Nominal Utopias

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My graduate thesis at SCI-Arc, MUSEO MATTA 3/2/3+1, was presented in April of 1994 and self-published as a small booklet the following year. The introductory essay, “Nominal Utopias,” appears here on its 20th anniversary, echoing an homage that Roberto Matta paid to Marcel Duchamp in his 194_ painting, The Bachelors, Twenty Years After, but also, I hope, contributing to a renewed fascination with Literalism and Nominalism in advanced architectural debate.

MUSEO MATTA 3/2/3+1 explores the conflicted utopias of Roberto Matta and Gordon Matta-Clark, as well as their debts to Giovanni Piranesi and Marcel Duchamp. Countering the prevailing idealism of modern art and architecture, these four artists deliver a number of nominalist alternatives. MUSEO MATTA 3/2/3+1 assembles my effort, to bridge between the two Mattas, Piranesi and Duchamp, developing linkages between the spaces of their work, their self-constitution as artist and architects, and their intentions as cultural and political speculators.

Roberto Matta was born in Santiago de Chile on November 11, 1912, though he often claims the birthdate 11/11/11.1 MATTA: Entretiens Morphologiques, Notebook #1, 1936-44 (London: Sistan, 1987), 15. After completing parochial school and receiving his design degree from the Universidad Catolico de Chile, Matta left for Paris at eighteen. He worked at Le Corbusier's atelier for three years, rendering the Ville Radieuse and other urban restructuring schemes. 0 Matta traveled extensively and through Spanish family connections met Lorca, Neruda and other voices of the Latin avant-garde.

After two years, Matta began to chafe under the restrictions of architectural practice. (Given his early traumas at the hands of the Church, perhaps Matta balked at all of Corbusier's cruciform plans.) Finally dissuaded by his new mentor Salvador Dali, Matta left Corbusier's office to join the Surrealists as a painter. Murky realms punctuated by sharply-etched phosphorescent bursts of light, Matta's earliest works reflect his training in perspectival rendering and interior design, as well as his new fixation with the realms and motifs of the unconscious.

Matta met Duchamp in New York, where both spent the war years. During this second expatriacy, Matta had twin sons in l 943 with Anne Clark, an American Surrealist painter. By the reckoning of the art market, the years surrounding the birth of his sons were the most auspicious of Matta's career, though he spent much of that time half-blind and incoherent, unable to meet the responsibilities of fatherhood. Against Matta's wishes, Clark took the twins to Chile where they were baptized with Christian names: Batan, from his father's middle name Sebastian; and Gordon, after Gordon Onslow Ford, a family friend who had given Matta his first blank canvases.

At his mother's insistence, Gordon received an architectural training at Cornell. But both of the twins eventually followed their parents into the fine arts, Batan as a painter and Gordon as a conceptual artist. Gordon Matta-Clark added his mother's maiden name to his father's after his first gallery review.2 The paintings of Anne Clark and Batan Matta were unavailable to me. (JD 2014 - I met Anne Clark in 1996 and she showed me both some of her fashion sketches and some of Batan’s drawings.)
Though references to Anne Clark's surrealist paintings and fashion studies for Vogue abound, I have not been able to find a single credited image of her work. Batan Matta's tortured painting career is mentioned in a number of interviews in Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective, but none of his works were shown.

At the age of thirty-three, Matta-Clark was asked to take part in a show at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Design, a hot-bed of the New York Five. For his installation Window Blow Out, Matta-Clark displayed photographs of housing projects in the South Bronx and Manhattan. He shot out the windows of the exhibition space with a BB gun, echoing the shattered fenestration of the housing projects and replacing the panes of glass with the "pains" of the inner city. Matta-Clark explained Blow Out to a bewildered curator in terms of his fellow neo-modernist participants: "These are the guys I studied with at Cornell, these were my teachers. I hate what they stand for."3 Mary Jane Jacob, Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985), p.96. Amid charges from the Institute's Director Peter Eisenman that Matta-clark's installation recalled Kristallnacht, the photos were removed and windows repaired before the exhibition opening. 

What "they" -Meier, Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey - stood for was the legacy of Le Corbusier.

