That is a Cibachrome print taken by Gordon Matta-Clark. It shows two views of his 1977 masterwork, Office Baroque, for which he carved an interlocking series of curves, spheres, and arabesques into all five floors of an abandoned office building in Antwerp, carving a careful plan of shapes day and night under the radar of the authorities and with only one constant assistant.
The following year, Matta-Clark was dead of pancreatic cancer, at age 35. His practice of slicing buildings in half and into abstract shapes, devoting himself to structures nobody wanted, was something best, and only really fully, experienced firsthand. For this reason, there are few shows of Matta-Clark’s work anywhere, and fewer still that are remotely satisfying. I can’t emphasize enough how much Transmission: The Art of Matta and Gordon Matta-Clark, which I caught at the San Diego Museum of Art last weekend, is an exception to that grim rule.
When I entered, I was drawn immediately, probably because Matta-Clark is such an art phantom, to the sound of his voice in his documentary of the making of Office Baroque. “Anything worth documenting is hard to get,” he was saying, referring to the fact that it is impossible to take in a single view of the piece, and even impossible to construct a single view on film. Depending on where you’re standing, the shapes in the floors and walls echo each other and multiply, and in certain spots, you can see all the way to the sky, through the circles cut in the roof.
As Matta-Clark is saying this in voiceover, there’s a shot of him standing at the top of the building, in what looks like an open window, looking calmly into the sun. He is young and handsome and strapping as he works, like a classic sculptural hero, but in this one moment, something very old and very sad comes through. It has to do with his continuous futile attempts at rescue—the reviving of dead buildings, only for them to be demolished later. I can’t help but think that as he stands at that window, his twin brother’s death recurs for him on some level. Batan Matta-Clark, whose instability had him in and out of mental institutions his whole life, had fallen out a window to his death just two years earlier—the window of Gordon’s SoHo loft. And of course, for us now watching the documentary, the shadow of Gordon’s own death falls on every shot.
The ostensible subject of the show is to compare the work of Matta-Clark with the Surrealist paintings of his father, Roberto Sebastian Antonio Matta Echaurren, or simply, Matta. You’d think this would bestow greater insight on the son than the very established father, but the reverse is true. The power and wholeness of the son’s formal, emotional, and experiential explorations help to suggest new ways of looking at the rather cold paintings of Matta. Matta left his family when his sons were four months old and was only intermittently involved in their lives; by his own admission, he was threatened by Matta-Clark’s inventions as an artist. Seen in this light, a kind of desperation stalks Matta’s canvases. Meanwhile, Matta-Clark’s work invokes a realm, however fleeting, of power, light, mischief, and joy.
On view in the room showing the film of Office Baroque is a dual-layered, teardrop-shaped slice of hand-laid wood floor with delicate, diagonal interlocking slats, that was cut out of the building to make the installation. In the film, you can see it being gingerly lowered from up high in the building down onto the sidewalk. It is gorgeous, and simultaneously a documentary artifact, a sculpture, and a negative sculpture. Talk about the aura of the original.
Also great is a film in which Matta-Clark went down into the underground world of Paris with his camera and shot grainy, shaky, half-visible footage not long after his brother died, as a way of following grief into its nearsighted cave.
I love the way the curator, San Diego Museum of Art’s Betti-Sue Hertz, paid attention not only to the pairing of Gordon and his father, but also to the triangulations that went between them and flowed through their lives and work, especially featuring Batan and Marcel Duchamp (Matta-Clark’s godfather).
I hadn’t known that a very young Matta-Clark had created a web of string connecting the graves in a graveyard in honor of Duchamp’s Mile of String exhibition, which literally tied together a series of Surrealist paintings with a mile of string. In this one gesture is Matta, Matta-Clark, Duchamp, death, and the tangled mind of Batan.
There are also little gems I can’t forget: a photograph of a cancer-emaciated Matta-Clark at his wedding to the artist Jane Crawford the year he died, and his yellowing academic record from Cornell, where his grades in art, architecture, and design were just so-so, and where, next to the class “Theory of Architecture” is the marking “INC” for “incomplete.” Perfect.