Odd Lots Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estates

by Donald Goddard

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In 1973 and 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark bought at New York City auction some 3,500 square feet of property, about the size of an average artist's loft in downtown Manhattan. The property wasn't in one place but in fifteen different places: fourteen in Queens, one in Staten Island. He didn't do anything with his purchases except to keep the City documents for them, photograph and measure them (the ones he could), talk about some ideas for them, and refer to them in writing.

It was another artist, Jaime Davidovich, who filmed Matta-Clark and their friend Betty Sussler visiting and measuring the sites. And it was Matta-Clark's wife, Jane Crawford, who pieced together the documents and photographs (one a string of 29 photographs representing a plot of 355 by 2.33 feet) in collages for fourteen of the properties. The cardboard box containing documents and photos was given by Matta-Clark to his friend Norman Fisher in 1976. Fisher died in 1977, and the box was returned to Crawford in 1979 or 1980, after Matta-Clark's own death in 1978. The assemblages were then made for exhibition in 1992 in Spain, though deed to the properties themselves had long since reverted to the City for nonpayment of taxes, which had amounted to something like $25 a year.

There are so many ways in which these parcels of space barely register, or are deliberately played down, yet they are among the most evocative things Matta-Clark did as an artist and person, partly because there is no separation between the two; one cannot be forgotten for the other.

The properties themselves are anomalies of the city grid, of the way the city has been mapped and made accessible for use, in most cases inexplicable in their reasons for being. They were available because they were there, left over, but because of their shape or size or placement they couldn't be used for almost anything one might want to use them: storage or gardening or residing, for instance (though there are two or three that one's body, several bodies, or some rudimentary structure might occupy). In the middle reaches of Queens, along curbs, between houses, even inside a building, they probably wouldn't even serve as speculative investments with which to hold up developers.

They are, nonetheless, spaces in the world, openings that connect and offer perspectives in every direction, into the fabric of the city, the lives of people, just as Matta-Clark's later splittings of buildings and cutting shapes in them acted as penetrations and revelations of interior life, the creation of pictures in or on actual landscapes. Their use-value is existential.

They are anti-property rather than property, gift rather than theft. Fake Estates or Fake Estate, whether thought of as a series of properties or a single entity identified with its buyer, opens up all kinds of possibilities for artists who have come after Matta-Clark.

In their spring 2003 issue, the editors of Cabinet magazine -- Sina Najafi, Jeffrey Kastner, and Frances Richard -- commissioned and published projects by artists Jimbo Blachly, Matthew Northridge, and Clara Williams based on three of the properties. They then solicited work by fifteen artists -- Francis Als, Isidro Blasco, Mark Dion, Maximilian Goldfarb, Valerie Hegarty, Julia Mandle, Helen Mirra, Dennis Oppenheim, Sarah Oppenheimer, Dan Price, Lisa Sigal, Katrin Sigurdardottir, Jane South, Jude Tallichet, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles -- for an exhibition around the Fake Estates that was mounted at White Columns.

Crawford's collages and the placement of the fifteen Estates on the great map of New York were concurrently to be seen at the Queens Museum. In a city that is already obviously complex, the estates suggest an even greater degree of complexity, along lines that are formally, if not functionally, comprehensible. These places are perhaps most appropriately perceived brick by brick, as almost subatomic or particulate continuities. Most of them are long and narrow, making the eye focus closely then carry to some indeterminate distance. Two are odd squares and two others odd triangles, which has the effect of enclosing and intensifying within a context rather than stretching out one's perception. Whatever their shapes or sizes, it is nearly impossible to distinguish them from their surroundings, except through the maps and measurements made by the city and the artist.

Yet, they in turn make one intensely aware of what is around them, unlike objects in a museum, which have been torn away from their original context. The anomalous spaces of Matta-Clark's lots, with their overly defined uselessness, like a canvas or block of stone, exercise a curious power over the subversive, communal instincts of most artists in the exhibition. With yellow chalk shoes, Julia Mandle intends to draw lines in the pavement between two of the lots as "stages for our gathering."

