Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Gordon Matta-Clark (American, 1943–1978)

Circus or The Caribbean Orange, 1978

Silver dye-bleach print

Installed: 42 1/4 x 64 1/2 in. (107.3 x 163.8 cm)

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Bergman and Susan and Lewis Manilow

As the son of the painter Matta, Gordon Matta-Clark grew up in the heady atmosphere of the international avant garde of the 1950s. He began to create conceptual projects and “guerrilla art actions,” such as dispensing oxygen to passersby on New York’s Wall Street to point out the hazards of living in a polluted urban environment. Trained as an architect, he began his mature work of splitting, splicing, and cutting buildings in the early 1970s, often moving in and altering abandoned structures secretly in a continuation of his early guerrilla activities.

Due to his “guerrilla art actions,” Matta-Clark was invited by an MCA curator to transform a residential brownstone building adjacent to the museum (in its former location on East Ontario Street), which the MCA had recently purchased in order to convert into additional galleries. The title of the project, and subsequent photo montages, Circus or Caribbean Orange, refers to the three large circles or “rings” that dominated Matta-Clark’s intervention. Matta-Clark also said “Circus” was an allusion to Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926–31). “Caribbean Orange” refers to the Caribbean style of peeling an orange by removing the skin in a spiral cut. As the title suggests, he conceived of it as a circus, a spectacular performative event in which the viewer could take part simply by walking through it.

To execute the Circus project, completed in February 1978, Matta-Clark used circular- and chainsaws to cut circles and arcs in the soon-to-be-renovated four-level brownstone, creating from this apartment building an environmental sculpture that existed for two weeks. Matta-Clark considered his cuts in both his architectural alterations and his photomontages as a means of drawing. In Circus, cuts molded huge spheres from negative space. In the Circus montages, a sense of three-dimensionality is reinforced by the cut and shaped photographs, which construct in two dimensions an illusion of the actual space created by Circus.

While works of art in their own right, the Circus or Caribbean Orange montages were generated from and document the 1978 project. The silver dye bleach prints and three gelatin silver print montages—these last being paste-ups for the MCA publication Circus or the Caribbean Orange—are in the Museum’s collection, as well as a schematic drawing for the project and a layout for a publicity poster. In this work, two different shots of the fourth level of the annex building are abutted, giving a panoramic view that spans two rooms (the dividing wall having been sliced away), and showing, through an arc removed from the floor, the third level below. These montages were the last works completed by Matta-Clark before his premature death at age 35.