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"Unreal estate": space and disappearance in Gordon Matta-Clark’s

Reality Properties. Fake Estates
Monica Manolescu
p. 107-123

Abstract

Cet article s’attache à étudier un projet inachevé de l’artiste américain Gordon Matta-Clark, intitulé Reality Properties. Fake Estates (1974). L’œuvre a une visée conceptuelle et porte sur l’usurpation de l’idée de propriété et l’exploration des espaces interstitiels à New York pendant la période néfaste des années 1970. Le concept de disparition occupe une place centrale chez Matta-Clark, car le type de pratique artistique qu’il affectionnait (la sculpture dans l’architecture, ayant comme résultat la dissection des structures architecturales) l’a constamment amené à travailler sur des constructions en ruines, qui ont toutes été démolies, sans exception. Matta-Clark nous confronte aux dilemmes et perplexités de la disparation de l’œuvre, dont il ne subsiste des traces que dans des photographies et des films. Chaque œuvre se projette d’emblée dans l’horizon de sa propre disparition. Reality Properties, tout en étant une œuvre différente des dissections, nous invite à réfléchir à d’autres aspects de la disparition, notamment la disparition prématurée de l’auteur et la prise en charge posthume de l’œuvre par un tiers, et à des notions connexes, comme l’infinitésimal et l’évanescence.

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  • 1 The trope of writing as a form of memory, which in turn transfigures personal misfortune, is a fami (...)

1The quote in the title of this article, "unreal estate", is borrowed from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, from a passage where he recalls his mother’s plea to contemplate his surroundings and store their details in memory. With the passage of time, these memories would become "an exquisite simulacrum—the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate—a splendid training for the endurance of later losses" (Nabokov 1989a, 40).1 The mother’s injunction sounds prophetic, given the loss of material possessions that his family endured at the Revolution. Nabokov’s "unreal estate" is significant for an approach to art as active remembering of a lost past, reminiscent of Proust, but in many ways different from the latter’s treatment of time. Suspended from its context, Nabokov’s phrase seems perfectly appropriate for the project to be examined in the following pages, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Reality Properties: Fake Estates (started in 1974, but completed posthumously by his wife).

  • 2 And yet, upon closer inspection, both Nabokov and Matta-Clark spent years at Cornell University wit (...)

2And yet, it would be difficult to imagine two approaches to artistic creation that stand further apart. Vladimir Nabokov’s "strong opinions" about the autonomy of art and the power of authorial transfiguration could not be further removed from Matta-Clark’s vocal expression of deep social awareness, direct involvement in the urban environment, and practice of art as intervention, disruption and occupation. Nabokov’s "intangible property" (which implies artistic transfiguration and reappropriation) and Matta-Clark’s "fake estates" (based on an absurdist parody of the limits of ownership) are predicated upon different artistic and ideological premises, but they both express a distrust of real estate, of its material and symbolic value.2 The notion of "unreal estate" projects two distinct critical models of understanding property, but which share the postulate according to which ownership is consubstantial with immateriality and evanescence, bordering on disappearance. However, Nabokov, from his position in late modernism, suggests that loss does not preclude retrieval and resurgence in fiction, whereas Matta-Clark’s experimental endeavor is a more radical embrace of art itself as verging on disappearance, in less conventional forms which combine performance, architecture, sculpture, language and various other visual documents (photography, maps, bureaucratic material).

3Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978), a major figure of the experimental art scene in New York City, is best known for his impressive building "cuts": excisions resulting from arduous sculptural gestures performed with chainsaws and sledgehammers, resulting in unsettling architectural perspectives and the questioning of the very possibility of building. Throughout his brief career, Matta-Clark pursued varied activities meant to "unbuild", to literally and symbolically displace architectural structures, together with their underlying models. Associated with the chaotic and ebullient Manhattan of the 1970s, although his family background and cultural allegiances were international, Gordon Matta-Clark made the city into his site and subject, manipulating it through subversive intervention, especially in its desolate and ruinous aspects.

