112 Green Street – Soho – New York 1970 – Gordan Matta Clark

Arts & Culture

112 Greene Street

July 25, 2012 | by

Exterior of 112 Greene Street. Photo by Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone.

I met with Jessamyn Fiore in the air-conditioned back offices of David Zwirner’s Chelsea gallery in late June to discuss her new book, 112 Greene Street, a series of interviews with artists who helped found or were associated with the eponymous location, one of the first alternative art spaces in New York City. Opened in 1970 by artists Jeffrey Lew, Alan Saret, and Gordon Matta-Clark, 112 Greene Street served not as a commercial gallery but as a space in which artists could create and exhibit works collaboratively. Their participation in the burgeoning SoHo art scene also included cofounding FOOD, a pay-what-you-wish restaurant known for its delicious soups. Back then, the neighborhood more closely resembled a small village, rather than the glamorous, high-end shopping district it is now, and all of the artists associated with 112 Greene Street who were interviewed by Fiore remember that communal period fondly.

Fiore has a direct lineage to the groundbreaking gallery: her mother, Jane Crawford, was married to Gordon Matta-Clark, who died from pancreatic cancer in 1978 at age thirty-five. Known for his daring “building cuts”—literal dissections of buildings slated for demolition—Matta-Clark was, by all accounts, charismatic and widely admired and loved. Fiore herself ran a nonprofit art gallery in Dublin for several years before relocating to New York, where she curated an exhibition at Zwirner about 112 Greene Street last winter. She is warm, easygoing, and candid; it’s easy to see why the artists, whom she considers her friends, would trust her to preserve their memories in print.

Chance encounters played such a big part in the manifestation of 112 Greene Street.

There were a lot of chance meetings involved in its creation. But I think they were a reflection of that community at the time. The art world in New York was a lot smaller. In one Richard Nonas story, he goes to Max’s Kansas City for the first time and ends up meeting Carl Andre and Richard Serra, and they get in a conversation and he goes to see their studio. There are lots of these kinds of stories.

It was also key that Jeffrey Lew and his wife, Rachel Wood, had bought the building and let out the floors to various people. But it really only came together when Jeffrey saw what Alan Saret was doing with his own studio at the time. Alan renamed his studio Spring Palace and opened it up for exhibitions and performances by other artists. So, for example, Joan Jonas came in and did a performance where George Trakas actually built a set for her to perform on. So when the business that was in 112 Greene Street moved out, Jeffrey had a big, empty, ground-floor space and basement, and Alan came on board and helped Jeffrey set it up. And Alan’s uncle was the first backer of 112 Greene Street, whatever that means. No one goes into detail as to exactly what the business relationship was, but he was able to give some kind of initial funding.

How did they convince him to fund the project?

Jeffrey had an amazing ability to meet people and get them involved. A few people I talked to said there was a bit of an air of mystery about Jeffrey as to how he actually got this stuff done, but he would get it done. In the beginning, 112 Greene Street was supported by a series of backers, and Jeffrey would say, “People come on board and I convince them to support it, but then after a while, they want something. They want their name on something or they want some kind of influence on it, and that’s when I say no way and let them go.” He really had this pretty incredible attitude of, What I’m doing is great and it’s working, so give me the money to do it.

When he and Alanna Heiss initially met with the NEA, which was just becoming interested in creating grants for independent art venues, that was his attitude, too—which I think is pretty incredible. In a day and age when we’re so used to having to bend over backward for any kind of funding, to go in and say, If you like what I’m doing, just give me the money and leave me alone—it takes guts.

How did it all come together?

Alan Saret had an architecture degree and was doing jobs he found incredibly boring. But he was working with materials that he later used in his work—wire and meshes and so on. From the start, he had a philosophy about art that was quite radical at the time but which became the beginning of a whole movement. He was quite anticommercial. He had very high standards as to where his work should be shown and the context it should be shown in. He wasn’t interested in sacrificing his creative process or the work’s integrity in order to be included in an institution or to have a commercial gallery. And he really believed that an artist’s whole life is his artwork. So this idea of living and showing and working in the same space—it was very central to his philosophy of what an artist is.

