Death of a city

Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s
Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2

"Pioneers of the Downtown Scene", the Barbican's exhibition of three leading experimental artists in 1970s Manhattan, is a collection of
disappeared things. Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark made a great deal of art, but not much in the way of arte­facts. Their work was concerned with performance, process and the temporary. Rather than gathering up stuff, the Barbican attempts to recapture a moment - which means that, at its worst, "Pioneers" is not really like going to an exhibition; it's like being told about some art that you really should have seen, if only you'd been there.

“There" - New York in the 1970s - is a lost world. The city's gilded postwar years as the capital of the world came to a halt; it was haemorrhaging blue-collar jobs and emptying itself of people. Vast areas of urban fabric fell into ruin: film-makers seeking post-apocalyptic backdrops found them ready-made in the Bronx. After centuries of seemingly unstoppable progress, the Big Apple found itself in deep, possibly terminal decline. The sense of decay and collapse pervades this show.

Take Matta-Clark's 1974 work Splitting: Four Corners. It is made up of the four sawn-off upper corners of a house that stood in Englewood, New Jersey - cuboid chunks of white shingle, window frame, rafter and roof tile. It is probably the most impressive original object, or group of objects, in the show, but they don't seem real. Removing them from their Humphrey Street context has robbed them of their veil of normality. What remains is no less physical, but it has a troubling power. It is ghostly.

Equally unreal-seeming are Brown's performance pieces, in which dancers suspended by wires walk down or along the sides of buildings, or clamber through a framework of knotted clothes, dressing and undressing. These illogical and difficult performances are represented in photographs and on film, but also in live shows - it is worth checking the Barbican website so you can time your visit to coincide with one or more of these. And some of Anderson's work is literally dreamlike: she slept in various public places to see if her dreams were different; she made a pillow that talks to you when your head is against it; she pulped newspapers and made papier mâché bricks, each stamped with that day's date, little monoliths of incomprehension.

None of the artists attempts to impose order on a city that no longer makes sense; they prefer playing in the ruins. Matta-Clark's Wall Papers turns the haunting, mid-air interior walls exposed by demolition into posters. Anderson retaliates against men in the street who aim sexual remarks at her by taking their photograph and documenting their reaction. Suddenly she is the one invading their privacy, a heroic inversion.

The thrill of decline is particularly present elsewhere, in the work of Anarchitecture, a loose artists' collective to which Anderson and Matta-Clark belonged. Anarchitecture was a frontal assault on modernism - it celebrated collapse as the modernists venerated progress, gathering photographs of shattered railcars suspended over fallen bridges, toppling buildings, holes in the ground. Yet Anderson, Brown and Matta-Clark never appear to celebrate the disaster befalling their city - their work is elegiac and acidly satirical. Often it is very moving. For Bronx Floors, Matta-Clark cut sections of floorboard, beam and parquet from the thresholds of condemned apartment buildings. These were places of welcome, arrival and departure, confrontation and reunion - microcosms of the disappeared home they memorialise.

New York's 1970s near-death experience is a remarkable moment in history, and the Barbican could have done much more to illuminate the context. It's a pity because, with a bit of the background in mind, "Pioneers of the Downtown Scene" becomes a richly rewarding experience. It is also wonderful to see a show where two-thirds of the featured artists are women - and yet the gallery does not highlight this as something worthy of congratulation.

Runs until 22 May. Details: barbican.org.uk
William Wiles is senior editor at Icon magazine

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?