112 Greene Streete:
The Early Years (1970-74)
Radius Books, $50
Bruce Jenkins’ Gordon Matta-Clark: Conical Intersect (2011) reads the artist’s 1975 work on Rue de Beaubourg in terms of a kind of un-shrouding of Paris. Jenkins’ detailed documentation of Matta-Clark’s process is itself revealing, peppered with quotes that define the work primarily as a critique of the planned Centre Pompidou, citing a title card in the Conical Intersect film that describes the work as “non-u-mentally carved through plaster and time to mark the skeletal steel backdrop of the soon-to-be Centre Beaubourg.” He also reads Conical Intersect through its filmic representation created by Marc Pettijean, a document of Matta-Clark’s laborious intervention on the site. Jenkins’ meditation on Conical Intersect brings focus to the social conversation about the work on the streets of Paris. Citing Matta-Clark’s discussions with passing pedestrians, he notes an oft-cited anecdote about a “charwoman” who understood the cuts astutely in terms of how they opened up the dark cramped space of the building to air and light. Pettijean’s film of the work also lends credence to Jenkins’ reading of it as pervaded by “a certain cinephilia,” noting that “much as the work turned on a spatial intervention, it was its temporal dimensions that in the end defined it.”
Courtesy Radius Books
This slightly recalibrated analysis of Conical Intersect as temporal defines Matta-Clark’s architectural cuts in terms of the body, enabling Jenkins to trace Conical Intersect neatly to its antecedents in his early work at 112 Greene Street. Jenkins’ focus on duration is further sanctioned by the film’s lengthy meditation on Matta-Clark’s bodied negotiations with the buildings, a logic that refers to the intense dance work performed in the rooms of 112 Greene Street. Matta-Clark’s “social indignation,” according to Jenkins, about the city’s inequities is translated into critique through physical engagement with the marginal spaces in the city—through deconstructing abandoned buildings and inhabiting neighborhoods rampant with decay. Occupation of these urban margins facilitated an art practice engaged directly with the city’s detritus, a process that had much in common with the spatial work of dancers such as Suzanne Harris, Rachel Wood, and Tina Girouard at 112 Greene Street during Matta-Clark’s residency. Jenkins mentions this in the context of Matta-Clark’s origin story, but nonetheless gives short shrift to the immense impact that dance had on his mobilized spatial interventions.
The recent catalogue published for the exhibit 112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–74) gathers the oral history of nineteen of the original gallery’s artists and situates Matta-Clark’s work within a particular time, space, and artistic alterity. It also reveals the central role of dance in defining the group’s approaches to space.
Discussions of embodied art practice tend to treat bodies as generic, suppressing the gender differences and the effect of such difference of the experience of being in the world. Diane Agrest has analyzed the way space is gendered and women’s bodies marginalized, noting however that “rather than worshipping the monuments [women] take a critical view of…the rules of architecture.” The critique of architecture that Argrest argues is made possible by the experience of a female gendered body also shows the position of alterity from which the dancers at Greene Street launched their spatial experiments. Matta-Clark draws on the embodied spatial experiments of artists such as Suzanne Harris.
Though Matta-Clark receives the most attention in the 112 Greene Street exhibit, the foregrounding of the dance work of Suzanne Harris and Rachel Wood recognizes the extent to which their work defined the radical nature of the group’s spatial interventions. In this light, Matta-Clark appears much more centered in the dance world, and the physicality of his work creates affinities with these dancers that re-situates his work as an extension of an initially gendered practice. The catalogue’s interviews expose the role the Natural History of Dance group played in creating Green Street’s program of radical performance and urban intervention. Suzanne Harris is shown rigging her body into the air in a work called Flying Machine (1973) that used a harness and pulley system that is uncannily similar to the one we see Matta-Clark using to negotiate the vertical space of the Humphrey Street building a year later in the work Splitting (1974).
Though the “split” of Humphrey Street is the visual-analytical artifact that makes Matta-Clark’s work so compelling, his dancerly engagement with the house is clearly central to the meaning of the work. His joy in feeling the home respond to his body is captured in Matta Clark’s declaration that the Humphrey Street building “performed ‘like a perfect dance partner’ when it finally gave way to his shoulder.”
The extreme physicality of Matta-Clark’s work refuses to act according to the prescribed spatial sequences of the city, and instead works through the tropes of dance to create the city anew. As Matta-Clark was commissioned by larger institutions to create building cuts for them, he reasonably worried that the cut had lost its critical effect and would become nothing more than a design element. Such stasis threatened Matta-Clark’s social agenda, as he always sought to destabilize the systems that reified social stratification. Towards the end of his career, before he died at age 38, Matta-Clark expressed the desire to begin working with ropes, nets, and balloons to experiment with spatial suspension through ephemeral material, and interstitial spaces. This unrealized turn toward more fluid structures shows the continuum of Matta-Clark’s work and grounds his practice in the experimental dance work first articulated at 112 Green Street.