So he provided the philosophical framework from which Gordon and Jeffrey were able to take a leap and open up 112 and allow it to be a space where artists could work, show, communicate, and really embrace the idea that the gallery shouldn’t just be a white cube. It wasn’t that they were anticommercial—artists would still sell work, if somebody wanted to buy it—but their primary goal wasn’t to sell, and they weren’t creating works they thought they could sell. And I think that gave the space a freedom that was necessary for those artists at that moment to push boundaries and take risks, to make works that might be destroyed afterward. Often they were, at the end of the exhibition, destroyed or thrown away.

Installation of works by Alan Saret in progress, ca. 1970. Photo by Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone.

Nonas describes being against the pedestal, or the idea that the viewer is at a remove from the object. “You couldn’t isolate anything from the world in 112,” he says, “because 112 took over.” It seems like the works were almost interventions in the space.

The physical space of 112 Greene Street was key to the works themselves. They were responses to that context. And I think it was Nonas who said that the most successful shows there were those that really used that space, that could have only been done in that space. A lot of people have described coming in and seeing the raw floors and walls with chunks missing, and then noticing the artwork and wondering, What’s the work and what’s the space?

Gordon did a whole series in the basement that embraced that particular environment—dark, dank, and dirty—to create works that would counteract it. Once, during winter, he planted a cherry tree, put grow lights around it, and created a mound of grass. Suddenly you had a beautiful garden in this underground, urban, disused space.

Gordon Matta-Clark’s Cherry Tree at 112 Greene Street, 1971 Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York.

The stories about Gordon I found especially compelling. In particular the way people responded to the tree.

Rachel had a great story about it. When it was in its full glory, they had an opening, and a woman came down and saw it, and ended up taking off all her clothes and lying on the mound of grass under the lights. And Gordon absolutely loved that. He loved not only that his piece provoked that kind of response but also that it inspired this woman to participate in it and experience it.

Something I never really thought about with 112 Greene Street is dance. And you actually devote quite a bit of room to it.

Suzanne Harris’s Flying machine at 112 Greene Street, 1973. Courtesy Jene Highstein.

I do! Because I was blown away when I really began to look into what happened here. 112 was a space where visual artists and dancers and filmmakers came together and collaborated and participated in one another’s work and, in that way, informed one another’s practice. A number of visual artists participated in the dance performances, and some of the dancers, in turn, started making visual installations. Suzanne Harris, for instance, started out in dance and performance and then began creating sculptures that were activated by her own body. She created a sort of rigging for herself and another dancer so they could hang from the ceiling like puppets. They were connected, so if one person moved their arm, the other person’s arm would move, too. They would have to perform in unison, or in response to each other.

On the other hand, you had Gordon, who was very much a visual artist, an installation artist, building pieces that were also stages. His Open House was a Dumpster outside 112 Greene Street, in which he created a house with corridors and doors, though it didn’t have a ceiling. He invited the Natural History of the American Dancer, which was a dance company based at 112, to perform it in, and he made a film of them activating his piece.

SoHo was then fairly abandoned. All these massive factory buildings lay empty, so the entire area had this feeling of falling apart. How did the artists respond to the deterioration?

For his first piece within 112 Greene Street, Alan found huge pieces of metal cornicing, dragged them back to 112, and suspended them from the ceiling. It was a way of bringing the outside into the space and reconfiguring it as an artwork. Gordon’s first solo show at 112 included some of his first cuttings, the Bronx Floors series, where he cut segments from the floors of abandoned South Bronx housing projects. It was a form of obsolete architecture. He paired his cuttings with photographs of the sites they were cut from. Later, he did Splitting, in which he actually cut an entire house in half—but his architectural cuts were always paired with photographs.

One of my favorite pieces that he did at 112 is Walls paper, where he took photographs of the walls of semidemolished buildings and made giant prints on newsprint. He brought all of those into 112 to create a kind of wallpaper composed of walls. He also had a large stack of prints available for people to take home and put it on their own wall.

The way this generation of artists is different from the ones slightly preceding it, is that a lot of the work had a social context, a sense of social responsibility. They weren’t making art for art’s sake. They wanted to have a larger impact on and relationship to what was happening in the city. New York was then near bankruptcy. There was a massive homeless population and a tremendous amount of urban decay and poverty. People wondered if the city was going to last. The artists were very connected to that—it was their environment, their home, and it was also their source of inspiration.

