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Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s, Barbican centre, London

The trio Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark are hailed and shown to be true Pioneers

The fame of American artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who died in 1978 when only in his mid-thirties, comes not from his handling of a paintbrush or a chisel but a chainsaw. In the last years of his life, his increasingly baroque cuts through the walls and floors of buildings in Europe and the United States brought him plenty of attention, but nowhere near as much as he has attracted since then.

In books on Matta-Clark, there are references to choreographer Trisha Brown and sometimes to musician Laurie Anderson, but this is the first show to treat them as a trio. The pretext is that they were all protagonists in the resurrection of what was then called the South Houston Industrial Area and would soon become SoHo.

This was the early 1970s when New York was in turmoil, with crime figures soaring, the South Bronx in flames and garbage piled high in the streets. Matta-Clark studied for a degree in architecture at Cornell University, when Colin Rowe was on the staff, but said: ‘I don’t think most practitioners are solving anything except how to make a living.’

He lamented ‘the abuse of Bauhaus and early Purist ideals’ but also the eagerness of many architects to embrace redevelopment, ‘which sweeps away what little there is of an American past.’ He hardly endeared himself to the profession when he was invited to exhibit at New York’s Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and blew out all the windows with a shotgun.

Like Matta-Clark, Brown made existing architecture a site for performance, as her dancers walked, harnessed down the side of buildings, or colonised SoHo’s rooftops. There seems more point to her inclusion in the exhibition than the presence of Anderson, whose projects included sleeping in public places in New York to see whether different sites would influence her dreams. Anderson makes the ‘psychogeographers’ of today appear profound. Along with Matta-Clark, Anderson was part of a loose artists’ collective called ‘Anarchitecture’ that supposedly focused on ‘gaps and leftover spaces’, although Anderson recalls that ‘we talked about the structure of sheep herding, about stars aligning’. I guess you had to be there.

Certainly the uncaptioned grey photographs from the group’s one exhibition (1974) confirm the verdict of another member, artist Richard Nonas, who said ‘the promise of Anarchitecture never happened’. Given his major works were displayed in derelict buildings, Matta-Clark was well aware that gallery shows would be a problem. This exhibition collects what relics it can: marker-pen drawings, photographs and ‘garbage bricks’ - blocks of melted bottle glass that look Pompeian and minimalist. There are bits of flooring from the Bronx, upended as ‘sculptures’, and the four corners that Matta-Clark cut from the New Jersey house he bisected for Splitting - his most well-known but not his most interesting work.

An over-enlarged 8mm film of Matta-Clark in action plays faintly on the wall nearby. Sadly, the show makes Matta-Clark’s brief career appear even briefer than it actually was. The exhibition omits his most complex and adventurous late pieces - Conical Intersect in two Parisian townhouses beside the Pompidou Centre and Office Baroque in Antwerp, where he cut through all five
storeys of a 1930s building.

Nor does it include any of the photocollages he made to try to capture the dizzying spatial effects of his interventions. And to gain an understanding of Matta-Clark’s influence (on Frank Gehry, for instance), or of the later interpretation of his work, the overpriced catalogue is not the best source. For an exhibition that focuses on a key moment in the history of New York, it does little to evoke the time. Where are the newspaper cuttings and television clips that highlight the period and its issues? Where too is an installation reflecting the spirit of the work on show? Sporadically, the gallery comes alive with performances, primarily of pieces by Trisha Brown. But otherwise, enshrining much that was only ephemeral, it feels like a mausoleum.

Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s

Where: Barbican Centre, London

When: Until 22 May

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