Art In Conversation
Takesada Matsutani with Charles M. Schultz
“A new way. New ideas. This is very important.”
New York CityHauser & Wirth
Takesada Matsutani: Combine
February 3 – April 2, 2022
On the top floor of Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea building Takesada Matsutani and his friend Olivier Renaud-Clément stand beside a massive paper scroll, thirteen meters long, that extends from the ceiling to their feet. It is from the early nineties and is covered in graphite that softly reflects the light coming in the gallery windows. Renaud-Clément organized the exhibition, and as he speaks to the assembled members of the press we learn that the hanging scroll is the only work that is not new. Biographical facts tick through my mind as I watch the two men: Matsutani was nine years old when atomic bombs struck Japan; Matsutani has been creating artwork on a mature level for more than half a century; Matsutani was born in Japan, but has lived in France for most of his life. He is spry as he looks around the gallery, gesticulating and speaking about the canvases on the walls, and the vitrine that holds a beautiful book of poetry and his ink drawings.
The day before the press opening I met Matsutani and his wife, Kate Van Houten, to talk about his new show. The title alludes to the combination of two material practices: Matsutani’s work with vinyl glue, and his work with graphite pencils. These two materials have been endlessly useful to the artist. In the conversation that follows Matsutani talks about his discovery of these materials, he tells the story of his journey to Paris, of the time spent working in the experimental print studio of Stanley William Hayter, and he offers his thoughts on the importance of chance to his life and practice.
Charles M. Schultz (Rail): Let’s start by talking about the works downstairs, because I just had the chance to see them. I want to ask some simple questions about the materials and the objects, and then maybe we get into a more conceptual conversation. The first thing that I am curious about is the scale of the new pieces. How do you arrive at the decision to make them so large?
Takesada Matsutani: I always want to make big ones. [Laughter] They are physical.
Rail: Yes, they really are. It’s clear your whole body is engaged. And it’s interesting how the forms interact. I was a little surprised to see so much purple and yellow. For an artist who has made such use of black and white, I am curious why those colors were chosen for this new body of work?
Matsutani: Since I started working with the graphite pencil, I didn't need color. I worked in black and white a long time. When I was young I was in Gutai group. Our leader, Jiro Yoshihara, always said, “don’t copy, do something new.” All these works, except for the hanging scroll, are new ones. This time I wanted to use color, but the vinyl glue is always three dimensions, that hasn’t changed. It’s simple, I wanted to do something new. [Laughter]
Rail: How much do you visualize what you’ll do before you begin working on the canvas? How much comes as a surprise?
Matsutani: I do lots of drawings before I make big paintings. Using vinyl glue is kind of risky, it can’t be totally controlled. Everyday new things come out in my mind. It is a combination, a balance, between discipline and the spontaneity of my imagination. I like chance. I don’t like formality. The idea of making a form, and then just transforming it to a bigger size, it’s a bit boring for me. It’s like today, talking to you—I have my history, my thoughts, but they are changing as we talk, and new thoughts arise.
Rail: Recently I heard the artist Joan Semmel talk about something that made me think of you. She was saying that we don’t live in the present moment alone, we also live in our memories and our hopes. And that these layers of human experience—past, present, future—exist in every instance, every moment. Your work has much to do with time, and how you mark it, so I wonder what you think about Joan’s idea?
Matsutani: This is a good question. I started to make work when I was very young. Every day I made it. Then one day I think I want to be zero, nothing. I say to myself, “Matsutani you have white paper and one pencil, what do you do?” Very minimum. I had lots of time. I can't write poems. I can't write literature. I just draw; one line, then another line. Covering the white paper with graphite lines. One by one, line becomes flat.
Everybody says, “quite interesting material, Matsutani.” So I decide to make it big, ten meters. The rolls of paper are one meter fifty wide. I open it like a diary, today about eighty centimeters, ninety centimeters. I decide all lines up to the edge. I stop. Then again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow I repeat it, like diary writing. I think of that paper as my life. And it has an end. I wonder where I go?
I use only a 6B pencil. It’s soft. At the end of the paper, I pour turpentine over the graphite. This goes like a cascading river, graphite streaming off the paper. This is the last gesture. I think this is not a thing; this is my future. Not an end, a transformation, a change.
Rail: When you're making work using the same materials you used since you were a young artist, do you find yourself connecting to earlier versions of yourself?