The collective spirit was so strong, it comes through even in the way they shared meals together.

Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden, and Gordon Matta-Clark in front of FOOD, 1971. Photo by Richard Landry, with alteration by Gordon Matta-Clark. Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York.

 

I think it was Richard Nonas who described it as the result of a contingent of artists who had moved up from the South and brought with them a food culture in which the main gathering place was around the dinner table. Tina Girouard and Richard Landry and Mary Heilmann rented out a building on Chatham Square for something like five hundred dollars and made huge dinners there—everyone would come around. Food played a role in the work of some of the artists, too. When Gordon was invited to participate in a show underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in 1971, he roasted a pig as part of his work and gave the food away. In the second iteration of his Dumpster piece, Dumpster Duplex, he built a second floor onto the space, with a working barbeque.

Food was essential to how people related to one other, and in SoHo there weren’t many places to go at that time to eat and to drink, so FOOD restaurant came about as a natural extension of these activities. Opened by Carol Goodden and Gordon, the restaurant had food performances, and artists would be invited in to create a meal. Robert Rauschenberg was invited to do one, and Gordon did a meal called Matta-Bones, where everything he served was on the bone and at the end he drilled holes through the bones to make necklaces. He did another meal called Alive, where everything was alive. That one sounds  kind of gross.

He also made a film with Robert Frank on a day in the life of FOOD restaurant. It’s one of my very favorite films by Gordon. It starts with them going to the Fulton Fish Market and buying the fish for the day, and then you see them setting up, and then people eating. And at the end of the night, it’s the whole group sitting around the table, talking.

The way the group dispersed is very bittersweet.

I chose to end the book with the exhibition “Anarchitecture,” which took place in March 1974. The artists for that show consisted of Gordon Matta-Clark, Suzanne Harris, Richard Nonas, Jene Highstein, Tina Girouard—the core Anarchitecture group, a group that got together and discussed ideas around architecture, space, language, and subverting existing norms. “Anarchitecture” culminated with a show at 112 Greene Street in which each artist contributed a few photographs that they felt represented their idea of anarchitecture, such as liminal or overlooked spaces, and they made the works anonymous.

Installation view of “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974),” curated by Jessamyn Fiore at David Zwirner, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

And what’s fascinating about this exhibition is that there is absolutely no documentation of it. I pored through the artists’ archives—and these artists were generally very good about documenting their work—but not a single one had a picture of this show. We have the works that were in it. We know what it was about. But no one took pictures of it. I think it was almost a good-bye to the space. By 1978, they lost the space and had to move to Spring Street. The name changed to White Columns, which still exists today. Sometimes there’s a tendency, particularly nowadays, to create something that is going to be sustainable indefinitely. But the reason these projects and venues are so fantastic is precisely that they’re not meant to last forever.

Claire Barliant is is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. She tweets at @claire_barliant.

Join Jessamyn Fiore at 192 Books on Thursday, July 26, at 7 P.M.

BooksWeekend

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White Columns is New York’s oldest alternative art space. It was founded in 1970 by Jeffrey Lew and Gordon Matta-Clark as an experimental platform for artists. Originally located in SoHo (and known as the 112 Workshop/112 Greene Street), the organization was renamed White Columns when it moved to Spring Street in 1979. In 1991 White Columns moved to Christopher Street in the West Village, and in 1998 the gallery relocated to its present address on the border of the West Village and Meat Packing District.

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vanity fair

Spotlight

December 31, 2010 7:00 pm

Dereliction of Beauty

Gordon Matta-Clark at 112 Greene Street, the celebrated art sanctuary in New York’s SoHo, in 1972. Photograph by Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone; © 2010 Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
David Kamp spotlights outlaw artist Gordon Matta-Clark.
The conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark used the entropic scuzziness of 1970s-era New York as his medium. He fashioned a “garbage wall” out of debris strewn beneath a Brooklyn Bridge access ramp; planted a cherry tree in the dug-out basement of a tatty old industrial building (turned art space) in SoHo; and, wielding an acetylene torch like an X-Acto knife, cut holes in the walls and floors of an abandoned Hudson River pier to create what he called a “sun-and-water temple.” (This, decades before the High Line and similar city-sanctioned reclamations of derelict urban terrain.)

