Artists Who Adorn Walls — or Rip Them Apart

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Andy Grund­berg

NEW YORK ny­one curious about how much the art world has changed in the past 30 years can get a les­son by visit­ing New York this spring. Two im­por­tant ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tions tell the tale: “Jeff Wall” at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, and “Gor­don Mat­taClark: ‘You Are the Mea­sure’ ” at the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art.

Wall, 61, is an art star who has made his way into the me­dia spot­light af­ter a 30-year ca­reer spent mostly in Van­cou­ver, B.C. His work con­sists largely of care­fully posed and exquisitely crafted color pho­to­graphs, ex­hib­ited as huge, spec­tac­u­lar, back­lit trans­paren­cies.

Matta-Clark would be three years older than Wall had he not died of pan­cre­atic can­cer in 1978, the same year Wall be­gan mak­ing the pic­tures in MoMA’s ret­ro­spec­tive. Mat­taClark worked with a variety of un­con­ven­tional tools and ma­te­ri­als, rang­ing from chain saws to mold in petri dishes, dur­ing a ca­reer that lasted less than a decade. An eclec­tic and charis­matic artist, he was in­stru­men­tal in the early 1970s in build­ing the art scene in Man­hat­tan’s SoHo neigh­bor­hood.

It’s hard to imag­ine more dis­parate artists of the same gen­er­a­tion. Wall’s pic­tures of­ten de­pend on his au­di­ence’s knowl­edge of the his­tory of art as well as on the high-ceilinged gallery walls re­quired to hang them. The mo­tives be­hind Matta-Clark’s work may be tan­ta­liz­ingly mys­te­ri­ous but its mean­ings are self-ev­i­dent. In­stead of hang­ing art on walls, he sawed through walls of build­ings to short-cir­cuit their ap­par­ent ar­chi­tec­tural so­lid­ity and to ex­tend our sense of art’s re­la­tion to life. Now, coin­ci­den­tally, his ret­ro­spec­tive cuts a crit­i­cal arc through Wall’s.

See­ing the ex­hi­bi­tions in tan­dem forces one to ponder whether con­tem­po­rary art, for all its cur­rent fas­ci­na­tion and pop­u­lar­ity (al­to­gether, more money is now be­ing spent by col­lec­tors for con­tem­po­rary art than for Old Mas­ter paint­ings), has pro­gressed since the 1970s. Or, a far worse thought, whether it has re­gressed.

The look of the two shows ac­cents the dif­fer­ences be­tween now and then. Wall’s big pic­tures are housed in shiny metal frames and spaced broadly in gal­leries big enough to ac­com­mo­date the out­size am­bi­tions of con­tem­po­rary artists. Matta-Clark’s show has a more homemade look, with walls of draw­ings and pho­to­graphs and video mon­i­tors shar­ing space on the floor with a pile of newsprint sheets printed with a pat­tern of bricks. The Whit­ney’s de­sign­ers have em­pha­sized the funk­i­ness of the art’s ap­pear­ance by us­ing roughedged, torn pa­per for the show’s la­bels.

Both shows de­pend on pho­tog­ra­phy, al­though the two artists’ con­cep­tions of the medium’s use­ful­ness are di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed.

Wall, whose ca­reer con­sists en­tirely of pho­to­graphs, is rarely called a pho­tog­ra­pher. In­stead, cu­ra­tors and crit­ics claim him as a photo-based artist. That’s largely be­cause in to­day’s art world, pho­tog­ra­phers sell their images for sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars apiece; Wall and his pho­to­based peers, like An­dreas Gursky and Thomas De­mand, may get sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand.

The way Wall tells it, his pho­to­graphs be­came light boxes in 1977 af­ter the artist caught him­self star­ing at a back­lit bus-stop ad in Spain and had a eureka mo­ment. His works are beau­ti­ful to be­hold, de­spite sub­ject mat­ter that can seem tawdry or pe­cu­liar (a mop on a tat­tered linoleum floor, an oc­to­pus on a desk), and they carry the wow fac­tor of their com­mer­cial an­tecedents. They are the size of large paint­ings and are meant to com­pete with paint­ings and to cri­tique them. Their com­po­si­tions are based on works as well known as Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Berg­ere” or as un­likely as a Hoku­sai wood­cut.

Pho­to­graphs for Matta-Clark were, along with film and video, pretty much a con­ve­nient way for doc­u­ment­ing his real art — the build­ings that he ir­re­vo­ca­bly altered with his chain saw. True, to­ward the end he grew in­ter­ested in putting the pho­to­graphs to­gether in ver­tig­i­nous col­lages that hold their own as works of art, but th­ese photo works have the same re­la­tion­ship to his ma­jor ac­com­plish­ments that prints tra­di­tion­ally have to paint­ings: They are spinoffs, not the main event.

The irony, of course, is that — but for a few ex­ist­ing ex­cised pieces — the dis­sected build­ings at the core of Matta-Clark’s work have all van­ished. The cam­era’s doc­u­ments are

Awhat have sur­vived. This means that his ret­ro­spec­tive has lit­tle of the jaw­drop­ping qual­ity that any­one who saw his work in the ’70s ex­pe­ri­enced.

(Full dis­clo­sure: I knew Mat­taClark and came to live in New York at the same time he did. Like him I be­came in­ter­ested in what var­i­ously has been called con­cep­tual, de­ma­te­ri­al­ized or in­for­ma­tion art. Art, that is to say, that tried to break the tra­di­tions that Wall’s photo paint­ings lean on.)