Matsutani: Some history I must explain. I was born in 1937. When I was young, after the second World War, I got tuberculosis. This meant I had to stop going to school. I thought it would disappear, but it did not. Finally, it became serious and I had to go to hospital. I wanted to go to school, but I could not. By chance, at this hospital a young boy is there. He says, “Matsutani, if you like art, I know a high school that is an art school, Osaka craft high school.” I say, “Good idea!” So I went. I wanted to be an artist. One year passed, and again, I begin to throw up blood. I am sixteen years old, so the school invites me to taxi to school and then back to my home. Eventually, medicine becomes available in Japan. By the end of my teenage years, my tuberculosis is finished. I felt I lost a lot of time. After the war, the Japanese economy—everything was destroyed. People started to do new things. This is true too in movies, literature, and of course art. This is when I joined the Gutai group, in my early twenties.
Rail: Can you describe the group? Was it their example that made you firm in your decision to become an artist?
Matsutani: Gutai was a very small group. It was between Kobe and Osaka. Very young artists followed our leader Mr. Jiro Yoshihara, he says we will do new things. But Gutai was not my first experience with art. When I was ill, I did a lot of figurative paintings. I couldn’t go out. I can’t go to school. I just draw my bird, or cat. Japanese houses are made of wood, and one day I decide to draw the knots in a piece of wood on the ceiling. I think, “oh, this is very interesting,” but I don’t know why. Maybe I don’t have the imagination yet to see. I still have that drawing. Anyway, after I become healthy, I start to walk out to the mountains to draw. It’s a beautiful mountain, almost no trees, like a rock. I do not work on canvases, only paper.
At this time my city has an organized exhibition: painting, plus craft, and design too. The public is invited to participate. So I send in my work. The exhibition jury sends me a small letter, “we think your work is interesting, we accept.” Because of this, I met a person who comes to my studio. I feel this is the first time I meet someone who understands my work. His work is also figurative, using the same technique as me—nihonga—mixing pigment with fish glue or animal glue. But also some parts are not figurative. At the time when I was ill, I had to suffer so much. Learn to live with suffering feelings. How does that translate?
My feeling at this time is approaching something different. I do not want to copy nice flower, nice bird, nice cat—that’s all fine, but I want something else. I want to show something through my imagination, not just make a copy. I learned a lot from magazines. I learned about Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, everything. I know artists have really open ways of moving. That’s when I start to make half-abstract, half-figurative works. Then my work becomes abstract only. I attend some things and meet Gutai group artists. At this time in Japan, everything is new. Gutai group motto is “don’t copy, do it new.” I’m maybe 23 or 24. I like this idea. I work very hard but make new thing is not very simple.
Around this time in Japan, Elmer’s glue is selling. I went to a technician, I asked, “what is this glue?” He says, “This glue is very simple. It’s the first glue that will stick to paper or wood.” Before we had traditional glues, natural glues, but this is very chemical. He explained in a simple way how the glue functioned and how it could become like a skin. “Ah, okay. Thank you,” I say. I thought, maybe glue when it dries can make something in three dimensions? I want to make some organic type of image. That’s what I imagine. So I bought the vinyl glue, pour it on a small canvas that I prepared, and then I waited for the wind to come. Slowly, the outside dried, but the inside remained wet. Interesting. So I turned it upside down, and gravity began to pull it and make a form like a stalactite.
After that I started to do more. I used a hair drier to make the outside dry more quickly. I used a razor to cut the bubble. Quite interesting. So I made a lot in a small format. Eventually I ask a group of artists to come look at my work. Yoshihara says, “interesting, you must show it!” And this is how I start to become involved with Gutai group.
Rail: That’s a great story. And how did you get to Paris?
Matsutani: In 1966 I went to Paris. The French-Japanese Cultural Institute organized a competition and the winner would be awarded a scholarship in Paris for six months. I entered the competition with a vinyl glue piece, and I won the competition. But my experience in school was a bit boring, not as important as the traveling I was able to do. With a friend, I visited Russia, Greece, Tehran; Cairo, the Valley of the Kings.
I was so happy after the trip I wanted to work, I wanted to stay in Paris, then I remembered Stanley William Hayter’s engravings studio, Atelier 17. I read a lot of art history books. Stanley William Hayter worked for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in Iran. One day he got malaria, had to go back to London. After that he decided to give up the oil company and he moved to Paris. He opened up his studio in 1927. It was an experimental studio. He made prints for Picasso, Miró, Giacometti—so many great artists. But he left France because of WWII, and after he returned, years later, that’s when I started working with him.
At that time, I had made a lot of three-dimensional objects. I wanted to transform them, make them flat. At the same time I can draw too, engraving plates, plus I can learn techniques to grab. That's why I went. Hayter says, “come and show me your work.” I showed my Gutai things. He says “Good, right now you can do it!”
Rail: Did he have many other people working with him?
Matsutani: Yes, but not students. Everyone was an established artist. Successful or not, it didn’t matter. It was not a school. It was an experimental print studio. What mattered was discipline, a sort of temperament. You knew this was your life, art.
