Monday, February 18, 2008

Flint's Patron Saint of the Arts

The conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark died 30 years ago and, as far as I know, he never stepped foot in Flint. But as the Whitney Museum in New York prepares to launch a retrospective of his work, it's clear to me his art has a visceral connection to the place where General Motors was born, lived and now staggers on life support. Long before Flint was forced to start destroying its abandoned homes — the gutted reminders of more prosperous times — Matta-Clark was cutting derelict houses in half.

"Matta-Clark may be best known for his “building cuts,” in which he sliced structures like loaves of bread," Karen Rosenberg explains in New York Magazine. "This house in Englewood, New Jersey, was split in two, over four months of jacking and tilting. Manfred Hecht, who helped out, said, 'It was always exciting working with Gordon—there was always a good chance of getting killed.' The house’s corners are now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but the rest is gone— it had been chosen because it was slated for demolition anyhow."
Matta-Clark also knew how to transform abandoned industrial sites — the closest things Flint has to tourist attractions — into artistic statements, into the cathedrals of economic decay.

"Matta-Clark cut five openings into the decrepit shed of Pier 52, calling it a “basilica” with a “rose window” (a bean-shaped hole facing the sunset) and illuminating a spot known for seedy nocturnal misbehavior," Rosenberg writes. "It was all done illegally—he later said, 'I had no faith in any kind of permission … there has never, in New York City’s history, with maybe one or two minor exceptions, ever been any permission granted to an artist on a large scale'—and once the city got wind of the project, Matta-Clark ended up leaving the country to avoid arrest."
Matta-Clark carved out a name for himself in the seventies, a decade when many exhausted residents wanted nothing more than to escape from New York, to flee from the crime and economic indignities. Sound familiar?

Here's to Flint's kindred spirit and unofficial patron saint of the arts.

Gordon Matta-Clark 1943-1978

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Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at