Christine Macel on Takesada Matsutani


Takesada Matsutani and curator Christine Macel with ‘Circle Yellow-19’ (2019) at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2019 © Takesada Matsutani

Born in Osaka in 1937, Takesada Matsutani has lived and worked in Paris since the 1966. The artist’s early involvement with the avant-garde Gutai group in Japan shaped the prolific body of work that was to come. From experiments with vinyl adhesive glue to large installation and performance works, Matsutani’s unique artistic language forms one of the most pioneering oeuvres to emerge from post-war Japan. Embodying a sentient approach to philosophy and spirituality, he has explored the malleability and enduring power of materials for six decades. Ahead of Matsutani’s first major retrospective in France at Centre Pompidou opening on 26 June 2019, we pose ten questions to the chief curator at the museum, Christine Macel. Shedding light on her own approach to the exhibition, Macel details the intricate influences—from Zen to Montparnasse—that go into the making of Matsutani’s work.

Can you describe the first time you encountered Matsutani’s work?
In 2014, the Centre Pompidou purchased the painting ‘Work-A-65-1’ (1965), thanks to former director Alfred Pacquement and my colleague Jean-Michel Bouhours. I was very impressed and discovered that the artist had been living in Paris since 1966. I then visited his studio and decided to invite him to participate in the 2017 Venice Biennale. I could not believe that such a great work had remained so under-exposed.

How did Matsutani‘s early life inform his work?
It is very clear that Matsutani’s character and life have been shaped by history, the context of World War II, followed by Hiroshima. These events happened amidst his illness, tuberculosis, which lead to eight bedridden years in isolation, with his cat, dog and bird. He is a survivor—the type that loves life and resists! He kept his smile despite all the difficult times.

Takesada Matsutani, Work-A 65-1, 1965 © Takesada Matsutani
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Takesada Matsutani, Stream-87-P, 1987 © Takesada Matsutani. Photo: Patrick Rimond

What was Matsutani’s involvement with Gutai?
By the beginning of the 1960s, after a long period struggling to find his own path, Matsutani had begun producing an original body of work as one of the youngest members of the Gutai group. His very personal style was praised by Jirō Yoshihara and Michel Tapié, a French art critic who came to promote Art informel in Japan. Matsutani’s bubbles made of adhesive glue (a new affordable and readily available material inspired by the American brand Elmer’s), inflated directly on the canvas by the artist’s own breath and then pierced to become gaping orifices. The process evoked cells and organs; his approach surprised both of them in terms of its novelty and its ability to bring inert matter to life, a principle central to Gutai.

How did your approach to curating this major retrospective begin?
For me it was very important to conceive a retrospective from Matsutani’s early works at the end of the ’50s until now, to show the variety in his work, its coherence and its current vitality today. I wanted Matsutani to show new works, and he responded with four pieces specifically for Pompidou! The exhibition will present not only large forms, but also his experiments with smaller objects, such as serigraphs, his notebooks and his way of archiving work with amazing precision.

I also always hang shows ‘for’ the viewer, seeking to create a coherent space that is balanced and harmonious, to favor aesthetic experience. Simultaneously, I want to introduce carefully chosen materials, to uncover further information about the artist’s studio-based practice. I am particularly sensitive to space, to light, and the ‘aura’ of the work itself; the way it will live in the show.

Matsutani in his Paris studio, 2018. Courtesy Frieze Studios and Hauser & Wirth

What is the significance of Paris and printmaking for Matsutani’s practice?
Immersed in the Parisian atmosphere of the Montparnasse neighbourhood, Matsutani recalled a show of work by the British artist Stanley William Hayter that had left a mark on him when he saw it in Japan in the early 1960s. He went to visit Hayter’s workshop, Atelier 17, at 17 rue Daguerre, where, from 1967 to 1971, he made many prints and, in the end, became Hayter’s assistant. That was also where he met his future wife, Kate Van Houten, who introduced him to serigraphy. Now a part of the international printmakers movement and its dynamic milieu, his work has appeared in many engraving biennials.

How will the Pompidou exhibition bring to life the transient aspects of Matsutani’s practice?
‘Stream-Pompidou’, a major new installation measuring 10 meters long and almost 5 meters high, is a brilliant synthesis of all Matsutani’s research. It features a large bubble of glue, a blue painting from the artist’s early experiments of 1962, a long ‘Stream’ that continues the series that started in 1977, and an installation with a performative element, where ink that has fallen on white canvas is positioned in the middle of the room.

‘Today, it is only primitive art and various art movements after Impressionism that manage to convey to us a feeling of life, however inert.’—Jirō Yoshihara

How important is spirituality for Matsutani’s work?
Buddhism had been a central element in Matsutani’s education since his childhood. His family belonged to an esoteric branch, Mount Kōya Shingon, in which the links between life, death, and sexuality, matter and spirit are particularly significant. Although he knew he was ‘too full of desire to adhere to Zen,’ and not a Zen practitioner in his art, he felt a profound affinity with this philosophy’s call for a ‘return to the simplicity of everyday experience,’ its rejection of ‘system-based thinking,’ and its emphasis on ‘a constant moment-to-moment praxis.’ With its aim of transcending the self, Zen demands both an extreme concentration and an awareness of the void. These ideas constitute the spirituality central to Matsutani’s artistic development in 1977, with the first of his celebrated ‘Streams’. Looking back from this work, the subject of which was both matter and the notion of space-time, his early hard edge period can be seen in a new light as an expression of the Japanese concepts of Ma and Zen.

1984 Stream-10 a
First presentation of ‘Stream-10’ at the Artistes japonais contemporains exhibition, Espace Bateau-Lavoir, Paris, 1984. Archives Matsutani
Takesada Matsutani - 1981
Matsutani inflating vinyl glue with a straw in his studio, 20 passage de la Bonne Graine, 1981. Archives Matsutani

How does music influence Matsutani’s creative process?
Passionate about the Japanese popular music known as enka, as well as jazz and classical music, Matsutani often executes works while listening to Mozart or Wagner. Music generates inner images of which he makes note, and is really related to the everyday and the notion of performance. I’m thinking for example of the work ‘Courant continu’ (1983) from the ‘Streams’ corpus. In Berlin, Matsutani realized ‘Stream’ based on the music of I. Matsushita.

You said the artist has an ‘ability to bring inert matter to life’. Can you elaborate on these words?
This is a principle central to Gutai. Indeed, Jirō Yoshihara wrote in the Gutai Group manifesto that ‘today, it is only primitive art and various art movements after Impressionism that manage to convey to us a feeling of life, however inert.’ Matsutani has a very earthy sensibility, rooted in materials, as well as a more spiritual side, which is always immanent.

As Chief Curator at Centre Pompidou, Christine Macel is in charge of the department ‘Création contemporaine et Prospective’. After showing the artist in her Venice Art Biennale ‘Viva Arte Viva’ in 2017, she has curated the Takesada Matsutani exhibition at Galerie du Musée, on view 26 June – 23 September 2019.

A collaboration between Hauser & Wirth Publishers and Centre Pompidou, the publication ‘Takesada Matsutani’ fully illustrates the exhibition’s artworks ranging from 1958 to 2019. It is edited by Christine Macel and Valérie Douniaux, who write texts alongside Yves Peyré, and Toshio Yamanashi.