Rail: What were some of the more experimental prints you can remember?
Matsutani: For me, the whole working process was experimental. I knew nothing about etching and engraving when I began. As time went by I did do some mixing of techniques. The most experimental prints were combining etching, engraving, and silkscreen. Also cutting plates and incorporating them into prints.
Rail: And you met your wife there, correct? Seems like many good things have come to you by chance!
Matsutani: Yes! [Laughter]
Rail: How are you able to accept so much chance in your life, and in your work? My sense is that most people prefer to be in control. I don’t get that impression from you.
Matsutani: There is always something coming. I don't know more than that. I don't think about it. I think about the ways I want to do my art work. Tomorrow is coming, it’s a very simple way.
Rail: I recently had the good fortune to work with the esteemed printmaker Ruth Fine, who is an American. One of the questions that was really interesting to her, and it became fascinating to me as well, is how doing the work of printmaking influences an artist’s work in other mediums. Can you speak to that from your own experience? How did working with Hayter affect your practice?
Matsutani: I always like new ideas. Printmaking gave me many new ideas. Color. I used a camera to take photos of my object paintings, and then I would print them with different colors. A print almost becomes three-dimensional. I showed them a lot. This is around 1970. My wife, Kate Van Houten, she opened a silkscreen studio and I worked there. I liked this process. But one day a Korean artist, very well known, came to my studio. He looked at my silkscreens. Oh, interesting. But not as interesting as the vinyl glue. Also, no history to it.
Rail: Right. Not much vinyl glue in art history. [Laughter] So you bring the glue back into your practice, but in a new way?
Matsutani:Yes. A new way. New ideas. This is very important. I want to connect the pencil drawings with the three-dimensional objects, the vinyl glue becomes important again. Unfortunately, vinyl glue, you can’t draw on it. So you use some acrylic, or some Chinese ink, then you can draw on it with graphite. Then I did it, so it’s more than three dimensions, it’s beautiful three dimensions. I was reading at that time a book by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki talks about the importance of shadow for Japanese people. I thought, he has the same idea as me! Using graphite on vinyl, it flattens it, but it also creates shadow. Very interesting. So you don’t need color. So I stop using color and do everything in black and white until recently. Then, yeah, this show. I wanted to do something different, something new.
Rail: I read Tanizaki’s book in preparation for our talk. One of my notes is about how tools determine approach. I’m curious what you think about that, since you’ve used many of the same tools for so long.
Matsutani: Tools? You mean materials?
Rail: Like the razor you mentioned, the pencils…
Matsutani: Ah, pencils are very ordinary. I use 6B because it is the best softness. I also use a lot of Sumi ink. This is also very common. Kids going to school use these tools. I use the pencil to concentrate time. Like a diary. That’s my idea. I can’t write a poem. I can’t write literature. But I draw, and my imagination comes out. Just a black line, and I have arrived.
Rail: In the course of my preparation, I learned you preserve your pencil stubs and even the shavings. Why?
Matsutani: [Laughter] Yes, I do! It's my character. I do not want to throw it away. First of all my character, but also my generation, keep everything. I work hard every day to shape the pencil. I can’t throw it away.
Rail: And you keep a journal.
Matsutani: Yes, by hand, every day. Today I meet you, I wrote your name and the date. What I ate today. I have done this a long time. It’s my hobby.
Rail: I wanted to ask some more questions about the work downstairs. One of the things that I noticed was many of the graphite pieces went around the edges of the canvas. I was curious about that choice. What can you tell me about that?
Matsutani: The stream?
Rail: I don’t mean the piece that hangs from the ceiling, I mean on the canvases. There are graphite strips that extend over the face of the canvas, onto the edges, in a very deliberate manner.
Matsutani: Ah. Similar idea. The work goes beyond the canvas, extends further. That’s why I have it. If you have a surface that is all white, you have a nice monochrome. If you add a point or a line or something, now your work looks empty, but it’s not empty. Balance must be achieved. That happens when the mark makes the blank area of the canvas speak. The canvas is not really a limited space.
Rail: I got that feeling right away, that there was much more that could be there, even some things that maybe I cannot see. I got down on my knees to examine the bottom edge of one work, and when I realized how carefully you’d attended to that area of the canvas, I realized that the top may have a similar treatment, but I wouldn’t know because it’s not visually accessible. I thought, now Matsutani has me thinking about the parts of his canvases that my eyes can’t touch.
Matsutani: Yes, that's interesting.
Rail: What about the large graphite work, Stream-Ashiya-92 (1992) that hangs in the center of the gallery? I was excited to see it, and I am curious why you chose it.
