Of Arcs and Objects

From where I sit, I can watch the lights on the FDR, curving ribbons of white and red, flowing slow as molasses. I can also watch the planes take off from LaGuardia, small blips of light tracing diagonals against the night sky. The FDR is, according to Wikipedia, a “9.44-mile (15.19 km) freeway-standard parkway on the east side of the New York City borough of Manhattan.” Besides cute 3-letter acronyms, the FDR and LGA have something else in common–Robert Moses. It was Moses who provided the original designs for the FDR (in 1934), and it was also Moses who determined that there would be no train or subway service to LGA airport.


FDR Drive, in the 1950s. Photo credit: Forgotten New York. Read more about this photograph.

Of Moses, Paul Goldberger wrote, “His guiding hand made New York, known as a city of mass transit, also the nation’s first city for the automobile age. […] The Moses vision of New York was less one of neighborhoods and brownstones than one of soaring towers, open parks, highways and beaches – not the sidewalks of New York but the American dream of the open road. “ And that is why, if you’ve travelled to Manhattan via LGA, your experience of entering (or exiting) the city usually involves considerable time on the FDR.

Of course, we know where this story goes, and most of us are familiar with the Jane Jacobs critique. (And perhaps also with the critiques of the Jane Jacobs critique…) In the stories that we tell ourselves, Jacobs won and Moses lost. The city became desirable again.

In an essay on Jacobs and her legacy, Adam Gopnik observed: “London, Paris, New York, and Rome—whose political organizations and histories are radically unlike, and which live under regimes with decidedly different attitudes toward the state and toward enterprise—have followed an eerily similar arc during the past twenty-five years. After decades in which cities decline, the arrow turns around. The moneyed classes drive the middle classes from their neighborhoods, and then the middle classes, or their children, drive the working classes from theirs.”

New York was a different city in the midst of that decline. It created the conditions for the production of entirely new types of art–among them, the abandoned buildings that Gordon Matta-Clark carved into “urban equivalent[s] of Land Art.” Matta-Clark is now the subject of a retrospective at the Bronx Museum, a fact that underscores Gopnik’s point about the rising arc. In the 1970s, when New York was deep in its decline, Matta-Clark began thinking about using the city’s derelict buildings as a medium for his art. His first act of “anarchitecture” was to cut holes into the walls and floors of abandoned Bronx apartments.


Photo: The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Courtesy of the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York/London


Matta-Clark, making a cut. Photo: The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Courtesy of the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York/London

matta clark bronx floor.jpg

Matta-Clark, Bronx Floors (1972-73). Building fragment: wood and linoleum. Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Horace H. Solomon.370.1991. © 2018 Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A short film, “Day’s End,” documents the artist creating a “sun and water temple” out of an abandoned pier near Gansevoort Street. (The very same Gansevoort where you can have an expensive cocktail, buy designer furniture–or clothing, walk the High Line, or visit the Whitney Museum’s lavish new building.)

A line of descent runs from Matta-Clark to Rachel Whiteread, whose cast-concrete “House” (1993, destroyed 1994) was also a comment on the conditions of the city–though the city, in this case, was London, and the “conditions” in question were those that Gopnik might ascribe to the upward arc, the arrow turning around. Or we might call it gentrification. “House” was a cast of a specific house, one located at 193 Grove Road, in an area of the East End of London called Wennington Green. A piece by Digby Warde-Aldam, published on the tenth anniversary of “House,” ruefully noted: “To say the early 1990s were a time of upheaval for the then-predominantly working class neighbourhoods of the East End doesn’t come close; the Conservative government had put an enormous amount of faith into constructing a new financial centre around Canary Wharf, a few miles south of Wennington Green. In the surrounding areas, ‘regeneration’ became a mantra. The terraces around the Green, heavily bombed during the Second World War, were among the first places marked for demolition: ‘Thatcher wanted to create a “green corridor” around Canary Wharf’, Rachel Whiteread says, ‘I had my studio nearby and used to cycle past. I was very conscious of the fact it was all about to change’.”


Rachel Whiteread, House (1993). Photo: Sue Omerod.

Whiteread, too, is getting a major retrospective. Her work can be undeniably beautiful, as the Tate’s installation of Untitled (One Hundred Spaces, 1995) demonstrates. One hundred cast resin volumes, each delineating the volume of space beneath a specific chair, carefully arrayed in a austere, neoclassical space. One hundred candy jelly forms–they look, to me, like so many pieces of pâte de fruit--laid out against a backdrop of clean, neutral stone. Eleanor Birne described their effect beautifully: “At the Tate, when the sun comes out over the long glass roof of the gallery, the coloured blocks glow like boiled sweets, or like jewels. When the sun goes in they grow duller, mute. I visited on a bright sunny-cloudy day and they lit up and grew dim over and over again.”


Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces, 1995).

If Matta-Clark was born of the city’s decline, Whiteread is undoubtedly a product of the upward arc. No deconstruction here. In the new city, the city awash in wealth, we create cast relics, we ‘mummify the air.’ We relish the thingness of things, their taste, their touch. One could eat Whiteread’s Due Porte (2016), with their hard candy sheen, ingesting both their beauty and the history imprinted in that translucent blue resin. The city changes, yes, but we can hold onto history here. We can almost taste it in our mouths.



Rachel Whiteread, Due Porte (2016)


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