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Drawn to startling drawing

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.

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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.

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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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Close scrutiny exposed a structure threatening collapse. As a Freudian-inflected metaphor for ordinary American domestic life, with its tidy public proprieties and wrenching private incivilities, “Splitting” is stunning even in documentary pictures.

Doubtless it also incorporates autobiography. Matta-Clark and his twin, John Sebastian, were children of divorce. (Given a conflicted paternal relationship, he hyphenated his mother’s maiden name.) But there’s even more to it.

As the artist laboriously split the house in two between March and June 1974, the constitutional crisis of Watergate was building to a national crescendo. The first of three articles of impeachment, charging obstruction of justice, was finally drawn on July 27, and President Nixon resigned on Aug. 8. Matta-Clark’s house was divided against itself, and it could not stand. Few saw the monumental drawing in the flesh, but it nonetheless ranks among the great political artworks of the late 20th century.

All four corners were cut from the house at the roof line, prior to demolition. At MOCA, these sculptural elements stand in the center of a large, open gallery. The room is subdivided by free-standing walls that do not reach the high ceiling. This design, with components of individual projects clustered in separate areas, handsomely emphasizes a feeling of spatial continuity appropriate to Matta-Clark’s art.

Video monitors on low plywood tables are accompanied by modest stools, adding to the casual ambience. They also offer helpful documentary film footage.

Interestingly, the actual building fragments (for “Splitting” and seven other cuts) are not too compelling as objects. Inside the museum they’re inert ruins, referring to a vanished world outside art’s institutional container. The museum becomes a secular reliquary, preserving venerated shards of art’s true cross.

The drawings, meanwhile, frequently capture your imagination, sending it into orbit. They’re what counts -- and we shouldn’t be surprised. Matta-Clark was trained as an architect. A sculpture or painting can be made without drawing first, but a building cannot. Drawing is integral to and inseparable from the architectural process.

Sculpture and painting had also long ago absorbed drawing into themselves. When Julio González and Pablo Picasso began making sculpture from welded metal rods in the 1930s, the technique was dubbed drawing in space. Alexander Calder gave it an American twist, and by 1951 David Smith made it monumental and industrial-strength.

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Even painting got in on the drawing-in-space act. Jackson Pollock loaded his brush with runny colors, literally drawing in air above canvas spread out on the floor. Where it fell to Earth, a painting appeared.

Socially engaged

Expanding on the achievements of Earthworks artists like Smithson, Michael Heizer and Dennis Oppenheim, Matta-Clark pushed the distinctive idiom of drawing in space to environmental scale. Whereas Earthworks tended to be remote, located in the wilderness or other natural redoubt, Matta-Clark remained resolutely urban and suburban. His drawings in space were socially engaged.

That too might be a legacy of his architectural training. (Who needs an architect in the primordial woods?) Either way, this engaging show, which was organized by New York’s Whitney Museum, makes a convincing case for the merits of a chain saw as a forceful drawing tool.

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christopher.knight @latimes.com

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‘Gordon Matta-Clark: You Are the Measure’

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Ends: Jan. 7

Price: $8

Contact: (213) 626-6222


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