Many of the housing projects that Matta-Clark photographed had been modeled exactly on the Ville Radieuse. The most influential residential utopia of this century, the VR prescribed an end to urban congestion and bourgeois individualism through an urban plan of massive, floating housing units arrayed across the arrondissements of Paris in a regular grid. With human occupation thus removed from the ground plane, freeways and open parks run unbroken, between and below monoliths of modern living: "A city made for speed is made for success."4 Le Corbusier, The City of Tommorow and its Planning, Fredrick Etchells, trans.
(London: The Architectural Press, 1935), 191; See also Le Corbusier, The Radiant City (LeVille Radieuse), (New York: Orion, 1957, 1933). For general summary and comparison with Piranesi's Campio Marzio, see Dianne Agrest in The Real and Imagined Landscapes of Piranesi: Current American Perspectives, Joseph Rosa, ed. (New York: Columbia University, 1992), 6-9.

The Mattas, however, see the VR as an assault on all interior space, figurative and literal. In the VR, glass replaces all exterior walls, building volumes are reduced to intersecting planes, squares, courtyards, the metropolitan intimacy of street and boulevard are rejected out of hand. As Corbusier explains, '' The skyscrapers are all built in the shape of a cross in order to avoid central courtyards: title are no courtyards anywhere."

Corbusier demands a transparent society of equally transparent technocrats. In place of new city-scapes, Matta's 1938 renunciation of Le Corbusier in the journal Minotaure calls for new interiors, a ''Morphologie Psychologique,'' or intrauterine space of drenched velvet walls and pneumatic cushioning.

Less sensational but no less combative, Matta-Clark's documentation of strip-windows shot and blown out of the projects attest to the pressures and frustrations of those sentenced to live within the pinched confines and depthless open yards of modernist housing.

But literal counter-polemic and documentary exhibits only go so far. Matta soon gave up interior design and Matta-Clark only rarely resorted to photo journalism. Though intimately familiar with the most convincing and disastrous instance of modern visionary architecture, both Matta and Matta-Clark nevertheless proposed utopias of their own.

Utopian designers tend to segregate space in terms of time. In the causes of urban consolidation on the one hand and industrial expansion on the other, Jeremy Bentham and Tony Garnier proposed new societal organizations and gave time-tables for their proper use. The tastes of Sade and Fourier ran to young bodies and fresh fruit, rather than consumer durables, but the same gridding of space and time prevails in Justine and the Phalanstery as in the Panopticon and the Cite Industrielle. Utopias have framed the off-Broadacre dramas of sexual and gastronomic satisfaction as easily as the grand operas of factory production and agrarian development. Plot - action toward defined ends within fixed time constraints - vindicates circumstance.5 Literally, of course, utopias are non-places, but this oversimplifies. Through usage, ''utopia'' has become an optimistic catch-all for both arcadian and cosmopolitan formulas for the future, visions of freedom from soil and toil. Most utopias are eutopias played out against the failures of contemporary society, beginning with Thomas More's first Utopia, Rousseau's ideal wilderness, Milton's Paradise Lost. Dystopias answer symmetrically in this century with capitalist/fascist fantasies such as 1984 and Brave New World, as well as more current apocalypse and Armageddon scenarios; Mad Max and Bladerunner.

For the Mattas, however, the fabrication of utopia is a conundrum, more akin to imagining the spaces of consciousness or the fourth dimension than to extruding pieces of the present into versions of the future. They ask questions that seldom trouble architectural visionaries:

Where do the boundaries of utopia - temporal. psychological, spatial, political-edge up against the presents?

Where does the persuasive power of visionary architecture lie, and what are its mechanics?

On either side of the picture-plane, what role does perspective play in the formation of utopias? What is the impact of idealized space on current circumstance?

The Mattas begin not with the creation of a new society, but with the construction of new horizon lines and points of view. In classical terms, we see perspectival images through cones of sight leading up to the picture-plane and preceive depth by following pyramids of recession beyond that plane.6 See Hubert Damisch, The Orgin of Perspective (Cambridge: MIT, 1994) chapters 4-7, and Panofsky's Perspective as Symbolic Form (New York: Zone, 1991) sec. l. For more on the mechanics of curved or ''subjective'' perspectival systems, I consulted Albert Flocon and Andre Barre. Curvilinear Perspective (Berkeley: UC Press, 1987), and on the other hand for the cultural subjectivity of perspective, Martin Jay, ''The Scopic Regimes of Modernity,'' in Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Vol.2: Visions and Visuality (New York: DIA, 1990). It is exactly this tidy bifurcation of vision before and after the picture-plane that Matta and Matta-Clark, as well as Piranesi and Duchamp, reject completely. All four explore the consequences of interrupting and multiplying both fields of vision.

Most utopian vistas pan wide and far from the ''reality'' to come. Plan views and distant two-point perspectives abstract the cityscape and place the viewer safely above and outside the framed tableau. In contrast, the dependable horizontal of infinite distance is bent, broken and obscured throughout the work of Matta and Matta-Clark.

