HomeVisual CultureGordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, and the Unmade House

Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, and the Unmade House

Since the Renaissance, the depiction of ruins has evoked strong emotions and sparked creativity in art. In Gordon Matta-Clark’s sculptures, both the deliberate act of decay and the documentation of it were integral aspects of the artwork, complementing the social themes it conveyed.

During the spring of 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark approached his dealers, Holly and Horace Solomon, seeking information on a house suitable for his project of cutting it in half. Coincidentally, the Solomons had recently acquired an empty house at 322 Humphrey Street in the suburb of Englewood, New Jersey, with plans for its imminent demolition, as their interest lay primarily in the land rather than the structure. Aware of the impending demolition, the Solomons allowed Matta-Clark to commence work on it for a few months before its scheduled destruction.

This house, a typical two-story structure with a porch both in the front and back, built with a balloon frame and resting on a base of cinder blocks, was constructed during the 1930s when Englewood experienced growth due to its proximity to New York City and its distance from the urban decay and disorder. However, the postwar economic downturn led to a decline in the number of occupied households. 322 Humphrey Street was just one of many vacant lots in the area, and like the apartment buildings Matta-Clark had previously repurposed, it was part of the broader cycle of profit and loss.

With the assistance and expertise of German-born artist Manfred Hecht, Matta-Clark elevated one end of the structure using jacks, which included one of the porches. He then removed a layer of cinder blocks and cut through the entire side of the building – interior and exterior – using a chainsaw. Gradually, he lowered the rear portion of the building onto the remaining blocks, leaving a gap in the cut approximately two-thirds of a meter at the top, tapering to a slit at the base.

This artistic endeavor was titled “Splitting.” In recorded footage, Matta-Clark can be seen, at various moments, shirtless, exerting force on the jacks, climbing a ladder to direct the saw, and manipulating the cuts. His dedication to the task is palpable, akin to Jackson Pollock being seen dripping paint onto canvas or Trisha Brown performing dance routines on buildings, showcasing the physical and mental commitment of the artists to their craft.

Matta-Clark described Splitting as not merely an illusionistic endeavor but rather a direct physical activity devoid of external associations. He likened the experience of making the cut to a moment of suspense, noting that the house responded “like a perfect dance partner.”

Matta-Clark’s emphasis on process echoes the approach taken by Richard Serra in his compilation of the Verb List in 1967–8, which served as the foundation for a series of films and sculptures. These verbs outlined various techniques for manipulating materials and crafting art.

Beginning with actions such as ‘to roll, to crease, to fold, to store, to bend, to shorten, to twist,’ and including actions like ‘to tear,’ ‘to split,’ ‘to cut,’ ‘to remove,’ ‘to open,’ ‘to support,’ ‘to expand,’ and ‘to light,’ all of which were executed by Matta-Clark in the creation of Splitting. Serra worked through this list without predetermined design or intention, viewing it as a means of engaging directly with the artistic process.

‘in the 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 judgment or evaluation about its definition as art or sculpture.’ [7]

While Matta-Clark’s Splitting may not have possessed the same level of open-mindedness as Serra’s experiments, the physical actions undertaken in its creation and their influence on the outcome pushed the boundaries of sculptural practice and its potential.

Despite the process involving the dismantling of the house, the work symbolized a transient alteration executed with meticulous care, imbuing it with a newfound vitality captured in film and photographs before its ultimate demise.

The division and the subsequent removal of the upper corners resulted in the outside environment penetrating the interior along those edges, albeit fundamentally different than the transitional spaces of windows or doors.

One of the film’s captions states: “The abandoned home was filled by a sliver of sunlight that passed throughout the rooms during the day.” Unlike the cuts for Bronx Floors: Threshole, the gap was not created to intersect a symbolic area but emphasized the sense of abandonment. The house ceased to be a home and was devoid of the remnants of human habitation, which had been cleared away.

Echoing the concepts underlying Cornelia Parker’s Thirty Pieces of Silver, the emotional connection between owner and dwelling had been severed, and the house no longer embodied the American suburban ideal.

Matta-Clark recognized the emotional influence buildings hold over individuals. In a notebook entry from 1976, he expressed his desire to “transform a location into a mental state.” This connection between the home and its inhabitants was evident in the letters Matta-Clark received following the unveiling of Splitting.

Several correspondences expressed discontent with his actions, accusing him of desecrating the sanctity and integrity of abandoned structures; one even likened it to an act of violation.

Matta-Clark shared the sentiment of the Situationists, believing that this idealized vision had been manipulated as a political tool by the ruling classes. They used the provision of convenient dwellings to contain and control the masses.

Additionally, this dream played a significant role in the post-war resurgence of family values in America, which was promoted through various media channels such as television programs, films, and magazines.

While the home was considered a private space, families were also encouraged to engage in a network of neighborhood relationships where conformity was valued. These relationships were portrayed as essential components of the “good life.” Matta-Clark scrutinized the motives behind the development and promotion of this dream, questioning the interests it served.

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 documenting Matta-Clark’s project nor the film provided a context of the surrounding neighborhood for the house. The catalog published by the Greene Street Loft Press initially presented the house in its original condition, followed by interior and exterior views, including one showcasing half of the house’s end, with the remaining portion still intact with floors and walls. The interior shots primarily focus on the split as the central feature, with some revealing glimpses of the external world beyond.

The cut delineates the edges of floors, stairs, and architectural elements that protrude into the surrounding space. However, these photographs serve as documentary evidence and, similar to the images of Bronx Floors: Threshole, offer a dizzying perspective, inviting the viewer to look up and down into other spaces.

Additional compositions related to this project consist of collages created from cut photographs pieced together, with the slit serving as the organizing principle. Once again, the viewer’s gaze is guided in various directions almost tactilely. As Richard Serra observed, “Perception follows its own logic… The size, scale, and three-dimensional ambiguity of film and photographs are generally accepted as one interpretation of reality.”

In June 1974, a busload of friends traveled from New York to visit the artwork, exploring the house and leaping across the gaps. They were just one group among many visitors who saw the work. The photographs reveal bare floors, suggesting that footsteps and voices would have resonated throughout the spaces.

Unlike Gilbert and George’s photographs of their home before the renovation, there was no possibility here for future habitation. Art in America noted in their review that the web of meanings and associations typically associated with houses had dissipated, allowing the building to be liberated from the burden of habitual assumptions and enabling viewers to form connections.

All that remains of Matta-Clark’s works are the documentation and portions of the buildings that he brought back into the gallery. Despite the loss of the original structures, Matta-Clark believed that the audience played a crucial role.

Rather than using architecture as a solution to housing problems—having witnessed firsthand the consequences of postwar developments—he utilized architecture as a medium for creating sculpture, actualizing the cuts of the buildings in his photographs. The performance of transforming derelict buildings and their documentation into performative works was inherent to his practice, as were the social themes conveyed through the boldness of these transformative actions.


Imogen Racz’s 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 and many articles related to sculpture and object-based art.

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