Imogen Racz / Visual Culture

Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, and the Unmade House

The ruin has been an emotive and imaginative feature of art since the Renaissance. In Gordon Matta-Clark’s sculptures, the performative act of dereliction and documentation were as intrinsic to the work as the social themes it articulated. 
Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting and the Unmade House

In the spring of 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark approached his dealers, Holly and Horace Solomon, and asked whether they knew of a house that he could cut in half. As it happened, they had recently purchased an empty, soon to be demolished house, 322 Humphrey Street in the suburb of Englewood, New Jersey – they were interested in the underlying lot rather than the building itself. As the house was going to be pulled down, the Solomons let Matta-Clark work on it for a few months prior to its destruction. [1] It was an ordinary balloon-framed, two-storey house, with a porch back and front and a base of cinder blocks. It was built during the 1930s when Englewood was expanding due to its proximity to New York City and its separation from the decay and lawlessness of the inner city. However, with the postwar economic downturn there had been a decrease in the number of households. [2] The house at 322 Humphrey Street would have been only one of a number of empty lots, and, like the apartment buildings that Matta-Clark had appropriated, was part of the larger system of profit and loss.

Having enlisted the knowledge and help of the German-born artist Manfred Hecht, Matta-Clark jacked up one end of the frame, including one of the porches, removed a layer of cinder blocks, and cut through the entire side of the building – inside and out – with a chainsaw. Gradually he lowered the back of the building onto the remaining blocks, leaving a gap in the cut of about two-thirds of a metre at the top that tapered to a slit at the base. [3] He called this work Splitting, and part of the filmed record features Matta-Clark stripped to the waist, at different times pulling hard on the jacks, up a ladder directing the saw and manipulating the cuts; he appears to be as engrossed in his work as Jackson Pollock in the films that show him dripping paint onto canvas, or indeed Trisha Brown in films of dance performances in which she scales buildings and creates improvised urban encounters. All show the artists’ physical and mental engagement with their work and are performances of a type. When writing about Splitting, Matta-Clark also gave the house its performative role, saying that having made the cut there was a real moment of suspense about how the house would react, but that it responded ‘like a perfect dance partner’. [4] Matta-Clark wrote that the production of the work was not illusionistic, but that it was ‘all about a direct physical activity, and not about making associations with anything outside it.’ [5]

The importance that Matta-Clark laid on process has overtones of the Verb List that Richard Serra compiled in 1967–8, which formed the basis of a series of films and sculptures. [6] These verbs described possible techniques for manipulating material and creating art. They start with ‘to roll, to crease, to fold, to store, to bend, to shorten, to twist’, and include ‘to tear’, ‘to split’, ‘to cut’, ‘to remove’, ‘to open’, ‘to support’, ‘to expand’ and ‘to light’, all of which Matta-Clark performed in the creation of Splitting. Serra worked through the list without design or intention, but as a way of involving himself:

‘in a process of making so that [he] could understand the physical potential of what it was to do something in relation to material without having to get into a hierarchy of judgement or evaluation about its definition as art or sculpture.’ [7]

Although Matta-Clark’s Splitting was not as open-ended as Serra’s experiments, nonetheless the physical acts involved in making the work, and how these fed into the result, expanded ideas about the edges of sculptural practice and what it could be. Even though the house itself was being unmade, the work represented a brief change of state executed with care and precision, which gave it a new life that was documented in film and photographs, before the final destruction.

The split, and the later cutting away of the upper corners, meant that the outside permeated the inside along those edges, but in a fundamentally different way from the liminal zones of windows or doors. As the film stated in one of its captions: ‘The abandoned home was filled by a sliver of sunlight that passed the day throughout the rooms.’ Unlike the cuts made for Bronx Floors: Threshole, the gap was not made to cut across a symbolic area, but served to make the abandonment more obvious. The house was no longer a home, and no longer had the debris of habitation – these had been removed. In parallel with the ideas underpinning Cornelia Parker’s Thirty Pieces of Silver, the emotional bond between owner and dwelling place had been severed, and the house was no longer invested with the American suburban dream.

