Gordon Matta-Clark / Lorna Simpson at the Whitney
One of my favorite things about going to look at art is how unpredictable the experience can be. Take the two big solo shows currently at the Whitney, where Debbie and I went last Saturday, and at which my expectations going in were basically the opposite of how I felt when we left. Pretty much: disappointed by the Gordon Matta-Clark; delighted by the Lorna Simpson.Don't get me wrong... there's a lot about Matta-Clark's work that I found extremely appealing: it's subversive and defiant and playful; there's a certain element of street theater to his pieces; he was daring and principled and smart and creative. But maybe the nature of his art makes it better suited to be explored in a book, rather than a museum show. For example, often times Matta-Clark's ideas are cool, but the visual representations are sort of ho-hum, as in his "Fake Estates" project, for which he bought, at city auctions, odd real-estate lots—such as a 355' x 2.33' section of a driveway in Queens—created by anomalies of zoning and surveying. That's funny, I think, and says something about our worship of property, but in a museum it amounts to a few framed deeds and some photographs of... a driveway in Queens.
Or take his 1971 art-piece/restaurant on Prince Street, called "Food", at which he served all kinds of interesting things (including an all-bone meal) AND at which Debbie thinks she may have actually eaten with her parents, proving once again what an amazingly cool woman she is. Anyway, I'd love to read a chapter in a good book about this place, as I imagine the stories are fascinating and many, but at the Whitney what we get is not much more than a photograph of a storefront. One more illustration of the exhibit's lack of visual punch might be Matta-Clark's "Day's End" (below), for which he surreptitiously sliced a huge, ovalish shape into an abandoned warehouse on the Hudson River. This must have been amazing to witness, and the way the light streamed in surely created an ironic cathedral-esque atmosphere to the decrepit space, but the video of the guerrilla cutting is small and silent, and the photographs, while slightly larger, don't really do the project justice either.
What we DID especially like about Matta-Clark, the museum show, were his collage-y, hand colored prints in the Office Baroque series, as well as the disorienting photographs of his 1972 Bronx Hole set, for which he would break into abandoned buildings in the South Bronx and cut circles in the walls and floors, famously oblivious to the dangers of that time, and that place.
After Matta-Clark we stopped into the fourth floor to see what Lorna Simpson was all about, and were both totally taken by her large-scale, symbolic, often repetitious photography combined with simple phrases. One of our favorites was "You're Fine, You're Hired", in which a black-and-white photograph of woman lying on her side has been severed into four parts, flanked on the left by doctor's-office style gold plates that read "blood test", "urinalysis", "ekg", and other clinical terms, and on right with the words "Secretarial Position." This work was apparently inspired by the application process Simpson was subjected to—including all those medical tests—in order to get a job answering phones. After being hired, Simpson realized that no other employee was black, and that no other employee had had to undergo a physical examination to work there.
We also really liked the photographs that appear to have been developed onto felt, as in the "Wigs" series, above, as well as several of the other works that used type and body images, and are pictured in this post, the names of which escape me. Also engaging (up to a point) were Simpson's videos, including a huge eight-screen piece that features people fading in and out of different domestic scenes; and "Easy to Remember", composed of 15 sets of lips humming something that sounds like Ode to Joy.
The Gordon Matta-Clark show is at the Whitney until June 3; Lorna Simpson's exhibit is up until May 6.