Impossible Failures at Zwirner

A photo of Pope.L in his studio, dated 2022
Pope.L, studio, 2022, photo courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery 52 Walker

When I heard about Impossible Failures it promised to be an exciting exhibition, in that it was to bring together Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978), a White post-Minimalist artist best known for his site-specific works of cutting through buildings and homes, and Pope.L (b.1955), a Black artist who used to describe himself as the friendliest Black man in America, and is known for his public performances and installations, which address Black racial stereotyping and other such hypocrisies. In a not un-interesting way, the resulting exhibition is a curatorial mash-up in which the works in it are overwhelmed. As such, this is not an exhibition where the works of each artist supply a context for the other, nor does it explore Matta-Clark’s legacy by focusing on Pope.L’s overlapping strategies. Instead it might be thought of as a collaborative installation authored by the curator Ebony L. Haynes.

To begin with, the show is dominated by two large projections on opposing gallery walls of what appear to be digital transfers of grainy 8-mm, or 16-mm films documenting Matta-Clark’s various extra-gallery activities. Among the films being projected are Conical Intersect (1976), which records when in Paris Matta-Clark cut through two 17 century buildings slated for demolition. The other film I saw was The Wall (1976/2007). It documents Matta Clarks performance in Berlin in which he posted advertisement and stenciled Made in America onto the Berlin Wall. Beyond these projections, in the middle of the space is Pope.L’s gargantuan box/container/room titled, Vigilance aka Dust Room. This structure, painted flat white, has external framing and no apparent access, while numerous power and sound cables run in and out of it. On one side, four flexible tubular ducts deliver into the interior air currents generated by industrial fans—this is one source of the noise. Mounted all about this structure are speakers broadcasting the roaring and rattling sounds one can only assume are being generated by what is occurring inside the enclosure. To find out what is occurring within Pope.L’s “room” there are two small (approx.7 X 9 inch) windows just below eye-level inset into one of the sides of this massive structure. When I looked, I was not sure exactly what I was watching—perhaps a maelstrom of dust or the simulation of a blizzard. But as in Duchamp’s Etant Donne even this may be little more than an illusion, for we do not actually know if we are looking into the interior of Pope.L’s box or into a diorama meant to conjure up the larger event.

Beyond the visual and audio cacophony that viewers first encounter when entering the exhibition, the first work one comes upon is a circular hole about 10 inches in diameter, cut through the gallery wall—this hole may or may not be Matta-Clark’s, given Pope.L’s history of cutting holes into gallery walls and ceilings. The rest of the exhibit consists of a video installed at the end of a long corridor whose out of focus, stuttering image is barely recognizable. Throughout the installation are various drawings by both artists, though the majority of these are from PopeL’s Failure Drawings, which are made on odd scraps of paper and cardboard. While Marra Clark’s drawings have been installed conventionally, Pope.L’s have also at times been oddly placed close to the gallery’s floor. Such drawings might be thought of as offering up intimate and embodied moments because one must move closer to them to try to discern what they are.

What seems to be at the core of Haynes curatorial agenda is an intent to reproduce a post-minimalist, Fluxus, or Situationist-like aesthetic which focuses on the artwork as a spatial and temporal event. It was this attitude in the early 1960–mid-70s that resulted in the more adventurous approaches to exhibitions, which now is something of the standard for museums such as the Palais Tokyo in Paris. Obviously, such an approach makes sense for Matta-Clark’s works, but can it really be assigned to Pope.L’s theatrics and narratives on race and abjection? We have a choice here—we may see this exhibition as a non-correlative pairing in which no real dialog between the two artists was ever actually intended, or inversely, they are correlatively linked in an either / or manner. If it is the latter, unless we can discover a common analogy, there can be no real dialog between the two artists and therefore, must assume some other motivation for placing Pope.L into this historicized context of Matta-Clark.

The real question here is the intention of the curator who organized this collaboration between the dead White artist Matta-Clark and the living Black one Pope.L. in which the explicit politics of their work is made implicit. Ironically, it is difficult under these circumstances to imagine Pope.L’s works having any other racial content than that it is made by a Black man, and Matta Clark’s films being a nostalgic glimpse into the good old days. Yet, what we know from external sources ,such as the press release, Matta Clark’s and Pope.L share an interest in the problematic nature of institutions, language, scale, and value and they intend their works to elaborate the real-world situations they pick out from all others. Yet, given Haynes’ installation and choice of works, their explicit interventionalist content can only be inferred.

Both artists now seem to have become part of a spectacle meant to dwarf and overwhelm their audiences. In doing this perhaps Haynes’ intent is to show the world “as it is”—a chaotic construct—and believes that such fictions as this exhibition can do that. The problem is, at this level of abstraction such an intention seemingly does not matter because in the confines of “Impossible Failures” I had trouble remembering what kinds of insights I expected this pairing to offer up in the first place. Once inside, such expectations reach far beyond the capacity of these works to form a cogent message. Instead I’m left with an assemblage consisting of works by artists attempting to generate their messages of transgression and intervention under the worst possible circumstances—that of their institutional and market-place acceptance.

Gordon Matta-Clark & Pope.L: Impossible Failures David Zwirner gallery at 52 Walker, New York

About the Writer: Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.