  • 3 The relationship between Matta-Clark and architectural modernism is more complicated than it seems. (...)
  • 4 His major projects all involve the cutting and splitting of buildings, but at the beginning of his (...)

4Any attempt at presenting a succinct portrait of Gordon Matta-Clark is bound to mention his genealogy (he was the son of Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta Echaurren, active in South America, the United States and Europe, and American artist Anne Clark); his training as an architect at the Cornell School of Architecture, the most prestigious architectural school in the United States in the 1960s, and his subsequent questioning of the architectural lessons of modernism in his artistic practice;3 his penchant not for creating objects but for reconfiguring them just as those objects (mostly derelict houses) were about to be demolished;4 the scarce material legacy of his career, which has left behind only traces and fragments of buildings, photographs, films, letters, art cards, and interviews; the social and communal dimension of his personality resulting in the creation of the artist restaurant Food in 1971 together with Carol Goodden; the grounding of most of his work in New York City with frequent forays in Europe and projects completed in Paris, Antwerp, Genoa, Milan, Berlin and Chicago; and his premature death at thirty-five after a career that spanned only a decade.

5In what follows, I will attempt to show that Gordon Matta-Clark’s work confronts the issue of disappearance not only as theme, but rather as condition of art: first, I will acknowledge the baffling "worklessness" of Matta-Clark’s artistic production, especially as far as his architectural splittings are concerned. This "worklessness" consists in the literal disappearance of the work, which only subsists in visual mementoes. Some of the more conceptual works that have survived in an unfinished state, like Reality Properties, emerged from the gradual decline and disappearance of whole areas of lower Manhattan, which led to a quest for unconventional urban spaces to be invested and transformed by artistic practice. Finally, Fake Estates is a work partially shaped after the death of the author, urging us to reconsider the notion of posthumous authorship, and to reflect on the role played by improvisation and speculation in such uncertain circumstances. The curators of the Odd Lots exhibition place Reality Properties in the wake of Foucault’s urge to transform the negativity of the author’s disappearance into a more positive assessment of what this disappearance entails: "It is not enough, however, to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared. For the same reason, it is not enough to keep repeating that God and man have died a common death. Instead, we must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers" (Foucault 209).

Worklessness: the disappearance of the work

  • 5 Lawrence Weiner fell through Matta-Clark’s Circus-The Carribean Orange (1978), see Briony Fer, "Gor (...)
  • 6 Some remaining fragments are from Splitting (1974), called Splitting: Four Corners, in the collecti (...)

6In the introduction to her pioneering monograph Object to Be Destroyed. The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark, Pamela Lee discusses the "methodological dilemmas" raised by the "worklessness" of Gordon Matta-Clark, an artist whose body of work has disappeared, outlived by its documentation (Lee xvii). This dilemma is illustrated by the title of her book, which includes the term "work": a work that was once there to be seen and experienced from the inside (often at one’s own risk5), but was subsequently demolished because highly decrepit, usually by urban authorities, and has survived only in scattered fragments.6

  • 7 See notably Pamela Lee, 11-29, and Scheidemann, 118-123. See also Matta-Clark’s own account of Spli (...)

7The story of how Splitting, one of his most emblematic works, was performed,7 illustrates precisely the connection between transformation and disappearance. Splitting consisted in the cutting in half of a suburban house in Englewood, New Jersey, from March to June 1974. The four-bedroom house was slated for demolition as part of a redevelopment plan, and the previous tenants had been evicted. Art dealers Horace and Holly Solomon owned the house and granted Matta-Clark permission to cut the building in two. After the parallel cuts were completed, Matta-Clark and his assistants cut the top corners of the front and rear of the house and then tilted the two halves of the building.

  • 8 In the same interview, he declares: "I feel my work intimately linked with the process as a form of (...)

