Gordon Matta-Clark at the Whitney

A current exhibition on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art is a fascinating tour through the visionary work of Gordon Matta-Clark, an absolute original in the 1970s New York art scene who died tragically young of cancer in 1978. Famed for his deconstructions of condemned or abandoned buildings, Matta-Clark was also a systematic documentarian of his work, and the show consists of films, photographs, sketches, and artifacts from several of his most significant projects.

Walking through the exhibit, it quickly becomes clear that even if Matta-Clark was no major artist, he was much more than a mere vandal or a prankster. His works are subtle, abstract compositions of a raw craft, carved in three dimensions with the help of Sawzalls, blowtorches, sledgehammers, winches, and some good old elbow grease. Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture” takes on playful but savagely disorienting forms one might expect from a demolition crew consisting of a crack team of Russian constructivists. Both meticulously composed and wildly improvised, his works transformed condemned spaces into a radical architecture of openness, breaking apart compartments, and permitting a flow between spaces normally divided from one another.

Like his contemporaries Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, Matta-Clark was a member of a heroic generation of artists whose works exploded out of the gallery and into the landscape, or at least in Matta-Clark’s case, the built landscape. The violence he did to the buildings appears to be a comment on the disposability of structures built for specific purposes, inhabited by human experience, and subsequently rendered obsolete. Through methods requiring intense, and often dangerous, physical labor, he literally shone light on the ordinarily unseen or neglected, with all the metaphorical resonance that implies. His cuts had the effect of reclaiming and redeeming abandoned structures in a temporary détournement, and exposing secrets hidden in the walls and underneath the floorboards. They created a new sense of wonder and possibility in cold and forgotten objects that had clearly lost their function.

Pieces such as Matta-Clark’s Splitting also resonate with Smithson’s writings, including his fascinating essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” Both sense something significant in the dross that covers so much of the landscape in and around New York City, and reflect a certain time and place in which the city appeared to be dying. Today, in an age when real estate markets devour urban landscapes for luxury condos, upscale restaurants, and art galleries, that period of languishment seems to have passed. And yet in much of the country the response to the junk architecture that covers so much of the landscape is to build more junk architecture. Where is the Matta-Clark of 2007?