Matta-Clark, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1978 at the age of 35, is the featured artist in a collective historical show called “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974),” which opens on January 7 at the David Zwirner gallery, in Manhattan. The exhibition looks back to the beginnings of Matta-Clark’s career and SoHo’s do-it-yourself art scene, and specifically to 112 Greene, the site of a failing ragpicking business when an artist named Jeffrey Lew purchased it, in 1968.

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Lew basically turned his creative pals loose in the building, letting them have the run of the place for exhibitions, performances, guerrilla gardening (it’s where Matta-Clark planted his cherry tree), and all manner of interdisciplinary horsing around. Among those who showed, performed, or worked there were Larry Miller, Alan Saret, Richard Nonas, Suzanne Harris, Philip Glass, Richard Serra, Tina Girouard, Vito Acconci, Don Gummer, William Wegman, Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, and a very young Kathryn Bigelow.

But it was Matta-Clark who acted as the site’s animating spirit, erecting a Dumpster domicile out front he called Open House, instigating the creation of Food, the artists’ hangout around the corner (a conceptual piece as much as a restaurant), and, in general, challenging the very precepts of what art is and how it must be displayed. New York, back then, was rife with real estate “outside of society” that suited Matta-Clark’s needs. “The wild dogs, junkies, and I used these spaces to work out some life problem,” he said. “In my case, having no socially acceptable place to work.”<

David Kamp has been a Vanity Fair contributing editor since 1996, profiling such monumental figures of the arts as Johnny Cash, Lucian Freud, Sly Stone, and John Hughes.

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112 Greene Street: The Soho that Used to Be

All images via jessamynfiore.com.

“It is rather inspiring,” writes Peter Schjeldahl in the New York Times, “that in an hour of political crisis this art (despite its makers’ eschewal of revolutionary postures) has arisen to make possible a project like 112 Greene Street.” The year is 1970. The place is Soho, until recently known as the South Houston Industrial District. Here an unemployed artist can buy a six-story cast-iron ex-rag-picking warehouse, and huge chunks of sheet-zinc cornice can lie abandoned on the sidewalk at a demolition site until another artist bribes the garbage men to drive them to his studio. Sculptor Jeffrey Lew owns the six-story building at 112 Greene Street, where the eponymous exhibition space and workshop is taking shape. Alan Saret, who lives a block away, has joined in to get the gallery (extremely loosely) organized, and it is here that his piece “Cornicing,” slung from the ceiling, becomes the sort of art that inspires the young critic.

Saret tells the story of the cornices in 112 Greene Street: The Early Years, 1970–1974, edited by Jessamyn Fiore. Half oral history and half exhibition catalogue, Fiore’s book follows a show she curated last winter at David Zwirner, which prominently featured 112’s celebrated alumnus, Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978), along with Saret, Richard Nonas, Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Larry Miller, and Richard Serra. The show is lushly documented in the book. In addition, Fiore has interviewed nineteen artists, including Lew and all of the living exhibition participants but Serra, weaving their reminiscences into an episodic narrative. Fiore comes by her interest organically; she ran a nonprofit space, Thisisnotashop, in Dublin. Moreover, her parents, filmmakers Jane Crawford and Robert Fiore, belonged to the 112 circle, Crawford by way of her first marriage, to Matta-Clark. Fiore has an insider’s feel for her subject, and her book is an evocative addition to the archive on downtown scenes — especially since the comprehensive oral history 112 Workshop/112 Greene Street: History, Artists & Artwork (New York University Press, 1981), edited by Robyn Brentano and Mark Savitt, has long been out of print.

It’s easy to see why oral history is the favored mode. These people did wild stuff some forty years in the past. A few got famous. A few, like Matta-Clark and Harris, died young, and have been posthumously canonized or not (Harris’s oeuvre is ripe for reinvestigation). Some left New York decades ago, and some live in the same lofts they renovated under the 1971 artist-in-residence law. Almost all continue to make art, and they remain bracingly nonrevisionist about their shared experience. Their voices nuance a still-evolving historiography, just as their sculptures, films, and performances helped to define post-Minimal and post-Conceptual practice. Nevertheless, part of what fascinates about 112 Greene Street, and sister endeavors like FOOD restaurant and the collective The Natural History of the American Dancer (both discussed by Fiore’s interviewees), is the sense that no single interpretive strategy, not even that of first-person witness, totally explains how it all happened. It’s a synergy of flukes that makes and breaks utopia.

