The Gourmand: A contemporary food, arts and culture journal
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Matta Clark's FOOD

  • Matta Clark’s FOOD - The Gourmand
  • Matta Clark’s FOOD - The Gourmand
  • Matta Clark’s FOOD - The Gourmand
  • Matta Clark’s FOOD - The Gourmand
  • Matta Clark’s FOOD - The Gourmand
  • Matta Clark’s FOOD - The Gourmand
  • Matta Clark’s FOOD - The Gourmand

Matta Clark's FOOD

  • 16,000 oranges squeezed…
  • 379 lbs rabbits stewed…
  • 3,050 lbs carrots juiced…
  • 708 lbs fish fucked…
  • 15,660 potential chickens cracked…
  • 16 oz wasabi exploded…
  • 47 dogs asked to leave…
  • 2 rebellions…
  • 3,082 free dinners given…
  • 213 people needed to keep it together

The list of FOOD’s Family Fiscal Facts, placed as an advert / artwork in Avalanche Magazine, tells the tale of the legendary restaurant through dollars spent and earned, ounces of ingredients manipulated, mishaps, hazards, interventions by public bodies and general chaotic creativity. These constituent parts go some way to define a place that provided SoHo’s artists with a place to meet, eat and ruminate. Homespun and welcoming, FOOD was symptomatic of downtown 1970s New York’s reputation as one of the most exciting fulcrums of experimental artistic activity.

 

SoHo at the time was a sadly neglected industrial wasteland, and New York in the 1970s, a city in crisis. An economic downturn, coupled by mismanaged funds by the then mayor Abraham Beame, had left the city virtually bankrupt. Crime was at an all time high, Central Park was to be avoided, and prostitutes populated Time Square. Desolate, dangerous and cheap, SoHo provided a perfect blank canvas for the activities of artists who sought to build a new community out of the rubble, aided and abetted by the availability of cheap loft spaces. Like a Phoenix from the ashes, SoHo became synonymous with experimental artistic practice based upon a make do ethic, and has been on the rise ever since. FOOD provided the meals and communal space to support this new community in its burgeoning moment.

 

Co-founded by Gordon Matta-Clark, his then girlfriend Carol Goodden, and Tina Girouard amongst others, FOOD was pragmatically set up to provide local artists and inhabitants with a much-needed place to eat. The restaurant rapidly became a vital local hub, experimental performance space, and nascent work of art. Hearty soup, gumbo, Cajun dishes and home-made bread baked by farm workers on exchange with the restaurant were regular fare, created and served up by an ever changing staff of dancers, artists, drop-outs and bohemians. Artists who are now established giants of the art world such as Robert Rauschenberg and Donald Judd were invited to guest cook in a legendary Sunday night spot allowing for food to literally become art. Some creations were outlandish; Mark di Suvero proposed a meal that would be dished through the front windows by crane and eaten using screwdrivers, hammers, and chisels. Matta-Clark himself was behind creations that trod the line between edible and inedible such as‘Matta Bones’ in which oxtail soup, stuffed bones, marrow and frogs legs were served to intrepid diners. The remaining bones where then taken back to the kitchen, cleaned and carved into necklaces for customers by artist Hisachika Takahashi, the man allegedly responsible for bringing Sushi to New York. Lasting around three years in its intended form, the restaurant was a victim of its own success, and eventually became a run-of-the mill eatery.

 

In A Matta’s Proposal [1971], Matta-Clark gives some insight into the libidinal desires and continuing lines of enquiry from his broader oeuvre that converged in FOOD. Framed as a letter to St Lee Junior, the text exemplifies Matta-Clark’s love of word play, a technique as revealing as it is slippery. “I keep wondering why I am doing this – just what is the purpose of devoting so much energy to a highly demanding activity. It cannot be for busyness or money alone. There are deeper needs and pleasures at stake. Something more gutsy like a real hang-up with food. I have worked with food and its operations in the past, but never in such an obvious or direct way.” He concludes by wishing that St Lee Junior and himself both offer up their bodies for cannibalistic consumption by diners and to shoot a film of the gory feast: “think what a great film it would be!

 

The cannibalistic film proposal was understandably never realised, however, another film by Matta-Clark works to provide a rare insight into FOOD. Helped by Robert Frank, Matta-Clark shot A Day in the Life of Food [1971–73] as both an artwork and record of the operation of the restaurant from morning to night via Fulton Fish Market, shared joints, accordion playing and latenight parties. Watching the footage one can’t help but feel that he is directly positioning the restaurant as a part of his practice. The movement of waiters, cooks and clients around the space is almost choreographic. As giant pots full of soup are stirred, plump dough kneaded and fish gutted, culinary moments become alchemical transformations of produce that strike a chord with Matta-Clark’s broader oeuvre. The film also captures something of the human interactions intrinsic to the fabric of community that grew up around the space. The porousness between restaurant and street affected by the inclusive feel of its unpretentious interior and the long line of windows that ran along the façade must have no doubt aided in this. In the soft grainy focus of black and white film, those from all walks of life are united in eating and talking, be they Black, Hispanic, office worker, artist, young or old.