8Most of Matta-Clark’s work lives on in a spectral after life made up of photographs, films, art cards with aphoristic notations, maps, letters and various statements made by him and his collaborators from the artist community that he helped create between the end of the 1960s and the end of the 1970s. Exhibits of his work present mostly photographs and films, with occasional fragments of building corners and cut floors. Understood in terms of performance, the building cuts emerge out of the artist’s engagement with the present fabric of the building and its urban context, with a strong anchorage in the theatrical, bodily involvement in the un-making of the structure. He calls his performance "a theatrical gesture that cleaves structural space" (Moure 58; Matta-Clark interviewed by Donald Wall, May 1976).8Such performances can only be documented, recorded and represented as a past event. The present time of their creation gives way to the retrospective time of documentation.

9Matta-Clark revisits the theme of romantic ruins, a theme that is omnipresent throughout the American 19th century to contrast, either positively or negatively, the absence of ruins in the American landscape and their omnipresence in the European scenery. Symbols of a rich and layered past deemed vital for artistic creation (as Hawthorne presents them in the preface to The Marble Faun) or dead remainders of a past that is severed from the present and the future (as Thomas Cole sees them in his Essay on American Scenery), ruins become an aesthetic paradigm of the 1960s and 1970s, with quite different meanings, in the work of artists like Robert Smithson or Gordon Matta-Clark. Urban ruins synonymous with urban decay become fascinating in Matta-Clark’s urban projects of splitting, just as they are, from a different perspective, in Robert Smithson’s explorations of suburban entropy in A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.

Reality Properties: next to nothing

  • 9 Several factors explain the demise of New York: the port of New York lost its preeminence, as ocean (...)
  • 10 For investigations of the alternative art scene in New York City, see Christelle Terroni, New York (...)

10Urban dereliction needs to be placed in the context of the lower Manhattan of the 1960s, when the compactness of New York started to show signs of alteration: the downtown urban environment became a ruined space, with crumbling buildings interspread among structured, viable areas of architectural solidity.9 Certain observers even went as far as to say that the city was dying, as the title of Jane Jacob’s cult book spells out: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Parts of New York were disappearing and suffering increasing devastation. The 1970s saw the emergence of major public schemes for Manhattan: the conversion of Lower Manhattan into a corporate center (the World Trade Center), the construction of a roadway, south of Houston Street, that would link the east and west sides of the island and that would have affected the area that would be later known as SoHo, a disused neighborhood that was attracting a large community of artists seeking spaces for work and living. Many vacant locations downtown were renovated and appropriated by artists who transformed them into exhibition spaces and studios.10 Gordon Matta-Clark participated actively in this new approach to urban space by bringing together a community of artists around the culinary experiences of the restaurant Food, and also, on the level of artistic practice, by refusing to build and by adopting a "metamorphic" approach to existing urban constructions and sites.

11The metaphor of the desert of Manhattan and the trope of the "death" of New York introduce an unexpected perspective on the city, conventionally associated with compactness. Robert Smithson, Matta-Clark’s contemporary, in his essay on the industrial ruins of Passaic, New Jersey (1967), contrasts the density of New York City and the loose fabric of suburban New Jersey: "Passaic seems full of ‘holes’ compared to New York City, which seems tightly packed and solid, and those holes in a sense are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures" (Smithson 55). Smithson’s postulate that New York is synonymous with extreme concentration is a familiar one in the literature about the city. A famous example can be found in Henry James’s The American Scene. Returning to Manhattan in 1904 after twenty-one years abroad, James laments the congestion and relentless growth, both horizontal and vertical, of the city’s architectural structures, ruminating on the "powers of removal" of the old by the new and the "terrible erection" of tall buildings (James 434). The logic of urban development is ruled by continuous replacement and extension. Adopting a different spatial and temporal perspective, Michel de Certeau contemplates New York from the top of the World Trade Center and comments on its insatiable reinvention, whose result is an architecture of paroxysm that evacuates the past: "Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future. A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs" (de Certeau 91).

  • 11 Material for the fifteenth collage was incomplete because the site itself was inaccessible, locked (...)
  • 12 For an exploration of "nothingness" as a premise of contemporary art, see Vincent Broqua, À partir (...)