In two drawings and a cutaway model, Mark Dion proposes The Gordon Matta-Clark Subterranean Museum, in which a small structure on one of the lots gives access to an elevator that descends through geological layers representing ". . . .One billion years of the earth's history . . .", the underpinning of our strange, inevitably archeological human activities. A staggered grid of 75 three-by-four-inch color photos details Maximilian Goldfarb's Coordinate Relocation Program Test, in which low-power radio transmitters have been installed at each of the sites so that listeners can tune in to "the sounds of ambient natural elements on FM frequencies within a small, localized radius: boughs of creaking trees, buzzing insects, rushing creek water, early-morning forest life," thereby imitating and undermining the haphazard nature of human settlement. With its tenacious vine of roses breaking through the white plaster and paint high up in one of the gallery's walls, Valerie Hegarty's Untitled (Rosebush) metaphorically does invade the integral space of city planning. It is "a conceptual shattering, where the odd-sized lots are like wedges within the social/communal landscape."

On another wall, Sarah Oppenheimer had a construction company remove and reinstall the same sheetrock five times over a 25-day period for Renovation, which includes the contract with the company. As in Matta-Clark's odd lots, "The form of property results from social transaction," and the effects of entropy become apparent in the worn and reused wall, the efforts of renewal being circular over time. Lisa Sigal's Air Rights is a strange amalgam of drawing and actual space. Taped in red on the floor is the footprint of the lot, perhaps in proportionally smaller dimensions than the real one, though I'm not sure which one it might be. Rising from that are features, surfaces, and rooflines of buildings tentatively but unmistakably collaged in sheetrock, plywood, and tape on the gallery wall. The diagram is the territory of a place she was not able to see, but she "could still imagine what it would be like to stand in the center of [her] space, to look up and note the vast landscape of buildings silhouetted against the sky."

Like the works of Hegarty and Oppenheimer, it is an aggressive presence in the space in which it is drawn, powerfully related to somewhere beyond itself (somewhere in Queens, that far-off place), as it projects from the wall, its outlines and planes rising to mingle with the pipes and beams along the ceiling. Isidro Blasco's 53rd Drive/Beginnings End is composed of what seems like scores of photographs (or one long photo) cut up and pasted together to create a fractured, cubist panorama in relief, looking up and down a block in Queens from a central point. Sight is constantly refocused, from the center, where one sees into the restricted distance of a fenced alleyway (Matta-Clark's Fake Estate number one); to the heights of the row-house gables along 53d Drive, which congregate in triangular cut-out facets against the sky; to the curving street, sidewalk, and electrical lines that wrap around these forms toward the two poles of a common horizon (indicating that there are no straight lines in nature). The seeming unity of a city block is fractioned into a chaos that is then reshaped into a new kind of extremely complicated unity, the unity of a work of art, all that is implied in Matta-Clark's vision of the city and human congregation. What appear to be rather simple constructs of planes and dimensions are understood as much more complex in terms of our own perceptions, other people's lives, and the persistence of organic and inorganic matter. Blasco provides a template of how this complexity might work visually.

Ukeles' work, Queens Cookies/Sweet Splits, is healing. It is one of the few pieces in the exhibition with people, the bakers who appear in a film being approached by the artist, who invites them to participate in the project, takes them to the odd lots closest to their bakeries, tells them about Matta-Clark, and helps them work out baked pieces in the shapes of the lots they have seen. Three versions are arrived at for each bakery, based on the long narrow triangle of lot number three for the Mexican-American La Flor bakery, the almost square of lot number six for the Chinese-American Yi Mei Bakery, and the triangle of lot number fifteen for the Greek-American Victory Sweet Shop. Thus were produced the Vikos Mierle Matta Brownies, the Yi Mei Clark Cakes, and the Gordon Ma-Ba-Cla-Va, each presented on cookie sheets in a typical bakery display case for successive two-week periods at the gallery, along with photos of the proprietors, models of the cookies, various store accoutrements, and a chalk-written menu on the wall that offers the cookies for sale. The lots, the almost invisible shapes that stitch together the borough, become forms of recipe, design, communication, and sustenance, fulfilling their destiny.

Ukeles ends her notes for the project, "Mostly Gordon was a life force and a communitarian, a community builder."

Donald Goddard © 2006

Work inspired by Matta-Clark's odd lots were shown at White Columns, 320 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10014.
The collages of Matta-Clark's lots and other materials were on view at the Queens Museum of Art, New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, NY 11368.

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