Matta-Clark came of age when New York artists were in re­volt against the no­tion that art is ba­si­cally a com­mod­ity shown in gal­leries for the plea­sure of (and pur­chase by) col­lec­tors. He ad­mired con­cep­tual artists like Hans Haacke, whose most fa­mous show con­sisted of a re­port on the real es­tate hold­ings of a Man­hat­tan slum­lord, and earth­work artists like Robert Smith­son, who once piled dirt on a wood­shed in Ohio un­til it col­lapsed.

Al­most all of what Matta-Clark did re­mained res­o­lutely un­col­lectible. Most fa­mously, he sawed a sub­ur­ban New Jer­sey house in half, let­ting sun streak through its in­te­rior. He also cut a cres­cent in the end of an aban­doned Hud­son River pier, a cone through a house in Paris, and a se­ries of spi­rals inside an of­fice build­ing in An­twerp.

Ex­cept for the Euro­pean projects and the sub­ur­ban house, which was pur­chased for the artist’s ben­e­fit by the in­no­va­tive col­lec­tors Ho­race and Holly Solomon, most of what Mat­taClark did was il­le­gal or sur­rep­ti­tious, or both. He was once ar­rested for tres­pass­ing, which only added to his glam­our.

Like other im­por­tant artists of the time, in­clud­ing John Baldessari, Bruce Nau­man and William Weg­man, Matta-Clark made in­cred­i­bly smart art that was in no way in­tel­lec­tual. They as­sim­i­lated their crit­i­cal po­si­tions from artists, like Sol LeWitt or Dan Gra­ham, not from philoso­phers in France.

When Matta-Clark was work­ing in New York, Jeff Wall was liv­ing in Lon­don, soak­ing up the post-Marx­ist in­tel­lec­tual at­mos­phere. On his re­turn to Van­cou­ver he fan­cied him­self a film­maker but spent time teach­ing art his­tory and writ­ing crit­i­cism that fo­cused on the is­sues of con­cep­tual art.

Wall’s crit­i­cal sup­port net­work in­cludes such art crit­ics as Michael Fried, a pro­fes­sor of art his­tory at Johns Hop­kins. Fried has adopted Wall as the po­ten­tial re­deemer of con­tem­po­rary art’s decades-long wrong turn, see­ing his work as a blow to the “the­atri­cal­ity” or “lit­er­al­ness” of work like Matta-Clark’s.

Such high-horse­power crit­i­cal sup­port would lead one to ex­pect Wall’s ret­ro­spec­tive to be a heady af­fair, but it’s more likely to pro­voke head-scratch­ing. The 40 works show that Wall has a wide range of in­ter­ests, from faux-can­did street scenes of racial taunts and bar vi­o­lence to dis­tant ex­ur­ban land­scapes. Some of the new­est works are in black-and­white, where the grim­ness of his sub­ject mat­ter is mag­ni­fied by the ab­sence of glow­ing col­ors.

Only those with train­ing in art his­tory will no­tice the way Wall has bor­rowed from paint­ings for his com­po­si­tions. But since con­tem­po­rary art th­ese days is con­sumed largely by a know­ing elite that feasts on art fairs and in­ter­na­tional bi­en­ni­als, this isn’t much of a prob­lem. Nor is it a prob­lem that, above all else, Wall’s pic­tures are com­modi­ties of the very sort Matta-Clark tried to de­feat.

Th­ese aren’t ex­actly the sto­ried paint­ings that were made to hang over the couches in col­lec­tors’ liv­ing rooms. They are too large for that. Rather, they are made to hang in the ware­house quasi-mu­se­ums that con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tors now cre­ate to house their over­size pos­ses­sions. Or they are made to go di­rectly from the artist’s stu­dio to the com­mer­cial gallery and then on to the mu­seum. In any case, they re­in­force the idea that art is a closed sys­tem by the few for the few.

That said, many of Wall’s pic­tures fea­ture a cast of work­ing-class char­ac­ters to sug­gest the world out­side of art. And his best pic­tures are also the most ac­ces­si­ble. “Morn­ing Cleanup” (1999), for ex­am­ple, shows a win­dow washer at work in Mies van der Rohe’s fa­mous glass­walled Barcelona pavil­ion. It’s both beau­ti­ful and wryly hu­mor­ous. “The Flooded Grave” (1998-2000) is a ceme­tery land­scape that in sim­ple terms sug­gests the es­sen­tial mys­tery of death.

One doesn’t have to look far to find other ex­am­ples of this tableau approach to pho­tog­ra­phy within to­day’s scene. The im­por­tant point is not whether Wall’s orig­i­nal­ity con­sti­tutes a break­through but that his work has com­pletely merged into to­day’s im­age-ob­sessed art mar­ket.

Put it an­other way: Wall’s work is to­tally com­fort­able in its mu­seum, whereas Matta-Clark’s looks like it crashed the party. This means, among other things, that con­tem­po­rary art’s re­sis­tance to its own in­sti­tu­tions has be­come a his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­fact. Andy Grund­berg is an art critic and chair­man of the pho­tog­ra­phy de­part­ment at the Corcoran Col­lege of Art and De­sign.


Work that has ab­sorbed the rhetoric of an im­age-ob­sessed art mar­ket: “A Sud­den Gust of Wind (Af­ter Hoku­sai),” part of the Jeff Wall ex­hi­bi­tion at MoMA.


Giv­ing the term “homemade” a whole new mean­ing: Matta-Clark’s “Split­ting: Four Cor­ners,” from 1974.


The late Gor­don Matta-Clark in 1974. His dis­sec­tion of build­ings, a re­volt against art as a gallery com­mod­ity, is ex­am­ined in a show at the Whit­ney.

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