Gordon Matta-Clark with Jeffrey Lew, circa 1971

Gordon Matta-Clark with Jeffrey Lew, circa 1971

Consider, for starters, the almost unimaginable ubiquity of big, cheap spaces, and lackadaisical police and buildings-department oversight, in what was already the most important art city in the world. Art-markets hadn’t yet learned how to sell what the emerging sculptors, dancers, musicians, and photographers were producing. Lew lined up a couple backers for 112, from whom he demanded lump sums and strict noninterference; Carol Goodden founded FOOD with her modest inheritance. The real currency, however, was collaborative experiment. “I have an anarchistic nature,” Lew declares. “I’m an anarchistic phenomenon.” Other blithely anarchistic institution-builders created Avalanche magazine, the Performing Garage, The Kitchen, Mabou Mines, the Grand Union, the Poetry Project, Artists Space, and the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, shortly to become P.S.1. This DIY economy of scale guaranteed that people with skills and tools would be on hand to pitch in when one needed them, and enthusiastic audiences would turn up day after day, night after night. Borrowing an ethos from the counterculture yet jettisoning radical political objectives, the downtown artists could feel confident that they were furthering societal transformation while allowing themselves rambunctious aesthetic freedom; as Schjeldahl’s comments demonstrate in passing, revolution was not their aim, but it wasn’t not on their minds. Mary Heilmann tells Fiore, “Most of us came to 112 as bohemian outsiders and almost Marxists — against capitalist culture.” Bill Beckley puts it this way: “We were all friends then. Some of us were male, some female, some hetero, some gay, some both, or all three, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was art […] We were negating much about modernist aesthetics, but at the same time we believed that what we were doing was new, and that there was still a possibility of the new.”

112 Greene Street: The Early Years is rife with era-defining anecdotes. Everyone involved, for instance, remembers George Trakas’s “The Piece that Went Through the Floor” (1970), a timber-and-glass structure that punched through from the rough street-level gallery to the even-rougher basement. Lew “freaked out,” Trakas reports cheerfully, but the fact that, at 112, one could carve up the very architecture set the tone. 112 was the place where Matta-Clark — soon to become, himself, building-cutter extraordinaire — planted a flowering sapling under grow-lights in the basement (“Cherry Tree,” 1971). Alice Aycock brought in thousands of pounds of sand, to be randomly sculpted by industrial fans she’d scavenged on Canal Street (“Sand/Fans,” 1971), and Harris and Rachel Wood made dances by bouncing off huge sheets of rubber stretched between the Corinthian columns that gave the ratty space its elegant profile (“Rubber Thoughts on the Way to Florida in January,” 1971). Vito Acconci locked himself in a tiny room with a fighting cock (“Combination,” 1971), which escaped, and had to be trapped by Girouard — whose own piece “Four Stages” (1972) was used as a frame for Mabou Mines performances. It was in the basement, likewise, that Leo Castelli, in sports-coat and loafers, was detained as a “hostage” during the performance “Prisoner’s Dilemma” (1974), an experiment with live-feed, multi-channel video that was masterminded by Serra and Robert Bell, with Spalding Gray and G.H. Hovagimyan playing hooligans pitted against each other by the cops.

Installation view of "112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974)" at David Zwirner Gallery

Installation view of “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974)” at David Zwirner Gallery, January 2011

Eventually 112 got stable funding, and evolved into a normal exhibition space. (White Columns, in Chelsea, is its lineal descendent.) The Greene Street building enjoyed another life in the eighties and nineties as a recording studio, first operated by members of the Philip Glass Ensemble — who had belonged to the coterie from the beginning — and later serving artists from Public Enemy to Sonic Youth. Fiore concentrates, however, on the intense first phase. Was it really anarcho-Marxist? Sort of. Was the art-world transformed by it? Subtly, and not in exclusively anti-careerist ways. “We actually made galleries stronger than they ever were — precisely because we were doing the kind of things that people didn’t necessarily understand,” muses Acconci. “We formed the 80s without realizing it.” Personal fallout was dramatic too. Wood, a dancer and a key figure at FOOD, moved to Vermont in 1976:

I left New York because the very people I cared about were on a “death path,” you know? Because the way they were living was so extreme and it seemed like they had disregard for their own lives. They were going to die, and I didn’t want to stick around for it. And then Suzi died, Gordon died. There was a feeling during this time that it just couldn’t go on forever. And we really had had such a rich and full experience.

