NISHINOMIYA, Japan — Looking back at modernism’s multifaceted history — all those styles, manifesto-driven movements and “-isms,” which forever changed how artists, critics and viewers would look at and think about art — one is reminded that among its fundamental tenets was a call to search out the new, strive for originality and dare to bust traditions. Vigor seemed to count as much as chutzpah; a strong, personal vision also didn’t hurt.
In recent decades, in Europe and the United States, some art historians and curators have begun taking a so-called transnational approach to examining and presenting the history of modern art. In doing so, they have made room in its established canon to accommodate the stories of other artists, movements and institution beyond the centers of modernism’s familiar roots in the West (mainly Western Europe and North America).
Within this broader, revised history, Japan’s post-World War II Gutai artists’ group has gained considerable attention. Many of the participants in the Gutai Art Association, as it was officially known, have died, but since the late 1980s, the work of some of its most notable members has been showcased in numerous exhibitions in museums and commercial galleries in France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — and also, significantly, in Japan.
Takesada Matsutani, who was born in 1937, was one of the later joiners of the Gutai group. In recent years, his work has received serious attention in the international art world. A longtime resident of Paris, Matsutani is now represented by the Zürich-based gallery Hauser & Wirth, which has branches in London, Somerset (England), New York and Los Angeles. A solo exhibition of his works from the 1970s, along with some of his newer mixed-media, wall-mounted pieces, is now on view, through December 23, at Hauser & Wirth’s Upper East Side outlet in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, in Nishinomiya, a city just to the west of Ōsaka, in southwestern Japan, Matsutani: Currents is on view through December 6 at the Ōtani Memorial Art Museum. This career-spanning survey offers an overview of the evolution of Matsutani’s art-making ideas and techniques. It also includes some of his most recent works.
“I grew up near here, so this exhibition is like a homecoming for me,” Matsutani told me when I met him several days ago at the museum in Nishinomiya. Visiting from Paris, he was staying nearby. “It was in this region that my career as an artist began,” he said.
The Gutai Art Association was founded in 1954 by the nearly 50-year-old Jirō Yoshihara and seventeen young artists from the Osaka region who regarded him as their mentor and leader. Yoshihara, the scion of a family that owned a cooking-oil wholesale company, was a mostly self-taught artist who had made paintings in a surrealistic mode but later became interested in abstract art. Having been exposed to reproductions of Western, modern-art works in magazines, Yoshihara saw examples of foreign-made abstract paintings in person for the first time in Japan in the early 1950s. Deeply moved by what he recognized as their novelty and daring, he would later command his younger Gutai associates, “Don’t copy anyone! Do something no one’s ever done before!”
The Gutai group’s tradition-assaulting manifesto, which Yoshihara wrote, assailed familiar art forms. It declared, “Let us take leave of these piles of counterfeit objects on the altars, in the palaces, in the salons and the antique shops. […] Lock these corpses into their tombs. Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life. Gutai art does not falsify the material. In Gutai art, the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other.” During the Gutai group’s long run — its activities wound down in 1972 — its participants presented avant-garde exhibitions and what are now regarded as prototypical action-art and performance-art events, in auditoriums as well as in such unusual settings as a public park and even the sky. (The group once sent paintings up into the air from the rooftop of a building, each one tied to a helium balloon.)
“Yoshihara was demanding,” Matsutani told me over dinner at a restaurant near the museum. “As a young person,” he recalled as he tucked into a serving of nishime (simmered vegetables), “I had taken lessons in nihonga, a traditional Japanese form of painting, and I had shown some of my works locally. In 1959, I met the Gutai artist Sadamasa Motonaga, one of the group’s founding members. I had heard about its activities but at that point I still had not seen any Gutai works in person.” Matsutani became inspired by what he learned about these innovative artists’ creations and pursuits, including everything from Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress (1956), a wearable, if dangerous, garment made of colored light bulbs, to Shozo Shimamoto’s noise-making wooden sculptures, across which viewers were invited to walk.
Turning away from nihonga, a genre that employs traditional Japanese subject matter and art-making materials, Matsutani began experimenting with vinyl glue, which became available in Japan in the postwar period. He allowed the white, gooey liquid to flow, drip and produce its own forms on the surfaces of his canvases. On his friend’s behalf, Motonaga showed some of these creations to Yoshihara, who at first was not impressed. Later, Matsutani learned how to use a straw to blow air into or pierce his glue’s bubbly shapes. Sometimes he let them collapse in on themselves, yielding organic forms that brought to mind decaying seed pods, cracked eggs with runny yolks or even female genitalia. In time, Yoshihara came to appreciate Matsutani’s explorations of the physical and expressive character of his materials, and the young artist joined the Gutai group. (His experiments were right in keeping with the spirit of Gutai’s name, a Japanese word that refers to a subject’s concrete or material nature.)