Piranesi went to elaborate lengths to establish plausible depth of field in his etchings, only to pack his contradictory stage sets with pan-cultural kitsch. Exchanging signs for space, tromp l'oeil for foreground, Piranesi erodes the boundaries between audience and image. Duchamp forced the fields of vision and recession through one another by illustrating on panes of glass that reflect the viewer's gaze while simultaneously allowing it to pass through the picture plane.

In their first American reviews, Roberto Matta and Gordon Matta-Clark were both called "alchemists." The transubstantiation that each of these four artists perform is not a transfer of lead for gold, but of vision for consciousness.7 For Matta's alchemical pedigree see, "Matta, Furious Scientist'' in Art News, April 1 (5-30), 1942, 27; for Matta-Clark: Cindy Nemser, ''The Alchemist and the Phenomenologist'' in Art In America (March-April, 1971) ,v.9, no.2: 100-103.

NOMINALISM - Literal and Pictorial

Seen through the compound lenses of Robero Matta and Gordon Matta-Clark, the distance separating Piranesian realms from those of Duchamp closes, uniting two dissonant visions against the reductive optimism of their respective times. The work of both the Mattas extends Duchamp's notion of ''pictorial Nominalism" into a domain of spatial nominalism alluded to first in the images of Piranesi.8 Patrick Pinnell introduced me to Nominalism in a 1987 seminar at Yale School of Architecture. For my general understanding of pictorial nominalism, I have depended primarily on Thierry de Duve's Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp's Passage from Painting to the Ready-made, Dana Polan, trans.; Theory and History of Literature, vol.51 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), chap. 3; as well as Octavio Paz's Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare (New York: Arcade, 1990).

Nominalism is the doctrine that ''only individuals (and individual things) really exist, and generic and specific terms are merely due to the more or less arbitrary necessities of thought and the conveniences of speech."9 New Standard Dictionary of the English Language, (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, l940), 1682. The definition concludes: 'The more modern form of nominalism is connected with the philosophy that regards all ideas as reproduced sensations, thus, man, mankind, or humanity means only so many people as exists: comparable to a composite photograph of those we have seen, imprinted on the brain: by the elder Mill described as "the indistinct idea of the crowd."' Metaphor can not succeed: a tree and the word or image ''tree'' can never be irreducibly linked, nor for that matter, can ''trees'' ever be proven the plural of ''tree.'' Michel Foucault explains the nominalist rupture in painting as ''a double effacement simultaneously of resemblance and of the representative bond by the increasingly insistent affirmation of the lines, the colors (that are) neither more nor less objects than the church, the bridge, or the knight with his bow."10 Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, trans. James Harkness (Berkeley: University of California Press), 34.

Duchamp mentions nominalism only twice, once in a stray note and once in a note for the White Box, both from 1914. In the first, Duchamp defines literal nominalism:

"Nominalism: literal = No more generic specific numeric distinction between words (tables is not the plural of table, ate has nothing in common with eat). No more physical adaptation of concrete words; no more conceptual value of abstract words."11 Ibid., 126. Duchamp continues to explain the divorce of sound and signification.

The second reads only, ''A kind of pictorial Nominalism (Check)''.12 De Duve, 126.

In the early twentieth century, when the nature of the fourth dimension was still in active debate, time was one among many possibilities for the next coordinate beyond the x, y, and z axes. Language, emotion, sex, the after- life, and the weather - not to mention a plethora of geometric models - were all fair game in the early renderings of higher dimensions. Now, all but time have been relegated to the occult. From Duchamp's historical vantage point, however, the gaps between dimensions, and between different notions of the fourth dimension, could be addressed only through a variety of nominalist tactics. The fourth dimension could be represented through perspective in the second because ''any three dimensional object, which we see dispassionately, is a projection of something four-dimensional, something we are not familiar with.''13 See Linda Dalyrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Princeton: Princeton, 1983), 133, and Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), chapter 3.

