by Frances Richard. University of California Press, March 2019. 560 p. ill. ISBN 9780520299092 (h/c), $45.00.

Reviewed November 2019
Viveca Pattison Robichaud, Curator/Conservateur, Canadian Centre for Architecture,


RichardThis text, from a hand-written index card, is reproduced on the wall welcoming researchers at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, repository of the Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978) archive. Frances Richard, poet, art critic, and teacher at the California College of the Arts, starts her book, Gordon Matta-Clark: Physical Poetics, with this quote and continues to delve deep into the textual documentation created by the artist. For a body of art which was largely ephemeral, the archival records represent both an extension of and a vehicle to understand his oeuvre. Richard centers her in-depth study on Matta-Clark's words by pouring through his notes, letters, writings, and annotations to his own library. Language, for Matta-Clark, was essential to his thinking, and for Richard “furnishes a critical framework that can alter how we see the artist, his work, and its reception, as well as the sociohistorical context in which all are embedded” (p. 4).

Matta-Clark, son of surrealist artists, grew up in artist circles in Paris and New York. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Cornell University and is most famous for his seven site-specific "building cuts," of which none remain. They survive through documentary film, photographs, sketches, written descriptions, and some salvaged physical remnants.

Physical Poetics is a weighty tome divided into four parts. The first focuses on the importance for reading the artist's archive through careful examination of its contents. Centering on the graffiti projects, Richard makes a compelling case for the centrality of language to Matta-Clark's work. The second looks at the artist's involvement in the 1970s Soho artistic scene. As Richard notes, "art making flourished to an extreme degree in the live interchange between friends" and Matta-Clark's writings, interviews, and letters provide important documentation (p. 5). The third examines the impact that surrealism and close family friend Marcel Duchamp had on the artist's work and is the first time someone has written such a detailed study of Duchamp's influence grounded specifically in Matta-Clark's writings. The fourth part concerns itself with Matta-Clark's politics, exploring writings and interviews, in tandem with his artwork.

Richard conscientiously treats Matta-Clark's written word as another facet of his artistic production, which serves to contextualize and deepen an understanding of his short-lived career. Presenting these musings, complete with words crossed-out, spelling errors, arrows, and marginal notations from books, provides a conduit to Matta-Clark's archive and displays his playful use of language.

This book is remarkable in its ability to systematically weave Matta-Clark's thought process with his artwork in a way that remains directly connected to the archives while still reading narratively. It would be an excellent resource for anyone interested in Matta-Clark and his milieu in the 1970s Soho art scene