Matsutani’s exhibition at the Ōtani Memorial Art Museum includes some of his earliest works (from the late 1950s through the early 1960s), including a mineral-pigments-on-paper landscape painting, in which the young artist had assimilated some Cubist lessons, and some abstractions in various media, in which he explored vaguely organic shapes that, in time, would evolve into his highly textured surfaces’ bubbling blobs. One of them, “Work,” a painting from 1960, is a crusty concoction that heralds his mature oeuvre to come. Its central motif resembles a patch of scorched earth set apart and surrounded by a thick black line.
The Nishinomiya exhibition features a diverse selection of Matsutani’s inventive works of the 1960s and 1970s, in which the surfaces of his mixed-media tableaux appear anything but static, as the bizarre forms that pop up on them swell, drip and pucker like egg yolks in a frying pan or burst abscesses. Sometimes they seem to resemble monstrous mouths; more often, their allusions to orifices or sexual organs are hard to miss. Embellished with little more than bright red, black or white paint, the abstract forms that dominate these works look and feel as dynamic today as they must have appeared to the artist when he was actually creating them — or, more precisely, when he let them emerge more or less naturally from the interactions of his chosen materials.
Sometimes Matsutani allowed thick lines or rings of vinyl glue to dry and left them as they were, yellowish and transparent, like hardened cellular tissue. Their colors change in the light and contrast dramatically with the luminous white paint the artist used to mark his backgrounds. Or maybe they were and are the foregrounds of such unusual works; in such sculptural “paintings,” sometimes a distinction between background and foreground seems to dissolve. (For what it’s worth, comparing Gutai-inspired innovations like Matsutani’s with Alberto Burri’s experiments with burlap, plastic and other materials, which are now on view in an exhibition of this Italian modernist’s work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, is an illuminating exercise.)
Hauser & Wirth’s London branch presented an exhibition of similar Matsutani works from past decades in 2014. The gallery’s current show in New York focuses on the development of his art in the 1970s, in particular — when he was making geometric abstractions on canvas or paper and assorted, mixed-media sculptural objects — and also includes some of his newest works.
By the early 1980s, Matsutani had stripped down his palette and his materials kit. He had become skilled in the handling of vinyl glue, and that unusually sculptable substance remained the central element of his art-making. He had embraced graphite (plain pencil), too, and routinely covered whole, large sheets of paper with nothing more than rhythmic passages of graphite strokes. (Starting in the 1980s, he also used jet-black sumi ink in some of his works.) Often he covered the dried-glue surfaces of his tableaux, in whole or in part, in graphite. In retrospect, it would be easy to call the art-making methods Matsutani was developing something of a response to Minimalist aesthetics, but such an assessment would be inaccurate, for in fact the Japanese artist arrived at his spare formal language on his own, in a natural evolution from his earlier, comparatively more spectacular but still modest modes of working.
“During my years in the Gutai group, Yoshihara was very strict,” Matsutani told me. “Sometimes it seemed that nothing was good enough to please him, but when he approved of the direction an artist was taking, he would offer praise. Ever since that period, each time I’ve set out to create a new work, I’ve always strived to make something as fresh and as bold as possible. Even if I’m still working out an idea over the course of a series of related works, I try to explore as much as possible the expressive potential of whatever I’m discovering, learning and pushing forward at that time.”
In his most recent mixed-media tableaux of the past couple of years, Matsutani has surrounded his graphite-covered, glue-formed blobs — now lying like flattened splotches or flowing like thick batter in patches on their support canvases — with all-white grounds, which serve to highlight their sensual swells, drips and folds.
In an essay he wrote in the catalog of his Nishinomiya exhibition, Matsutani notes that the prominent presence of black in much of his work might relate to the blackness of sumi ink. That material, he suggests, represents a link to his cultural roots in Japan, including the Buddhist outlook that influenced his background and aesthetic sensibility.
The artist told me, “Even now, at the age of 78, I still think about Yoshihara’s command to ‘do something no one’s ever done before,’ and I try to push myself to do something new, even within the context of the language of my own art. Maybe that’s why, suddenly, black is letting go, and I’m exploring the power of white.”
Modest, amiable and quietly confident after all these years in his studio and in the art world, Matsutani seems to hint that sheer determination alone may keep him going as he moves into the next phase of his long career. With his chopsticks, he stabbed a slice of boiled daikon (radish) and said, “I’m curious to find out where these latest paintings might lead.”
Listening to him recall his creative trajectory, describe his discoveries and celebrate the expressive character of vinyl glue, a material on which he remains, well, enthusiastically stuck, I thought about modernism’s legendary dictates and prescriptions, and was reminded how much, for some modern artists, the fashioning of a new kind of art had not merely been a matter of seeking to provoke, but rather of sticking to their mission, unhesitatingly taking risks and, above all, never giving up.
Matsutani: Currents continues at the Ōtani Memorial Art Museum in Nishinomiya, Japan, through December 6.
Takesada Matsutani continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 23.