No utopia, after all, holds out forever against assimilation and crack-up. But is the story of its “rich and full” early years enticing, urban-mythical? Inescapably. 112 “was just a room, a big room where anything could happen,” Highstein says to Fiore. “It was a time when artists believed that every new work was going to change the world. We actually believed the works we were putting up had the power to change everything — that everything was being reinvented. It sounds really strange today, but we really believed it.”

112 Greene Street: The Early Years, 1970–1974is available at David Zwirner and other online booksellers.

 

New Yorker magazine
The Art World January 17, 2011 Issue
Proto Soho
Gordon Matta-Clark and 112 Greene Street.
By Peter Schjeldahl

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A too short career: Matta-Clark’s “Small Graffiti: Truck Fragment” (1973), and the artist in “Hair” (1972).
A too short career: Matta-Clark’s “Small Graffiti: Truck Fragment” (1973), and the artist in “Hair” (1972). Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY (RIGHT): CAROL GOODDEN; BOTH: COURTESY ESTATE OF GORDON MATTA-CLARK / DAVID ZWIRNER

The doors were never locked at 112 Greene Street, a vast, decrepit, and virulently fecund artist-run gallery in the primeval SoHo of the early nineteen-seventies. Anyone could go in, at any hour, and do anything, amid semi-regular art shows that sometimes might be mistaken for collections of random debris. “In most galleries, you can’t scratch the floor,” Jeffrey Lew, an artist who owned the building—a former rag-scavenging plant—said at the time. “Here you can dig a hole in it.” In a new show at the David Zwirner gallery, surviving and reconstructed works evoke the scene at 112, minus its charismatic squalor, with primary focus on its leading light, the sculptor and architectural visionary Gordon Matta-Clark, who died at the age of thirty-five, in 1978. I remember a party at Matta-Clark’s Chrystie Street loft. Guests were required to bring whole fish from the Chinatown markets. These were tossed into an aluminum cauldron that dangled from chains over a jerry-rigged gas burner. The dubious stew was consumed when hunger, honed by marijuana, overcame discretion. One had a sense of belonging to a pioneer community, united in poverty and valor. (The happy-go-lucky gastronomy was of a piece with that of Food, a Prince Street restaurant run by and for artists, which Matta-Clark co-founded, in 1971.) The cauldron may have been one that he used to brew up masses of agar (seaweed gelatin), which, hung in leathery sheets on the walls, hosted visually lovely, worrisome microbial cultures, until it rotted away. Art in the early spirit of 112 tended to be nothing if not temporary. It was barely salable, in any case; and very little sold.

Matta-Clark was one of twin sons born to the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta and the American artist Anne Clark. (Matta-Clark’s brother, Sebastian Matta, was also a painter.) He studied architecture at Cornell, and French literature at the Sorbonne. In Paris, during the events of May, 1968, he was inspired by Guy Debord and the Situationists, who preached attitudes of resistance to what Debord called capitalism’s “Society of the Spectacle.” Back at Cornell in 1969, Matta-Clark assisted in a seminal show of earth art: geological capers by artists including Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, and Richard Long. He arrived in New York City later that year, at a moment made chaotic by economic recession and anti-Vietnam War fury. A rising generation of environmental artists beggared the finances and the physical spaces of even adventurous galleries, which were nearly all still small and uptown. Not for the first time, an avant-garde took form as an eddy in a mainstream unready for it. Launched in 1970 by Lew, in collaboration with Matta-Clark and the brilliant eccentric Alan Saret, who displayed crumples of wire on the floor, 112 led a nationwide wave of do-it-yourself “alternative spaces.” The glory days were brief. Artists who weren’t cherry-picked by dealers settled into government- and foundation-funded cocoons. Lew lamented, “Something special happened during the first three years, and after we got the grants it didn’t happen anymore.” The last really consequential show there was Susan Rothenberg’s big outline paintings of horses, in 1975, which presaged, with shocking force, an epochal return of painting to youthful favor.

