Artists Who Adorn Walls — or Rip Them Apart
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.