Matsutani: Olivier Renaud-Clément, who has worked with me a long time. He knew the gallery here in New York. He suggested that piece.
Rail: A good suggestion! I love the way it hangs from the sky door. Frankly, I’m not sure if I noticed that bit of the gallery’s architecture before.
Matsutani: I made that one for a Japanese museum, Ashiya in the nineties. They have an atrium, and they suggested I use it. It was the first time I made one like that. It’s thirteen meters long.
Kate Van Houten: Every environment changes what’s being shown. If you use an older piece in a new environment, you have created another dynamic with it. Matsutani played around with the idea of creating a new dripping piece, even bringing the wooden ball that was used in the Pompidou.
Rail: What’s the story with that ball? I’d wondered about it.
Matsutani: I have a studio in Paris, near an area where there are many cabinetmakers. Excellent craftspeople. Very skilled.
Van Houten: We saw the ball in the window, one day. I said, “Matsutani, you’ve got to get that ball.” Matsutani asked the man, “Can you make me a bigger one?” And the artist said, “Yeah, I can do that.” And then he made, but it had a fault in it because there are pieces of wood that are put together. And he said, “I've made a second one because the first one cracked.” Of course, we liked the cracked one as well. We ended up taking both.
Matsutani: [Laughter] Yes! I put this ball in a basin, and above it hung a sack of Sumi ink. At the opening of the Pompidou show, I made a little hole using a stick with a nail. The ink dripped on the ball, streaming in all directions.
Rail: I read that you once visited the studio of Alberto Giacometti with his brother Diego. I’m curious what you think of Giacometti’s work? Like your work, it has much to do with a sense of line, a sense of touch, a sense of time.
Van Houten: We lived near his studio, but we didn't know him.
Matsutani: Yeah, his paintings are really… lines, so much lines! I think much more unusual than mine, much different. The feeling is not the same. Chance is not so good for him as for me. But I do really like Giacometti’s work. Yes. Very good work.
Rail: And the poet and critic Alain Jouffroy. He’s a friend, right? He’s written beautifully on your work. And in the exhibition you are showing a book of poetry and drawing, a collaboration with Yves Peyré. Can you tell me about that? Do you enjoy collaborations?
Van Houten: The book with Peyré wasn't a collaboration. Yves Peyré knew Matsutani’s work throughout the years. Actually, I met Peyré before Matsutani because I have an independent press. We got to talking about Matsutani, and we talked about many things because I have a passion for poetry. When Matsutani had his show at the Pompidou we were putting together the idea of a book, and I said, “Matsutani you could invite Yves Peyré. He would write about you in a different way than Christine Macel or Valerie Douniaux. It would be a whole other route.”
Peyré got very involved with coming to the studio, and eventually he asked if he could borrow a small portfolio of drawings, works on paper to just live with? He said, “I want them to live with me.” And so Matsutani gave him some. And he wrote the newest book, the one downstairs. I've printed those. There are 12 poems, and each is a reference to one of the works that Matsutani gave him. Peyré said, “I could identify each work.” I said, “Oh, I can see which work in some of them.” Then there's the overlapping, the intertwining. It’s a friendship.
Rail: I really admire what your friend Alain Jouffrey wrote to describe your way of working. He wrote that you don’t just make an artwork, you experience the creation of the work in your mind and in your body. I thought that was a profound thing to write. What’s that feel like? When you are in the process of working, what’s the relationship of your mind to your body to your work?
Matsutani: I don't think about it. I just do the work. I don’t need to think too much, my body knows what to do. With the glue, you pour it, and you can’t take it off. No second chance. If I don’t like it, the canvas is through. So sometimes it’s very tense, too much tension can be dangerous. I have a small radio and I listen to music when I work sometimes, especially when I draw. I’m not thinking in a creative way. I have been reading Zen philosophy for years. I was brought up like most Japanese, living daily with Buddhism and Shintoism. So the values of the two religions influence me, and my visual notions—simplicity—are there too.
Rail: I wanted to touch briefly on your performance work, and your relationship with music. I understand you love classical music, and that you’ve invited musicians to participate in some of your performances. What does the music add to the experience of the performance?
Van Houten: One collaboration that is rarely discussed is when Matsutani was invited to make work for a theater performance, Blesse, written by Claude Louis-Combet. This was a true collaboration between the director of the theater company, Matsutani, and Louis-Combet. The story of the play was about a brother and sister who are in love, an incestuous, forbidden love. Matsutani’s work was dripping Sumi ink down on to a piece of white paper.
Matsutani: Every day we renewed the piece, but the dripping was always a bit different. Very interesting. You watch the protagonists, and as the story advances, the blank ink continues growing, moving. Eventually, the black ink covers everything, but never the same way twice.