12Derelection, decline and disappearance are the dominant features of a new paradigm of the city, which contradicts the compactness, congestion and paroxysm that Smithson, James and Certeau discuss. The paradigm of urban disappearance provides the framework in which new aesthetic approaches to the city emerge. Reality Properties: Fake Estates is such an example. Unlike the building cuts, Reality Properties: Fake Estates has survived as a mixed-media work consisting of photographs, maps and administrative documents illustrating the ownership by the artist of fifteen tiny plots of land in New York. These documents were reconfigured in fourteen collages produced by Matta-Clark’s wife after his death11. Generally considered to be one of Matta-Clark’s most conceptual works, Reality Properties explores issues related to disappearance, nothingness (next-to-nothingness, in any case) and invisibility, since the project targets infinitesimal urban spaces whose existence is certified only by bureaucratic archives and the possibility of individual ownership, granted by the City of New York.12 While the building cuts had un-made architectonic structures, Reality Properties confronts a situation prior to construction, although the very idea of construction is absurd given the size of these plots.

  • 13 The Gordon Matta Clark archives in Montreal hold a catalogue for the Department of Real Estate’s au (...)
  • 14 This is the case for lot 148, block 2406 in Queens County, which was completely inaccessible from t (...)
  • 15 A fragment of footage is available from Electronic Arts Intermix. Jaime Davidovich, Reality Propert (...)

13Reality Properties began as part of an ongoing quest for alternative art spaces in New York City to which Matta-Clark was introduced by Alanna Heiss, director of the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, founded in 1971, who sought to transform abandoned buildings in New York City into art spaces. With the help of his assistant, Manfred Hecht, Matta-Clark bought fifteen minute parcels of land for 25 $ to 75 $, fourteen in the Borough of Queens and one on Staten Island, at two auctions organized by the City of New York on 5 and 16 October 1973.13 The strangeness of the project resides in the infinitesimal sizes of these plots of land with quirky shapes, and also in the inaccessibility of some of them (one was completely locked between buildings14). Their dimensions vary, but given their minuteness, it is difficult to conceive of any functional purpose they may have served. Owner of no less than fifteen pieces of "gutter space" or "curb space" that had resulted from rezoning or from the leftovers of architectural construction, Matta-Clark gathered the maps and deeds of the parcels, visited them on several occasions accompanied by friends, took photographs and measured them. Artist Jaime Davidovich filmed one of these tours15. Matta-Clark envisaged to either sell the documentation he had assembled, together with the land itself, as artworks, or to distribute the plots among artist friends for the pursuit of art projects. A 1973 article in The New York Times features Matta-Clark’s testimony after one of the auctions:

  • 16 See Dan Carlinsky, "’Sliver’ Buyers Have a Field Day at City Sales", The New York Times, 14 October (...)

Gordon Matta-Clark, a 28-year-old SoHo artist, walked away with five pieces of New York—four in Queens, one in Staten Island. "I got more than I expected", he said, "and I’m very happy about it". Mr. Matta-Clark said he intends to use his new properties in works of art he will create during the next several months. The artworks will consist of three parts: a written documentation of the piece of land, including exact dimensions and location and perhaps a list of weeds growing there; a full-scale photograph of the property, and the property itself. The first two parts will be displayed in a gallery, and buyers of the art will purchase the deed to the land as well. "I had to buy small properties because they’re manageable, I can hang the photographs on a gallery wall", the artist explained. "I have one piece that’s 1 foot by 95. It will go on a long wall. Another piece I bought I understand from the catalogue I can’t even get to. There’s no access to it, which is fine with me. That’s an interesting quality: something that can be owned but never experienced. That’s an experience in itself".16

  • 17 "One of my concerns here is with the Non-u-mental, that is, an expression of the commonplace that m (...)

14Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates grants new insight into Matta-Clark’s work, based not on his monumental (or rather "non-u-mental", as he used to call it17) urban or suburban work but rather on a small-scale project, whose meaning derives to a great extent from targeting the minute and the interstitial in the urban fabric, and by granting it a special potential (left unspecified) for creative rather than practical use. The lots constitute a system of anomalies perpetuated within the larger, orderly, system of the urban grid, the exceptions that confirm the norm. These lots hold a potential for alternative development and subversion.

15The absurd and humorous dimension of Reality Properties that ensues from the useless ownership of tiny slivers of land in New York is combined with the deadpan seriousness and meticulousness of the mapping procedures that follow: Matta-Clark used measuring tape to establish the exact boundaries of the lots, then took numerous photographs of each lot, in serial fashion, covering every inch of land with systematic and painstaking care. He left behind a box with documentation material for fourteen collages and incomplete elements for the fifteenth estate. The project is both a form of institutional critique and a way to revisit American myths related to land use: property, home, land surveying, ownership inscribed in the American Dream. The figure of the surveyor looms large over Matta-Clark’s ritual of measuring and listing of plants (the latter was never conducted). The contradictions inherent in the surveyor become apparent early on in American cultural history with Henry David Thoreau, who was torn between the pleasure of exploring nature made possible by land surveying and the reticence at being part of a transactional system in which his activities were crucial in settling disputes, buying and selling.

16Surveying territories as small and anti-functional as the slivers of Reality Properties becomes significant only on a metaphorical level, where the minuteness and next-to-nothingness become relevant as alternative urban features, on the fringes of artistic practice. Matta-Clark is not the only artist to explore urban and suburban marginality in the 1970s, which had turned into a fascinating focus in the previous decade, in the work of Vito Acconci or Robert Smithson. But Matta-Clark is interested in a different paradigm of concepts that connects ownership, urban space, the infinitesimal and anti-functionality in a poetic exploration of uselessness. Matta-Clark’s project was only one in the series of a group discussing strategies of "anarchitecture" (anti-architecture or a-architecture). The slivers he bought were anticipated by a poem he sent to the "anarchitecture" group in 1973, which puts forth the idea of interstice, the space in between that passes unnoticed:

THE SPACE IT TAKES TO HOUSE ENEMIES
" " " " " " LOVERS
" " " " " DODGE A BULLET
" " " " " REMOVE " "
" " " " " " YOUR HAT
" " " " " " " " HOUSE
" " " " " " " " " "
(Matta-Clark’s "Letter to the meeting", 6 December 1973, quoted in Kestner 62).

  • 18 For an analysis of the place of language in the work of Matta-Clark, see Frances Richard, "Remove Y (...)

17Such lyrical notations are typical of Matta-Clark, who filled many index cards with brief remarks or metaphoric statements that are increasingly seen as relevant to his artistic practice, participating in its plural expressions.18 In the above poem, the gradual disappearance of words takes us to a world of growing silence, where the ditto marks suggest recurrent ellipsis but also an occupation of space on the page. The slivers, just like the missing words and the punctuation that signals their place, are microscopic absences that Matta-Clark identified as "metaphoric voids, gaps, left-over spaces, places that were not developed" (Kestner 64). The disappearance of New York and the disappearance of words also carry an undeniable potential: it is in the interstices of the grid, in the interstices of poetry that the possibility of artistic novelty originates.

The disappearance of the author

18The notion of potential can also be projected on Reality Properties as it exists today. One of the most striking and intriguing features of the Fake Estates project consists in its reconstructed nature, with absolutely no certainty about the shape the project took (or might have taken) when Matta-Clark was still alive and a vague recollection that according to the artist any shape would have been acceptable. Such hesitation and flexibility open a field of possibilities after the disappearance of the author and confront us with a work that, in its posthumous state, constitutes only one configuration among many. The reconstruction of the work becomes a feat of the imagination and an attempt to project oneself in the intentionality of the absent author. Two other problematic aspects of the work results from two distinct questions: the first has to do with Matta-Clark’s original and iconoclastic redefinition of art through the use of unorthodox methods and materials: consequently, was Fake Estates a new kind of artwork, more conceptual than the "splittings"? The second problematic aspect is related to the debated seriousness of Fake Estates, since the jocular element is manifest and brings the work close to a Surrealist game. Jane Crawford stresses the nonsensical dimension of the work: "at that time, most people didn’t know what to make of Gordon’s art. Even his friends often weren’t sure if Gordon was making art or just fooling around" (Kestner 52). Given the artist’s growing reputation and his subsequent recognition as a major experimental pioneer, the work itself has been recognized as a work and has entered the regime of seriousness that academics and art critics usually associate with relevant artistic practices, its humorous aura obscured by scholarship.