Matta-Clark understood the psychic power of buildings over people. In one notebook from 1976, he wrote that he wanted to ‘convert a place into a state of mind’. [8] This bond between home and occupant was articulated in the correspondence that Matta-Clark received after Splitting was opened for viewing. A number of letters complained about what he had done, saying that he had violated the sanctity and dignity of abandoned buildings; one even likened it to rape. [9]

Matta-Clark felt, like the Situationists, that this dream had been used as a political tool by the ruling classes through the provision of convenience and dwellings, in order to contain and control the masses. [10] It was also integral to the return to family values in America after the war, which were promoted in television programmes, films and magazines. While the home was seen as private, the family was also encouraged to be part of a network of neighbourhood relationships, where conformity was important, but these relationships were ‘sold’ as intrinsic to the ‘good life’. [11] Matta-Clark questioned the interests involved in developing this dream and then providing for it:

The very nature of my work with buildings takes issues with the functionalist attitude to the extent that this kind of self-conscious vocational responsibility has failed to question or re-examine the quality of life being served. [12]

Neither the photographs that Matta-Clark took to document the project nor the film set the house within the context of the surrounding neighbourhood. The catalogue that was published by the Greene Street Loft Press showed the house first in its original state, with subsequent images depicting interior and exterior views, including one that depicts half of the house end on, with the floors and walls intact in the remaining portion. [13] The shots from the inside have the split as the formal determinant, with some revealing the real world beyond. The cut creates the edges of the floors, stairs and architectural structures that jut into the enveloping space. However, these photographs are not just documentary evidence but, like the images for Bronx Floors: Threshole vertiginously look up and down into other spaces. Other images related to this project are compositions made up of cut photographs pieced together, with the slit being the organising principle. Again, the eye is directed up, down and around in an almost sensuous manner. As Richard Serra wrote, ‘Perception has its own logic […] The size, scale, and three-dimensional ambiguity of film and photographs is usually accepted as one kind of interpretation of reality.’ [14]

A coach full of friends came from New York in the June of 1974 to see the work, and wandered around the house, jumping across the gaps. [15] This was only one set of many visitors who came. The photographs show the floors devoid of covering, so footfall and voices would have echoed around the spaces. Unlike the photographs by Gilbert and George of their home before renovation, here there was no potential for future dwelling. As the review in Art in America said, the web of meanings and associations linked to houses had gone, leaving the building freed from the weight of habitual assumptions, and the viewer open to make his or her own links. [16]

All that remain of Matta-Clark’s works are the documentation and sections of the building that he brought back into the gallery. However, in spite of the loss of the original, Matta-Clark felt that the audience was crucial. [17] Rather than using architecture as a means of solving housing problems – he had seen first-hand the effects of postwar developments – he worked through architecture to make sculpture, and enacted the cuts of the buildings in his photographs. [18] The performance of making and turning derelict buildings and documentation into performative works was intrinsic to his work, as were the social themes articulated through the audacity of these transformative acts. ■

Art and the Home: Comfort, Alienation and the EverydayImogen Racz new book Art and the Home: Comfort, Alienation and the Everyday is out now. She is Senior Lecturer in Art History at Coventry University, and her other publications include Contemporary Crafts, as well as many articles related to sculpture and object-based art.
[1] Lee, Object to Be Destroyed, p. 11.
[2] For a discussion of the move to suburbia, see M. A. Jones, The Limits of Liberty: American History 1607–1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 576–7. For information about the development and history of Englewood, see ‘Historic Englewood’, City of Englewood [website]. Available at http://www.cityofenglewood.
org/content/1445/2257/default.aspx (accessed 7 August 2014).
[3] See photographs in Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (New York, NY: Green Street Loft Press, 1974) [unpaginated].
[4] Quoted in Jenkins, Gordon Matta-Clark: Conical Intersect, p. 63.
[5] Lee, Object to Be Destroyed, p. 21.
[6] Matta-Clark knew Serra and Serra was one of the visitors who saw Splitting.
[7] ‘Transcript of the John Tusa interview with Richard Serra’, BBC Radio 3 [website]. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nc9n3 (accessed 7 August 2014).
[8] Attlee and Le Feuvre, Gordon Matta-Clark: The Space Between, p. 40.
[9] Ibid., p. 41.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Lynn Spigel, ‘The suburban home companion: Television and the neighbourhood ideal in postwar America’, in Beatriz Colomina, ed., Sexuality and Space (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), p. 186.
[12] Quoted in Lee, Object to Be Destroyed, p. 239.
[13] Matta-Clark, Splitting [unpaginated].
[14] Richard Serra, ‘Statements: On frame’, Artforum (September 1971) [special film issue], p. 64.
[15] Lee, Object to Be Destroyed, p. 28.
[16] Al Brunelle, ‘The great divide: “Anarchitecture” by Matta-Clark’, Art in America lxii/5 (September/October, 1974), p. 92.
[17] Attlee and Le Feuvre, Gordon Matta-Clark: The Space Between, p. 40.
[18] For an interesting discussion about the performative aspects, see McDonough, ‘How to do things with buildings’, pp. 164–237.
Exterior shot of Splitting at 322 Humphrey Street via Zero1 magazine.
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2 thoughts on “Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, and the Unmade House

  1. Pingback: Painting as Urban Archeology | In/Site: reflections on the art of place

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