I t couldn’t happen today, not in such an expensive and security-conscious city. But in the early seventies, Gordon Matta-Clark made transformative, transgressive art out of New York’s desolate corners. Without permits or any official support, the former Cornell architecture student hacked into the walls and floors of derelict buildings (of which there were many), turning shadowy wrecks into light-filled sculptures. “I don’t like the way most art needs to be looked at in galleries,” Matta-Clark once said, “any more than the way empty halls make people look.” He made art out of parts of the city nobody else wanted—literally, as when he bought up many of those leftover slivers of real estate that can exist between lots. You couldn’t acquire much of his work; it was clandestine public art, of a sort you might not notice if you weren’t looking.
It was nearly all ephemeral. His most important works survive only in photos and on film, with the odd remnant poking out here and there. In fact, not just the buildings but the entire neighborhoods where he worked—Soho, the meatpacking district, even the South Bronx—are vastly different places today. (Matta-Clark himself vanished early, too, dying at 35 in 1978.) But though his work is largely invisible, he is not: The Whitney’s Matta-Clark retrospective opens February 22, and we looked at what’s left (and what isn’t) of several of the artist’s projects, from an utterly transformed Soho storefront to a lot in Queens that looks as drab as ever.