  • 19 Some of the Fake Estates collages are now in private and public collections, while others remain in (...)

19The "Anarchitecture" group to which Matta-Clark belonged organized an exhibit at 112 Greene Street, the gallery run by Jeffrey Lew, only two blocks away from Food, in 1974, and Matta-Clark showed a series of collages of Fake Estates, but no record of the exhibit or the actual configuration of the collages subsists. Gordon Matta-Clark gave Norman Fisher the box telling him, according to Jane Crawford, that "he could assemble the pieces any way he wanted. They didn’t have to be done sequentially or even kept separated by property. They could be assembled in a crazy shape, or left loose in a pile" (Kastner 51). When both Matta-Clark and Fisher died a few years later, the documents were left in a cardboard box and the fifteen plots of lands returned to the ownership of the city for nonpayment of taxes. In 1992, Jane Crawford found the box when a retrospective of her husband’s career was organized at the IVAM Centro Julio Gonzalez in Valencia in 1992, and produced her own collages of Reality Properties. Fake Estates, reconstructing them according to her recollections of Matta-Clark’s descriptions and also according to the recollections of the friends that assisted him.19 From that moment on, Fake Estates was granted the status of accepted "artwork" and entered the official circuit of exhibition and ownership by individual collectors and museums. Issues of authenticity and authorship bothered the Guggenheim Museum when it acquired Reality Properties. Fake Estates—Little Alley Block 2497, Lot 42. Curator Nancy Spector decided to go on with the acquisition but presented it as a posthumous collage (Kastner 57). Spector rightly points out that much of the work of the period was never actually meant to be a conventional "work" falling in the categories of traditional mediums, as for instance Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque (1969), also owned by the Guggenheim, which was a talk / performance accompanied by thirty-one photographs he took in Palenque, Mexico.

20The titles of the fourteen collages were given by Jane Crawford posthumously: Jamaica Curb or Maspeth Onions, more appealing and easier to remember (according to her) than "GMC-1221", the administrative labels of the sites (Kastner 54). The names she chose have stayed with us and have become the reference in the literature on Matta-Clark.

21Clearly, the conceptual nature of the work welcomes such assemblies and reshufflings. Crawford’s gestures of reassembling the work can still be questioned, as Lee does when she suggests that Crawford’s refraining from reassembling the collages would have made the conceptual nature of the work much stronger, but Lee accepts the fundamental "variability" of Fake Estates (Kastner 59).

22The catalogue of the exhibit organized around Fake Estates by Cabinet magazine and the Queens Museum of Art in 2005 starts by evoking in its introduction the relevance of Foucault’s discussion of the disappearance of the author and ends up by reviving the author, collecting evidence from Gordon Matta-Clark’s interviews and from the testimonials of his friends and collaborators in order to surmise what directions the project was meant to take (5). Such a projection into authorial intention and into speculative debates with people having known Gordon Matta-Clark is a risky consequence of working on contemporary material that favors ephemerality and embraces its own disappearance. The embryonic quality of Fake Estates grants it an equally spectral life of eternal project, an ever-incipient process that leaves room for speculative and imaginative projections, but also demands a strong grounding in the existing documents. Reality Properties is formless not in Bataille’s sense that Bois and Krauss give to much of Matta-Clark’s work ("l’informe"), but in the sense of suspended in the process of acquiring a form.

