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.