Bronx decay in the 1970s was an inspiration for visionary ‘anarchitect’ Gordon Matta-Clark


For years, Gordon Matta-Clark’s work intrigued Sergio Bessa.

Whenever he studied the famed artist in class, or saw his work on display at an art gallery, Bessa felt like Matta-Clark’s creations were always somewhere in the back of his head as something he wanted to explore more. 

So when he had the opportunity to meet Jessamyn Fiore, the daughter of Matta-Clark’s widow Jane Crawford, the two talked about bringing the architect’s work to The Bronx Museum of the Arts — where Bessa happens to be the director of curatorial and education programs.

The two curated “Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect,” an exhibition highlighting more than 100 pieces of Matta-Clark’s artwork. “Anarchitect” is the combination of “anarchy” and “architecture,” referring to the process of slashing deep channels and huge circular holes into buildings. 

Matta-Clark gained fame for deconstructing poor-condition homes and historic structures in the New York City area and as far away as Paris in the 1970s. 

Like another famous site-specific artist, Christo, he meticulously documented his pieces and that documentation became an important part of the artwork. 

The Bronx Museum exhibition includes a range of those documents, from hand-painted photographs of graffiti to large-scale projections of Matta-Clark’s building work.

Although he died at the age of 35 from pancreatic cancer in 1978, Matta-Clark’s work has lived on for decades thanks to Crawford and Fiore’s involvement in his estate. Now Matta-Clark’s work can be experienced at The Bronx Museum of the Arts through April 8.

“We fell so in love with this exhibition,” Bessa said. “The thing is that he didn’t have a long career, but he was very prolific.”

Matta-Clark’s art came at a time when arson was rampant in the Bronx and crime was on the rise. It was interesting for Bessa to see the parallels between people leaving the Bronx because they felt unsafe, the formation of the arts museum in 1971, and Matta-Clark’s decision to stick around and let the borough be a factor in propelling his work. 

“He actually saw that chaotic situation as an opportunity to create new things,” Bessa said. “So he came up with a different perspective in architecture that was very inspirational to a lot of architects and artists.”

Bringing Matta-Clark’s work back to the Bronx, Bessa added, is a way to bring it full circle.

“This show could’ve only been at the Bronx Museum,” he said. “It makes sense to be at the Bronx Museum. It makes sense to show to our community, to the kids that come to our education programs. 

“It tells a story of the Bronx that we should never forget, that Bronx was almost kind of a war zone. And we’re pulling everything from there.”

Looking at Matta-Clark’s work from a new point of view these days, Bessa said while most people consider his work as just a form of avant-garde art, he believes it represents Matta-Clark’s interest in community engagement, activism, and embracing the objects around him.

“He just worked with things that were very, very close to him,” Bessa said. “He didn’t need to be too mystical. The work is very straightforward, very simple.”

After the exhibition wraps in April, Bessa and Fiore plan on taking it on the road to museums in Paris, Estonia and Massachusetts.

But in light of honoring Matta-Clark’s work and memory, Bessa wishes there was one person who could have seen the exhibition: Holly Block, the late director of The Bronx Museum of the Arts, who died from breast cancer last October.

“She was so proud of this project,” Bessa said. “I felt really sad that she died just a few weeks before the show opened because I think she would have loved to have seen it. So for me, that was a major heartbreak.”

But as time goes on and new artists emerge, Bessa hopes Matta-Clark’s work motivates them to immerse themselves in the history of the borough, learning that inspiration is a lot closer than they think.

“What he’s trying to tell young people is to look around, and you don’t need to look for things that are not here,” Bessa said. “Everything that you need is here.”