Greener Days Matta-Clark and Alternative Spaces


From the date of its inception until 1974, the New York alternative space founded by artist Jeffrey Lew, 112 Greene Street, functioned with few institutional or commercial restraints. In 1974, due to economic constraints and the increasing commercialization of Soho, the gallery was forced to accept funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which turned the space from an artist-run commune into a formal committee-led arts organization. In 1976, Lew withdrew his involvement; a few years later, the space moved to 325 Spring Street and was re-named White Columns, which of course carries on to this day.


On the evening that “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974)” opened at David Zwirner, the exhibition’s curator, Jessamyn Fiore, explained, “I wanted to reflect a core community of 112 Greene Street from those early years, when Gordon Matta-Clark was a key figure.” As curated by Fiore, the show highlights the bohemian, “anything goes” years of the gallery, before many of the artists crucial to the collective dispersed. “I selected artists who were greatly involved with 112, and had a strong personal and artistic relationship with Gordon.” These include Richard Serra, Tina Giraourd, Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Richard Nonas, Larry Miller and Alan Saret.

At 112 Greene Street, where “anarchitecture”—no structural constraints on the space, and especially no white cubes—ruled, Matta-Clark once grew a cherry tree in the concrete floor of the basement, in the middle of one winter. The slick, polished floors at David Zwirner bear no cracks, and no living plants. But a bundle of carrots, Carrot Piece, reconstructed from the 1970 original by Larry Miller, an artist interested in the decay of organic materials as performance, sat unspoiled near the entrance. Fresh Air Cart (1972), a reconstructed sculpture constructed from two wheel chairs bound back-to-back, which Matta-Clark (then working under the pseudonym George Smudge) outfitted with oxygen tanks, sat in silence at the center of the back gallery, shaded from the heavy fluorescent gallery lights by a beach umbrella. At the time of its creation, Matta-Clark had wheeled the piece around the streets of downtown Manhattan, giving oxygen to passersby. Today, using the contraption on pedestrians is illegal.

Videos of performances and events originating at 112 Greene are featured on television screens throughout the gallery. These include a previously unseen recording of Suzanne Harris’ first solo exhibition-recording Flying Machine (1973), a giant rig suspended from the ceiling on which performers were bound by their arms, forcing them to interact with each other as they moved in space; and Wheels (1973), a set of four gigantic wooden wheels over which dancers dove, creating a sense of perpetual movement. Fuzzy and gray, videos can hardly reproduce the physical effect of the original performance, although exhibited alongside the works in the show, many of which are reproductions, simulacra of the event seem appropriate. The purpose of this show is not to reproduce the physical space of 112 Greene, but to give the gallery art historical context.

Richard Serra’s film Prisoner’s Dilemma (1974), tellingly made at the end of the space’s anarchic run, features art world and theater icons whom Serra locked in the dingy basement of the gallery for a number of hours as part of an effort to explore issues of imprisonment and Game Theory, the branch of applied mathematics that attempts to explain human behavior in strategic situations. Leo Castelli, for example, sits elegantly in his chair, clad in a three-piece suit, swiveling his head around as if looking for someone to signal that the experiment is over. By his willingness to participate in the antics, he appears as a harbinger for the future commercial success of Serra, signaling the almost uncanny, timeless ability of successful art dealers to get involved on the ground floor-literally, in this case-with artists of note.

“I really tried to emphasize the role of dance and performance at 112 Greene Street, and how the visual artists and performers collaborated in various ways,” Fiore explained, bringing the point to Matta-Clarke, who is ultimately the focus of the show. “112 was where he experimented and collaborated; it was where he first began to really formulate the artistic ideas that carried through the rest of his career. You can easily draw a line between his work at 112 Greene Street to subsequent large-scale intervention, between those initial experiments to his larger vision. In order to understand his work, you need to see the work of his peers and connect to the energy of his environment.”

The criticism that can be leveled at “112 Greene Street” is obvious; works originating in the anti-commerical art gallery being re-exhibited in a very commercial gallery would seem to pervert the original mission. At 112 Greene Street, artists pursued freedom of expression without fear of censorship, but also often sought to work outside the market. Whether or not that is possible today-particularly when it comes to re-introducing or preserving historical work-is at stake here. The work created in the early years at the gallery was not for sale, but the legacy of their inclusion in what has now become a historic project gives them value that can be measured on today’s secondary market. David Zwirner, who has represented the estate of Gordon Matta-Clark since 1998, has put many, but not all, of the works in the exhibition on sale.

Fiore is an independent curator and writer and the daughter of the widow to Gordon Matta-Clark. Although the relationship to the Matta-Clark estate, which she assists in managing with her mother, Jane Crawford, no doubt facilitated access to works, artists, and interview subjects (she has thus far conducted over 20 interviews in an effort to compile a full monograph on the early years of 112 Greene Street), Fiore manages to remove any sense of authorship to what is overtly an academic endeavor. The show, which is an outgrowth of Fiore’s master’s thesis at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, is intended for further developedment in the context of a museum.

Fiore, who has served since 2007 as the director of Thisisnotashop, a not-for-profit gallery space in Dublin that exhibits emerging Irish artists, hopes to establish her own alternative art space in New York in the coming years. “I’m interested in a multi-disciplinary program, which is perhaps one of the reasons why I find 112 so inspiring,” she told me. “I have a passion for unearthing and exploring artists and communities that may have been ignored by art history thus far, but whom I feel are entirely relevant to contemporary art discourse.”