 

Matta-Clark’s work is notoriously difficult to pin down, and its ephemeral nature has meant that he has been largely neglected by art history. Many accounts of his practice privilege personality, emphasising his legendary hospitality, social grace and unbridled creativity, a tendency fed by the sad circumstance of his early death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. The recent exhibition, Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene [2012], at the Barbican has gone some way to re-establishing his work in the UK, serving up his legacy through a series of drawings, photographs, documentation of his famous building cuts and actual building fragments – the original structures have long since been demolished.

 

Tracing an arc through the development of his work, however, is vital to an understanding of how FOOD figured as a profound part of his practice, and not merely as an interesting side project. Ideas of process, transformation and the urban environment stand at the heart of this. He was profoundly affected both by a hatred of the strictures of the architecture course he undertook at Cornell University, and by his time there working on the first ever Earth Art show in 1969, which featured works by Dennis Oppenheim, Walter De Maria, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson. During the making of the show, Matta-Clark assisted Oppenheim in using chainsaws to cut a swathe through the ice on Beebe Lake. The experience of working with a group of artists at the forefront of taking art out of the gallery and using the world around as a material was crucial for Matta-Clark, who henceforth dedicated himself to art entirely.

 

In his earliest works he displayed many of the interests that would lead him towards establishing FOOD. In Photo Fry [1969] he literally fried Polaroid photographs of Christmas trees in oil mixed with gold leaf in the gallery space, and once the show was over sent these in boxes to friends and gallerists. The gallery reeked with the smell of molten chemicals for weeks. Transformation and disintegration were further evident in later works such as the installation, Agar [1969–70], for which the artist brewed agar, a gelatinous algal concoction with all manner of substances such as milk or chocolate Yoohoo, and poured it into trays to create pools of jelly upon which grew mouldy cultures. The mixture would increasingly smell, dry up and crack throughout the duration of the exhibition. These melted and crumbly residues demonstrate his profound interest in the alchemical processes of art, i.e. the magic of transforming one object into another, irrevocably, through the artistic act. By performing in the gallery itself he laid bare process as a primary experience of the work, shifting the emphasis away from the end product, which would itself decay rapidly. Pig Roast [1972] marks his most direct use of food as artwork. Staged at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge Event, he spit roasted an entire pig over an open fire to mark the end of the exhibition. Accompanied by the music of Philip Glass, Matta-Clark handed out 500 sandwiches to the assembled – legend has it that many friends had to pitch in over the course of the performance in order to ensure that the pig was at least cooked through in parts.

 

His experience of studying architecture, albeit abortive, had ensured a continuing attention to the built environment and urban space. Life in 1970s New York led to a particular consideration for the retrieval of lost space, and the power of creativity and imagination in making interventions in the urban environment, reclaiming it for individual communities in the face of monolithic power structures of capital and nation. His engagement with urban disintegration, decay and dissolution lead Matta-Clark to those works that he is perhaps most famous for – his building cuts, the first of which he staged at FOOD itself. His ‘cuts’ punctured buildings, radically altering their intended architectural form, opening up new relationships between the spaces within. Rather than singular sculptural works, these ‘splittings’ were staged as a performance, or dance with the building he was working on. “I feel my work intimately linked with the process as a form of theatre in which both the working activity and the structural changes to and within the building are the performance.” This attention to performance, a core aspect of the developing artistic practices of many of Matta-Clark’s contemporaries in SoHo such as Trisha Brown and the co-founder of FOOD, Carol Flodden, who was a dancer with Brown, is born out in the very structure of the restaurant. It was one of the first to have its kitchen open to the dining space, rendering the act of preparing food and even washing dishes performative; to be viewed as part of the dining experience.

 

Contemporary interest in FOOD abounds. White Columns, a not-for-profit exhibition space previously known as 112 Workshop/112 Greene Street and founded by Matta-Clark and Jeffrey Lew, staged FOOD [1998], an exhibition exploring the triangulation of Avalanche Magazine, the gallery and restaurant as the foundations for SoHo’s art scene. Curated by Catherine Morris, the exhibition celebrated FOOD through archival documents and photographs, subtly articulating the difference between the dealer-driven rise of Chelsea as an art scene, and that of SoHo in the 1970s. In May 2013 curator Ceclia Alemani is resurrecting FOOD as a special project for Frieze New York, inviting former chefs to return to the stove in an attempt to reflect upon the history and legacy of the restaurant. The resurrection of FOOD for Frieze Art Fair, albeit framed as a ‘tribute’, sits a little uneasily. Born of a DIY ethic, free from the commercialism of the rest of the New York scene, the co-option of the radicalism of the project for a profit-driven art fair seems problematic, despite the curator’s inclusion of original chefs and in-depth research. Perhaps such a line of critique is disingenuous however, given the inevitable and inextricable role that restaurants and the art world in general play in gentrification? Certainly a rich source of inquiry has emerged from Alemani’s research around the role of the artist’s studio in playing a similar communal focus for contemporary artists as opposed to local public spaces such as FOOD, thirty years ago.

 

The ongoing fascination with, and fetishisation of moments in time such as the 1970s in SoHo, and spaces such as FOOD, seems to pervade both contemporary culture and artistic practice. The saturation of capital into most corners of the art world suggests that these alternative models of operation will continually be repurposed and resurrected as we seek a path to societal change that currently seems so distant. Critic and curator Cuauhtémoc Medina provides an insight into this very process: “the circularity of our current cultural narratives will only be broken once we stop experiencing contemporary culture as the déjà vu of a revolution that never entirely took place.”