The transference from literal to pictorial nominalism in Duchamp's work appears to follow dimensional progressions in representation. Duchamp often explained his early works in terms of their dimensionality, and elaborate studies have mapped the multi-tiered space of the Large Glass.14 Henderson, Chap.3 ''Duchamp and the New Geometries'' and Jean-Francois Lyotard, "Machinations" in Duchamp's TRANS/formers, (Venice, CA: Lapis, 1990). To simplify, Duchamp summarized the ''spaces'' of the Large Glass thus: the two-dimensional surface of glass holds the three-dimensional mapping of the Bachelor apparatus, above which the fourth-dimensional apparition of the Bride is projected. As the Large Glass is almost exactly two-dimensional in an objective sense, most of the third and fourth-dimensional attributes of the glass are seen only in the ''traces'' that they leave passing through the second dimension. The objects in the third dimension can be realized only to a point of shadow-like perspectival rectitude in the second. Objects in the fourth dimension are two translations away.  Because the projection of Duchamp's fourth dimensional Bride in the Large Glass must pass through the third dimension to reach the second, no clear and singular reading of the Bride is possible. She may embody Desire, Eroticism, she may section through a ''dynamic volume''- a body moving through space after ''Nude Descending a Staircase," she may serve as an occult bridge between the competing elements that color the glass (copper and zinc?), or she may be simply a copy- the Bride in the painting of the same name of 1912 transposed directly, at scale, onto the Glass. She may be any and, within a nominalist schema is, all and none of the above.

At different times Duchamp endorsed these explanations and others. It isn't his faltering memory in later years that makes for this multiplicity of readings. The point- exactly the beauty15 Duchamp discusses beauty, in terms of chess, as the collection of potential moves that a given setup invites. Film, A Game of Chess (dir. Jean-pierre Segal, 1987). of the piece - lies in the acts of negotiation and naming that the viewer must undertake to complete the work. Following on the heels of not one but two titles, Definitively unfinished is a postscript addressed not to Duchamp but to his audience: add to the definition of the work as you go.

Pictorial nominalism is Duchamp's agent of democracy, driving the transparent, participatory anarchy of the Large Glass as much as it does the opaque anti-art tactics of the Ready-Mades. Like Alice, we are welcomed into the topsy-turvey world of high-art through a looking glass.16 Bringing to mind the often cited quote from Apollinaire, that it will be left to Duchamp "to reconcile art and the people." de Duve, 74.

Eschewing oil, pigment and canvas, the Large Glass undermines the integrity of an art world elite and the painterly masterpieces that such an elite call into being- with glass, dust and lead. It is a visionary, perhaps even utopian, projection toward a society without cultural hierarchy. At the same time, the Glass also captures pessimistic truisms of its age in a dystopian reflection on the mechanization of mankind, the impossibility of self-definition, the failure of gender relations. With acute insight but no clear bias, the Large Glass questions the future rather than prescribing it. It is an interrogation without prejudice- or ''personality.''


Piranesi's Canceri, Matta's Inscapes and Gordon Matta-Clark's photo-collages demand a redefinition by the viewer that closely parallels the ''entry'' into the Large Glass. In each we are left to reconcile a series of images with a series of titles that do not tell the whole story, that in fact betray any single story- line or spatial reading.

Without archeological basis in Roman antiquity, Piranesi's "Prisons" refer to a building type only barely realized in the artist's time, and his subtitles only add to the enigma by listing arbitrary historical and mechanical fragments in each foreground.17 The first cellular prison was built in Rome in the mid- 1600s. Though vaulted and pierced by a long central atrium, it bares little resmblance to the Carceri. See The Rome House of Correction by Carlo Fontana, l704, in Robin Evans' The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture 1750-1840 (Cambridge University Press, 1982), illustration #25.  Under the daily influence of Duchamp, Matta's early titles, such as The Vertigo of Eros and Here, Sir, Fire, Eat, allude to the paintings they accompany through double and triple entendre, or not at all. MattaClark's collages are named only by the cuttings that they accompany, but the cuttings were given multiple, again Duchampian titles: Conical Intersect, Quel Can, Quel Con or Cal Can, Circus, or Caribbean Orange, InfraForm. In each case, the failure of figurative correspondence opens the piece to any viewer's interpretation without reprimand.

Despite these shared tendencies toward pictorial nominalism, a major distinction must be drawn between these works and the Large Glass. Piranesi, Matta and Matta-Clark question not the ''content'' of the Glass, but its transparent armature. The ground, rather than the figure, is at issue.

Duchamp's glass medium insures the timeliness of his piece- its context is always the present, always exactly what we see framed beyond the glass.18 At its current station at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Large Glass is installed in front of a window so that a fountain outside the museum appears to spurt from the Bachelor Apparatus up into the Bride's Domain. For a European replica of the Glass, a palm tree stands in for the fountain.  However, the glass of the Large Glass also begs a broader question: Can there be any fixed perspective, figuratively or literally, without consistent context, ground, horizon, or depth of field?