Little-known works by Matta-Clark, whose estate is represented by the Zwirner gallery, dominate the new show, mainly drawings of abstracted tree forms and photographs of gaudy street and subway graffiti—a populist novelty then, which at once exacerbated and brightened the time’s cascading urban blight. Both motifs symbolized spontaneous creativity for Matta-Clark. On New Year’s Day, 1971, he planted a cherry tree in the basement of 112 and forced it, with infrared lamps, to blossom in winter. The next year, he mounted a photographic mural of a graffiti-laden subway car on a brick wall outside the back windows of the building’s ground floor. On another occasion, he glossed Marcel Duchamp’s classic jape of signing a urinal “R. Mutt” by importing a found, rag-festooned baby carriage from the street and listing its creator as “George Smudge.” The difference was a kind of urban naturalism, exalting the tumult of the city over the protocols of art space. Robert Rauschenberg’s famous wish to operate in the gap between art and life seems tentative by comparison; Matta-Clark’s approach was gap free. His too short career climaxed after 1973, when he convened a corps of architectural guerrillas, dubbed Anarchitecture, and began to carve voids into condemned structures: stripping a house near Love Canal, New York, of its front; bisecting a house in Englewood, New Jersey. Some interventions—admitting shafts of daylight into an abandoned Hudson River pier and riddling South Bronx apartment buildings with shapely holes—were illegal, but unchecked by authorities. (If you weren’t in New York then, you have no notion of its rampant disorder.) All anticipated the spatial inventions with which architects including Frank Gehry, a declared Matta-Clark fan, would demolish modernist geometry.

The show is curated by Jessamyn Fiore, a young playwright and curator whose mother is Jane Crawford, a filmmaker and Matta-Clark’s widow. For an upcoming book, Fiore has interviewed nineteen veterans of 112, including, notably, dancers who performed there often. A film in the show records a typically startling piece by Suzanne Harris: she and Rachel Wood (who was married to Jeffrey Lew) dancing in the air, their limbs attached to straps that, passed through overhead pulleys, make each woman the other’s puppeteer.

Sculptures in the show include a reconstructed carrot-shaped heap of fresh carrots on the floor by Larry Miller, from 1970, and, by the artist and dancer Tina Girouard, a handsome floor piece of patterned linoleum under a suspended ceiling of patterned fabric, from 1972 and 1973—a sally of Anarchitectural decoration, like the wallpaper that Matta-Clark made, in 1972, from photographs of demolition-exposed walls in the South Bronx, offset-printed in moody colors. Strikingly fine black-and-white photographs by Matta-Clark, from 1974, document found, quasi-architectural subjects—a collapsed building, a fenced array of floodlights in a graveyard. They are like New York ripostes, gritty and brutal, to Ed Ruscha’s influential picturing of clean, bland sites in Southern California. An edge of radical politics is tacit in such work, but hardly ever with the self-congratulatory air that is so tedious in the annals of conceptual art. Matta-Clark and his friends concentrated on how to change the world, not just on why.

Despite Matta-Clark’s reliable ebullience, the 112 cohort was not a cheerful bunch. Times were hard, and they were made harder. Sleek galleries and boutiques brought soaring rents to SoHo. Passionately co-dependent relationships predictably ran aground. These two factors took hold in 1978, when Matta-Clark died, of cancer. Jeffrey Lew and Rachel Wood divorced, and the increasingly bureaucratized gallery decamped to smaller quarters, on Spring Street, and became the alternative space White Columns, which survives today in the West Village. Suzanne Harris died of a heart attack, in 1979. A deeply troubled Sebastian Matta had died after falling from a window in Matta-Clark’s loft, in 1976. Wood told Fiore that she abandoned New York because she despaired of friends who, living recklessly, “were on a death path.” The suggestion of intermingled mania and depression jibes with my memories of the era, in which all days are overcast, if not slept through, between too eventful nights. But I marvel to recall, as well, an assumed dedication to authenticity, in life as in art, that shrugged off concerns of mere personal happiness, not to mention the trivia of conventional success. Jane Crawford quotes the artist David Bradshaw as saying, “Art was doing its job, tearing away its dead flesh, sweating out its poisons.” As good as this show is, the arduous and exhilarating 112 legacy merits a more comprehensive revisit. ♦

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