23Matta-Clark brings forth an aesthetic vision and an understanding of the city that is deeply preoccupied with the potential of disappearance, not only as theme (finding inspiration and material in decline and ruins), but also as aesthetic state: imagining a work that is contingent upon its own impending disappearance. This paradoxical creation that is doomed to vanish and to live on only as a memory acquires an additional layer of complexity, playfulness and variability in the Reality Properties project, a work whose posthumous reconstruction confronts us with the ever present specter of authorial intention, but without any certainty that the author’s (unexpressed and unfathomable) intentions have actually been respected. Frozen in a version of itself, the work in its present state acknowledges the hesitations and choices made after the author’s disappearance, forcing us to imagine its unexplored possibilities. Contrary to Nabokov’s celebration of "unreal estate" living on in the retrieved memory of its former plenitude, Matta-Clark’s "unreal estate" is a critical investigation of art sinking into evanescence, cherishing minuteness and embracing its own disappearance. Two distinct visions thus meet in the particularly apposite coinage of "unreal estate" which shows the ambiguity of linguistic formulation uncovering contrary conceptual models of artistic creation.

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Notes

1 The trope of writing as a form of memory, which in turn transfigures personal misfortune, is a familiar one in Nabokov. The play on "real estate" shows up again in one of Nabokov’s letters in which he sketches the early stages of a project that will turn into the novel Pale Fire: the geography of Zembla is based on a series of slippages of terrestrial coordinates that "a real-estate mind would call 'realistic'" (Nabokov 1989b, 213). Nabokov, who did not have "a real estate mind", produced skewed cartographies with destabilizing landmarks and contours.

2 And yet, upon closer inspection, both Nabokov and Matta-Clark spent years at Cornell University without overlapping, the former teaching from 1948 to 1959, the latter studying architecture from 1963 to 1968, and both shared a preference for puns and playful linguistic formulation written down on index cards. Beyond these obvious intersections, one can also notice their common transitional position between modernism and its various legacies, as well as their multilingual background, their reworking of a plurality of literary and artistic traditions, their iconoclastic attitude to authority, and their shared sense of not having a home and constantly contemplating the impossibility of one. Nabokov’s fierce dismissal of a certain number of honorable literary masters is couched in a violently physical language that Matta-Clark would have appreciated: "what some call the Literature of Ideas (…) very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann" (Nabokov 1991, 315).

3 The relationship between Matta-Clark and architectural modernism is more complicated than it seems. For a nuanced assessment see Anthony Vidler, "Gordon Matta-Clark", Artforum, May 2007, 364-365, and Stephen Walker, Matta-Clark. Art, Architecture, and the Attack on Modernism, London: Tauris, 2009. For Matta-Clark, the study of architecture was a point of entry into art, both art-making and art history.

4 His major projects all involve the cutting and splitting of buildings, but at the beginning of his career he produced works that focused on the transformation of objects or matter, illustrating an original take on entropy: Photo-Fry (1969), which was also a performance in which he cooked Polaroids of Christmas trees on a stove and then mailed them to friends (among whom Robert Smithson), and Museum (1970), an installation that displayed trays of nondescript, but aesthetically stunning combinations of organic and chemical matter—yeast, sugar, agar, vegetable extracts that kept changing their configuration while on display—as well as aerial performances, like Rope Bridge (Ithaca, New York, 1969) and Tree Dance (Vassar College, New York, 1971). In 1974, Liza Bear asked Gordon Matta-Clark: "Have you ever made things as such, or have you always worked by removing or tampering with existing structures?" He answered: "I build in renovating lofts, but I’ve certainly not built any objects recently!" (quoted in Diserens, 165).

5 Lawrence Weiner fell through Matta-Clark’s Circus-The Carribean Orange (1978), see Briony Fer, "Gordon Matta-Clark’s Color Cibachromes", 138.

