find in New York in those days, which he would illegally enter and cut pieces from to retrieve for display. The building fragments shown here, such as those from the 1972-73 Bronx Floors series, are surprisingly effective as sculpture, not so much a cross between Minimalism and Surrealism as between Minimalism and kitchen-sink realism–extracted layers of time as well as of materials. And with their multiple layers of wood, linoleum, plaster and so on, they are fragments composed of fragments. Yet the breakthrough (in this context the pun is unavoidable) would be the realization that the void left by the cutting could be even more powerful than the removed material.

But how to show the void? Again, the problem of documentation loomed. For many artists of this time, the solution was to present things in the bluntest, most deadpan way, employing a zero degree of style, with photographs, diagrams and texts deliberately fixed in a bureaucrat’s neutrality. Determined to avoid the “aestheticism” they associated with an outmoded form of Modernism, they forgot one of the crucial lessons of modern art: that no medium can ever be transparent. Today, paradoxically, their work displays a distinct period style that can overwhelm its content. Matta-Clark remembered that style and content are inseparable, even in works whose presentation might at first seem to exemplify a pure form of conceptual documentation. For one of his most enigmatic projects, Reality Properties: Fake Estates, Matta-Clark purchased at city auctions in 1973 fifteen tiny parcels of land in Queens and Staten Island–leftover spaces between other pieces of land, what he might have thought of as “cuts” in the property system that had been produced by anomalies of the system itself. “The description of them that always excited me the most,” the artist told an interviewer, “was ‘inaccessible.'” Apparently he never arrived at a definitive arrangement of the material from this project, though it was exhibited in 1974. Still, we can imagine that the simple framed juxtapositions of deeds of sale, maps and black-and-white photographs shown here are much like what Matta-Clark had in mind. They are indices of next to nothing. Whatever one sees merely stands in for the gap the artist is trying to point to. As critic Frances Richard once wrote of an entirely different work of Matta-Clark’s, he “enters a glitch that he did not cause but which, in a sense, he creates by noticing.” (Later, he stopped noticing, and the city repossessed the lots for nonpayment of taxes–“metabolizing” them, as the artist might have put it.) The documents do not merely record what they show; to some extent they produce it, and this is how they differ from works that might otherwise be seen as their immediate precursors, such as another conceptual investigation of New York real estate, Hans Haacke’s famous Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, which documented a slum empire on the Lower East Side and in Harlem. Haacke, more of a reporter than a poet, was interested in revealing the hidden connections of capital, not (as Matta-Clark was) in an imaginative exploration of its gaps.

With Splitting and then with the other, increasingly elaborate and playful sculptural interventions into buildings that followed, most notably in New York, Paris, Antwerp and Chicago, however, Matta-Clark jettisoned the idea of objective documentation. Instead, the actions became subjects for films, videos and photomontages that eschewed the deadpan look of the Reality Properties byproducts in favor of lyrical, baroque and elaborate aggregates of imagery that have little to do with the visual prose typical of conceptual art. Instead of simply recording the fact that a sculpture was done, these works are intended to offer, on a smaller scale, a visual equivalent for the bodily experience of exploring the dramatic and disorienting spatial effects that resulted from the building cuts. Few people ever had the full experience of not only peering at these from the outside but actually entering and exploring them. There was risk to life and limb involved; a sometime assistant recalled that Matta-Clark “would start out being very whimsical and then he would get reckless. I was constantly worried about killing people or ourselves.” The artist Lawrence Weiner really did fall through one of the works. Only those who were there can judge how accurately the experiences offered by the photomontages correspond to what they saw and felt inside the sculptures. Still, the photographs have an intensity and bravura of their own that can’t be gainsaid. They are dizzying, and you do feel like you could fall through them. In the Cibachromes of his last big projects–Office Baroque (1977), in Antwerp, and Circus or The Caribbean Orange (1978), in Chicago–the perspectives become hypnotic, Piranesian. Circular cuts in various directions seem to reveal unexpected layers not only of space but of time. The depicted cuts through floors and walls are doubled by the literal cuts to the constituent bits of film that Matta-Clark has sliced, spliced and blown up. And yet the Conceptualists were extremely suspicious. Weiner saw Matta-Clark’s photography as “one of his weaknesses,” while Joseph Kosuth thought that there was a schizophrenic relationship between the two stages of Matta-Clark’s work, the buildings and the photos, a problem only compounded by the fact that “the photographs are good.”

In the meantime, that division has resolved itself: The buildings have disappeared. Office Baroque stood for several years, and after Matta-Clark’s death a foundation was formed with the aim of creating a new museum of contemporary art around it, but it was torn down. This loss only makes the remaining traces of it on paper and film the more poignant, yet poignancy was there in all the building cuts from the beginning. “A collapsed room displays many more facets than a room intact,” Stokes observed in an essay of 1961, comparing the mingling of inside and outside in the ruined buildings he had observed in the London of the Blitz with the multiplication of aspects displayed by Cubist paintings. The rooms Matta-Clark shows us are neither collapsed nor whole; broken up but holding together, they offer no sense of security but rather of risk and exposure. They evoke anxiety yet transform it into exhilaration. They turn space inside out.

In 1978, at the age of 35, Matta-Clark was suddenly overtaken by pancreatic cancer. An artist’s early death can’t help but provoke ponderings about what might have come next; but with great artists, the question, perhaps surprisingly, becomes less urgent than with those careers that never quite fulfilled themselves. Who laments Mozart’s unwritten forty-second symphony? Matta-Clark, artist of fragments, left an oeuvre that feels whole.