Duchamp's answers within the Large Glass only compound our doubts. In the lower part of the Glass, Perspectival structure is explicit. The steel line separating the upper and lower halves of the Glass doubles as ''horizon'' for the Bachelor Apparatus, the vanishing points for different parts of the apparatus are arrayed along this center line. In contrast, the graphic of the Bride observes none of the bachelors' constraints, occupying the full height of the upper pane and filling much of the remainder with her bubbled ''reflections.'' The depth of the Large Glass is thus denied in places, tripled in others. At the same time it is worth noting that the first full-scale version of the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even was scratched into the wall of a Parisian apartment. (The obvious parallels here are with Piranesi's etched plate ''negatives'' and Matta-Clark's domestic slicing, but all four artists share techniques of incision.)

While the elision of back-drop in the Large Glass hints at a spatial nominalism, Piranesi, Matta and Matta-Clark foreground the issue. Following the lead of Richard Hamilton's plans and sections of the Large Glass, as well as planimetric derivations of the Canceri cited by Tafuri,19 In The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even: A Typolgraphical Version by Richard Hamilton of Marcel Duchamp's Green Box (Stuttgart, London, Reykjavik: Edition Hansjorg Mayer, 1976), George Heard Hamilton, trans. and, Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labrynth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970's Pellegrino d'Acierno and Robert Connally, trans. (Boston: MIT Press. 1987). illustrations 3 and l 0 (studies uncredited). I have attempted to document three orders of space and field governing three works by Piranesi, Matta and Matta-Clark.

The sixteen prison interiors that Piranesi published in 1746 and again much altered in 1776 catalog a paradoxical realm of total freedom and absolute constraint. Trapped both by the machinery of the prisons and their sheer scale, human figures dot the etchings but fail to inhabit them. This is because depth gives way above and behind the crowded foregrounds, leaving only islands of plausible space within graphic maelstroms. At times true and at other flatteringly false, Piranesi treats perspective as Duchamp does color sometimes recession is spatially definitive, but often it serves only as foreshortened ''shading'' for effect. As de Duve asserts, nominalism allows the presumption that color equals perspective, in so far as both graphic devices code a closed field rather than structure a consistent point of view.20 De Duve, ''Color and its Name'' in Pictorial Nominalism. Mieke Bal also discusses line, color, coding and the gaze within Manet's "Olympia" in nominalist terms, see ''His Master's Eye'' in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, David Michael Levin, ed. (Berkeley: UC Press, 1993), 398.

Matta's Inscapes pulse with light, line, shade and color. Half-lapping fields of atmospheric depth surround thickets of activity defined by arching, curvilinear perspective. Digging into dark sub-coats of paint under light washes in one corner of a canvas and reversing the layering and slicing in other areas without regard to horizon or frame, Matta confounds any coherent sense of depth, either representational or material. Analyzing Splitting the Ergo, I became convinced that it was in fact figurative, a time-lapse allegory of production modeled on A Nude Descending a Staircase by Duchamp. Whether or not this is the case, phased action not only ''colors'' the space of the image, but shapes it.

Within each collage by Gordon Matta-Clark, fish-eye photographs of plan and elevation views are realigned after the pattern of Matta-Clark's cuts. If the point of these collages is to recreate the experience of being within one of the cuttings, an elaborate architectural game is required to recycle those spaces. Having played extensively in one of these images, I believe that each collage gives way to not one, but many graphic and spatial sequences, none inarguable prior to the next. This sense of multiple displacement is compounded by the shards of film negative and tape that both bracket and weave through the images of his cuts. The building's frame and the camera's are both violated, each made to stand in precariously for what Matta-Clark has taken from the other.

By introducing nominalism into the production of art, Duchamp undid the hypocrisy of Cubist and Futurist paintings, art defeated by science. Both movements claimed to capture the vision of a new age: the Cubists by presenting multiple views of stationary objects, and the Futurists by showing the multiple displacements of a body in motion. Duchamp recognizes that Relativity leaves nothing stationary neither painter nor still-life, viewer nor viewed, artist nor audience, personality nor identity.

Extending Duchamp's findings into the realm of architecture, Matta and Matta-Clark expose the limits and failures of utopian modernism. Seizing on one dynamic or another of industrial life, Le Corbusier, Sant E'lia and many others tried to envision the metropolis in flux. The heroic ''frozen'' motion of mass-transit, for example, provided many with the abstract model, planning framework, and final rationale for scale-less urban form-making. But the range of variables by which the modern city can be read is so vast that any single projection into the future will, and should, be of only nominal import. Echoing the prescient skepticism of Piranesi, the spatial nominalism of Matta and Matta-Clark points out that utopias, like postcards, may replace cities and their inhabitants only in our imaginings, and then, only in name.