Tragedy giggled through the art and life of Gordon Matta-Clark like a chill shadow on a sunny day. Dead at age 35, the artist was hardly a household name. His work was monumentally odd and conveys the same compelling dark Romantic penumbra as the rock star Jim Morrison--or Lord Byron, for that matter.

An exhibition surveying the fruits of his brief life is on view at Cal State Long Beach until March 2 with a show of sculpture by Steve Wood. It is the first deep look at Matta-Clark yet afforded this geography and after seeing it one has the impression that an education in the genre of earth art and massive conceptual projects is not quite complete without the experience.

Matta-Clark was, in part, a demolition artist. He liked to cut holes in old buildings. Not little mousy holes. Great gaping holes. His idea of a really good time was slicing a house in half like a magician sawing up a lady, except when Matta-Clark assaulted the old homestead it wasn’t an illusion. Needless to say, his creativity was somewhat thwarted by the narrow-mindedness of benighted individuals who failed to see the beauty of having a nice gash down the middle of the parlor or a great yawning abyss in the bedroom to tumble through when you fumble up to go to the john at dawn.

There’s just no accounting for taste.


It is not easy to discover buildings to slice up, but Matta-Clark found his mark with the zeal of a graffiti writer homing in on a subway car. Usually the victims were derelicts and usually the Sweeney Todd of the chain saw proceeded sans permission. Anarchist was part of the persona. In 1973, while sojourning in Italy, he whacked some modest triangles out of a deserted warehouse in Milan. In 1974 the art dealer Holly Solomon provided him with a pied-a-terre she didn’t need in New Jersey and he bisected it like a comic-strip house struck by lightning. The same year, he came upon a place slated for demolition in Niagara Falls and set about its aesthetic vandalization. Alas, the ape-necks of the overworld tore down the dwelling before the artist could finish tearing down the dwelling.

Matta-Clark’s finest hour may have come in ’75 when he cut a huge half-moon hole in the wall of a derelict warehouse on Pier 52 in Manhattan. The running dogs of the Establishment got wind of it, lawsuits were threatened and an arrest warrant issued. Matta-Clark fled the country. You get the impression the whole thing was a big thrill.

The exhibition at Cal State Long Beach consists of the inevitably unsatisfactory photographic “documentation” typical of such projects plus much more gratifying free-standing “sculpture.” Actually sections cut from buildings, they are like created objects trouves that carry all the poignancy of any wrecked domicile. It is always so touching to see a raggedy hunk of plaster and two-by-fours bearing a swath of grimy wallpaper with a light rectangle where a precious picture used to hang.

And thereby may hang the deepest interest of Matta-Clark’s art. Oh, there are videotapes of high-risk projects like the time he climbed a clock tower to take a shower and a shave, or the piece that involved swinging so high in trees that a fall was sure death. They are plenty compelling, but they grow all the more so when joined to Matta-Clark’s biography.


He was the son of the expatriate Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta, born in 1943 with a twin brother named Batan. Their father, according to catalogue essayist Robert Pincus-Witten was, “An unrepentant, constantly forgiven philanderer of stupefying charm, who, like Picasso, held a view of children as primarily mirroring his own beauty and potency. He liked them in the abstract although not necessarily in reality.”

The boys’ mother, Anne Clark, was a fledgling painter who was briefly swept away by Matta’s charm and mythical status. Flinty reality reared its obdurate head and a few months after the twins were born the marriage fell apart. The boys were raised by their mother in bohemian, slightly nomadic style. They drifted from Paris to Chile, California, New York and back. Anne Clark’s custody did nothing to keep the twins from constant contact with such figures as Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst and gaggles of left-wing intellectuals and moony artists.

Only the very naive think that it is either glamorous or easy to be the child of talented, high-powered parents. Even the very naive can imagine how disorienting it might be for a child to grow up in the seething center of the art scene with its offbeat values and isolated agenda. Somehow, it is a measure of the whole skewed point of view that the catalogue chronology is structured so that it juxtaposes events thus:

1948: Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated.


The transistor is invented.

Anne takes the twins to Chile.

Clearly the structure was intended to set the events of Matta-Clark’s life in historical perspective, but it has the effect of a ludicrous attempt to raise his activities to the magnitude of earth-shaking happenings. The United States blocks Cuban ports in the missile crisis. Matta-Clark enters Cornell University.

Come on.


Yet here is in part the reality of the New York art scene where Matta-Clark came to roost. Inbred and incestuous, its denizens rarely venture outside its parameters, creating a pressure-cooker ambiance where people of no importance to the overworld are cult celebrities and ideas that would seem merely flaky elsewhere are nurtured and celebrated as inspired.

Gordon Matta-Clark died in 1978. Judging by the morbid flirtation with death that singed his existence, one would not be surprised if he had been a suicide. In fact, he died of cancer. But--chillingly--his twin brother had killed himself two years earlier by jumping from the window of Gordon’s studio.

Why can’t we think about Gordon Matta-Clark’s art without thinking about his life? Partly because we are not meant to. The catalogue is loaded with eulogies from art types carrying on about the charisma of the ill-starred artist. Here lurks an unmistakable attempt to establish a myth.

Whether it is pious cant or heartfelt encomium is hard to say. Whether the artist was an inspired visionary or just a troubled neurotic is impossible to establish. It’s easy enough to weave a bargain-basement psychoanalysis of the guy’s art as a combined act of rage against his father, passion for his mother and conviction that he was himself worthless dreck . The most touching work here is outdoors on the campus. It’s called “Open House,” and is made of a big green trash dumpster that Matta-Clark divided into rooms with walls and doors like a little house. No need to call in Sigmund to help with that one.


There is something suspect about an art that will not let go of its maker’s biography and that remains as resistant to evaluation as Matta-Clark’s. Yet it is still compelling, partly as a trigger to historical insight. Clark’s period is laced with aesthetically suicide-prone artists like Chris Burden, depressive artists like Joseph Beuys and actual early deaths of artists like Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson and Andrew Wilf. All made art that looked like they could see the end coming. Was it just their own end they saw, or did they realize the world would soon be talking about something called Post-Modernism?

Like Matta-Clark, they made art easily dismissed as Apocalyptikitsch. It all leaves you thinking, “If this is so profound, why do I keep sniggering? If it’s so ludicrous, why do I want to cry?”

It’s a noticeable relief to step into the next gallery for a peek at nine pieces by sculptor Steve Wood, a New Yorker little known in these parts whose work is on view to Feb. 23. Whatever else they may be, the sculptures at least stand separate from the artist’s image. Wood makes skeletal shapes from joined lengths of wood. Often these are stretched over with a taut membrane of fabric-like model airplanes with paper skins . . . or African masks covered in animal hide.

That’s it. This work appears to mirror the effects of the Museum of Modern Art’s epochal 1984 “Primitivism and 20th-Century Art” exhibition. Although abstract, virtually every piece equates one-on-one with a famous primitive type. Wood’s “Indicator” has the grace and general configuration of the famous Chi Wara antelope heads of Mali. His “Tycho” is like a section enlarged from a Sepik River suspension-hook sculpture.


There is reason to admire this work with its Brancusi-esque suavity and nippy little spicings of Post-Mod naughtiness, but, for one observer at least, its code is just too easy to crack.