6 Some remaining fragments are from Splitting (1974), called Splitting: Four Corners, in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Others are from Bingo, entitled Bingo: Three Building Fragments (1974), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. See Christian Scheidemann, "Gordon Matta-Clark’s Object Legacy", in Elizabeth Sussman ed., Gordon Matta-Clark. You Are the Measure, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art/New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007, 118-123.

7 See notably Pamela Lee, 11-29, and Scheidemann, 118-123. See also Matta-Clark’s own account of Splitting in Liza Bear’s interview, 1974, in Diserens, 163-169.

8 In the same interview, he declares: "I feel my work intimately linked with the process as a form of theater in which both the working activity and the structural changes to and within the building are the performance." (Moure 66)

9 Several factors explain the demise of New York: the port of New York lost its preeminence, as ocean passenger travel declined and freight transportation relocated to the New Jersey coast; large areas of Lower Manhattan were plagued by demolition and lack of interest from investors after the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, included in Truman’s Fair Deal. Thus, it was more profitable for landlords and the city administration to liquidate aging houses and failing infrastructures rather than maintain them. Robert Moses was responsible for many "revitalization" programs that failed to materialize for years. It was only in the mid-1980s that a full-scale gentrification started. Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) was the expression of the fierce grassroots opposition to urban renewal projects. On the artistic responses (photography in particular) to the decline of New York in the 1970s, see the catalogue edited by Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp, with Kristin Poor, Mixed Use, Manhattan. Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present, Madrid: Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia/Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2010.

10 For investigations of the alternative art scene in New York City, see Christelle Terroni, New York Seventies. Avant-garde et espaces alternatifs, Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015; Julie Ault ed., Alternative Art New York. 1965-1985, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. For an even larger timeframe, see also Lauren Rosati & Mary Anne Staniszewski eds., Alternative Histories. New York Art Spaces. 1960 to 2010, Cambridge: MIT Press/New York: Exit Art, 2012. On SoHo as an artist neighborhood, see Charles R. Simpson, SoHo: The Artist in the City, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981 and Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman, New York 1960. Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial, New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995, 259-277.

11 Material for the fifteenth collage was incomplete because the site itself was inaccessible, locked at the point where three buildings meet.

12 For an exploration of "nothingness" as a premise of contemporary art, see Vincent Broqua, À partir de rien.

13 The Gordon Matta Clark archives in Montreal hold a catalogue for the Department of Real Estate’s auction of the surplus city-owned real estate, dated 29 January 1974, with a phone number in Matta-Clark’s hand on the cover, reproduced in Jeffrey Kastner et al. eds., Odd Lots, 41.

14 This is the case for lot 148, block 2406 in Queens County, which was completely inaccessible from the street, bordered on all sides by buildings.

15 A fragment of footage is available from Electronic Arts Intermix. Jaime Davidovich, Reality Properties: Fake Estates. The Queens Project, 1975, video, 7 minutes, black and white, sound.

16 See Dan Carlinsky, "’Sliver’ Buyers Have a Field Day at City Sales", The New York Times, 14 October 1973, Real Estate Section, pages 1 and 12.

17 "One of my concerns here is with the Non-u-mental, that is, an expression of the commonplace that might counter the grandeur and pomp of architectural structures and their self-glorifying clients." (quoted in Muir 103)

18 For an analysis of the place of language in the work of Matta-Clark, see Frances Richard, "Remove Your House: Gordon Matta-Clark’s Physical Poetics", in Kestner, 62-71. Matta-Clark’s index cards have recently been published under the title Art Cards / Fichas de arte (2014).

19 Some of the Fake Estates collages are now in private and public collections, while others remain in the Gordon Matta-Clark estate administered by Jane Crawford and the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Monica Manolescu, « "Unreal estate": space and disappearance in Gordon Matta-Clark’s », Caliban, 56 | 2016, 107-123.

Electronic reference

Monica Manolescu, « "Unreal estate": space and disappearance in Gordon Matta-Clark’s », Caliban [Online], 56 | 2016, Online since 01 October 2016, connection on 25 November 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/5703 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.5703

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About the author

Monica Manolescu

Université de Strasbourg

 

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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