Enhancing the Reputation of his Building by Letting it be Known that it was Hostile to Humanity

Francis McKee

On Gordon Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out (1976)

The exhibition Matta-Clark was invited to take part in was titled Idea as Model. Presented by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, the show included several of his teachers from Cornell, and it exemplified all that frustrated him about contemporary architecture. His acceptance of the invitation seemed based on the possibility of presenting an objection to the tendencies of this movement. His original proposal for the show referenced broken windows in buildings located in the South Bronx. The actual work—shooting out all the windows of the exhibition space with a BB gun after a party—has an importance that goes far beyond his earlier aims.

Andrew MacNair’s memory of Matta-Clark as “incredibly wrecked,” for instance, places the work beyond the pale of rational conceptual presentations. It’s out of control, it’s impolite, and it’s violent. Matta-Clark’s drunken rant, punctuating the shooting of each window, makes it personal: “These were the guys I studied with at Cornell, these were my teachers. I hate what they stand for.”[1]

The Institute and those teachers were linked to the New York Five, a group of architects committed to the formalism of modernism and notorious for their lack of interest in the users of their buildings. Peter Eisenman, one of the Five and founder of the Institute, was described by his biographer, Andrew Ballantyne, as someone “actually enhancing the reputation of his building by letting it be known that it was hostile to humanity.”[2]

Beyond the walls of the Institute, New York City was in decline. In 1975 police cars were mobilized to serve papers on the banks, and New York, on the verge of default, was saved only when the unions agreed to use their retirement funds to back loans to the city. Matta-Clark fired his shots in December 1976. Television played CBGB that month (“you know I’m crazy about friction”). The Ramones had already released their first album in April of that year (“Beat on the brat with a baseball bat, what else can you do?”). Punk and punk’s aggressive attitude were emerging in a city ravaged by physical decay. The South Bronx averaged 120,000 fires annually by the mid-1970s. In 1976 the New York housing commissioner Roger Starr coined the term “planned shrinkage” for a policy of diverting funds from the South Bronx to other areas that “could still be saved.”[3]

For Idea as Model, Matta-Clark’s first proposed to exhibit photos of windows broken by vandalism in the South Bronx. His subsequent decision to blow out the windows of the Institute reversed that idea. It is important that he chose to blast out the windows from inside the building. His act becomes an opening of the Institute to the realities beyond, to the populations that inhabit architecture, rather than simply a theory of architecture. Matta-Clark brings the rage of the city into the academy.

In 2013 what is most striking about the work is the account of an artist expressing a belief in something. There is no equivocation, no cautious assessment of how the gesture might play out in a career. Irony is not a key element of the work and there is no finely articulated theoretical distance from the social and political incorrectness of violence. It’s macho and it’s convincingly heartfelt because the artist is too wrecked to be self-consciously performative. There is just good honest anger and a sincere desire to cause offense.

The gesture is “wrong” in so many ways that its wrongness becomes a badge of honor. And if it strikes a particular chord today, it is not as a corrective to architects but as a foreshadowing of the backlash against theory and the growing abyss between art world critique and the general population. Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” voiced early concern when he wrote:

My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path [...]. What I am going to argue is that the critical mind, if it is to renew itself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude—to speak like William James—but a realism dealing with what I will call matters of concern, not matters of fact […]. Critique has not been critical enough in spite of all its sore scratching.[4]

This was only the first of a growing number of voices raised against the ivory tower critique of the academy and its unholy alliance with a self-regarding art market. Matta-Clark, toting Dennis Oppenheim’s BB gun, looms on this landscape like the Stranger in High Plains Drifter (1973).

Two more texts on Gordon Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out (1976): Jeder braucht mindestens ein Fenster by Wouter Davidts and Users and Abusers by Andrea Phillips.

Francis McKee (born 1960) is an Irish writer and curator working in Glasgow. From 2005–2008 he was director of Glasgow International, and since 2006 he has been the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. He is also a lecturer and research fellow at Glasgow School of Art and has worked on the development of open source ideologies and their practical application to art spaces, specifically the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. He curated the Scottish participation at the Venice Biennale with Kay Pallister in 2003. Since 2011 he has been lead researcher on an AHRC research project—The Glasgow Miracle: Materials Towards Alternative Histories—indexing the archives of The Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Glasgow, the Third Eye Centre and CCA, spanning 1973 to the present.

Notes:
  1. Quoted in Pamela M. Lee, Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 116. return to text
  2. “The Nest and The Pillar of Fire,” in Andrew Ballantyne, ed., What Is Architecture? (London: Routledge, 2002). return to text
  3. Ralph Blumenthal, “Recalling New York at the Brink of Bankruptcy,” New York Times, December 5, 2002. return to text
  4. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004): 225–48. return to text