Life to Matter

Takesada Matsutani’s Paris

Stanley William Hayter and Takesada Matsutani, ca. 1970s

  • 26 October 2023
  • Issue 9

Takesada Matsutani and Kate Van Houten on their early days as artists in Paris, with Désirée Moorhead-Hayter, Olivier Renaud-Clément and Anders Bergstrom.

Olivier Renaud-Clément: Good morning. It’s fabulous to see you all. I’m going to start with some very short questions. I’m going to be very indiscreet, so you don’t have to answer if you don’t feel like answering. [Laughs.] Then we’ll go into more of a conversation. Here with us in the studio is Anders Bergstrom, who works at Hauser & Wirth and is a veteran specialist in prints, in addition to being a specialist in the art of Philip Guston, so I think Anders has come from New York bearing a long list of questions for you, Matsutani and Kate, about your deep involvement over the years with printmaking here in Paris. Désirée Moorhead-Hayter is also joining us virtually. Désirée is the widow of the artist and legendary printer Stanley William Hayter, in whose studio, Atelier 17, Kate and Matsutani met. Just to situate us in time and space, we’re at Matsutani’s studio at rue Faidherbe in Paris on June 21, 2023. Matsutani, where were you born and when?

Takesada Matsutani: I was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1937, January 1.

ORC: And you, Kate?

Kate Van Houten: I was born in New Jersey, U.S.A., November 11, 1940.

ORC: Désirée, when and where were you born?

Désirée Moorhead-Hayter: I was born in Surrey, in England, the 12th of February, 1942.

ORC: Matsutani, when did you first hear about the Gutai Art Association, the avant-garde Japanese movement of which you became a part?

TM: I think I was fifteen, sixteen years old. It was in 1953 or 1954, just as Gutai started.

ORC: Did you see an exhibition or read about it in the newspaper? What actually sparked your interest?

TM: At that time I was doing a lot of painting in oil. Also drawing. And when I first learned about Gutai, I thought, “This is not art.”

Kate Van Houten and Matsutani in his studio, Paris, July 2023. Photo: Laura Stevens

Left to right: Irene Whittome, Isolde Von Gart, Claire Crossley, Matsutani, Van Houten, Jean Lodge, unidentified person, Dupak Benargis, ca. 1968

ORC: That’s interesting.

TM: I was so young. Then my mind changed. I’ll tell you about that later.

ORC: At some point you decided to go meet Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai’s principal founder, right?

TM: Yes, I’d found out about him. When I was young, I spent almost eight years in bed basically, only reading. I couldn’t go to school. My head was so full it wanted to explode.

ORC: You were confined to bed because of tuberculosis, right?

TM: Yes. When I was better, around twenty-two years old, just at the end of the ’50s, I went to meet Yoshihara.

ORC: I understand that when you met him, he told you that you were not good enough for Gutai.

TM: He did, but I learned lots of creative ideas from him. I was trying to understand what my imagination wanted from art. I was doing a lot of reading, and Gutai and Yoshihara were part of that reading. Something that he said struck me. Yoshihara said that you must do new things. That’s why he so interested me. I was looking for a new kind of beauty.

ORC: And then you become included in the Gutai group, part of its so-called second generation, and shortly after in the mid-’60s you are selected for a grant to visit France?

TM: It was a competition that I won. In Kyoto, I saw a pamphlet for a competition that would give you the prize of a six-month scholarship in Paris, sponsored by the French government. I showed my paintings at the time and my dossier, and I won the prize in 1966, that summer. They said, “Come right now.” So at the end of year, I left for Paris, in November of 1966.

ORC: Did you have any preconceptions about Paris? Were you interested in coming mostly to see the art, or did you just want to escape Japan?

TM: Well, before France, I had never been to a foreign country. I really wanted to have the feeling of losing myself in another place. I decided to use the opportunity to do a little traveling, through Egypt, Greece and Italy. It was a three-week trip I took with Shinya Nakamura, a sculptor who was in my French language class. I wanted to see Europe and other places with my own eyes. Then I stayed in Paris and slowly became established. I began to be able to stand on my own.

ORC: Désirée, when did you first come to Paris and why?

Matsutani pulling the last color for the silkscreen work Sun Rise, 1971, at Van Houten’s studio in the 14th arrondissement

Takesada Matsutani and Kate Van Houten, Untitled, 1969. Silkscreen on offset paper, 4 × 6 in. (10 × 15 cm). Courtesy the artists

DMH: In 1962. I had left England to go to school in Ireland. I spent a year in Spain, and then I went back to Ireland, and Ireland at the end of the 1950s was a pretty awful place. I’d always wanted to go to France anyway, so I just came over.

ORC: Were you trained as an artist?

DMH: I was trained in absolutely nothing!

ORC: That’s the best training, most of the time.

DMH: I got a job, eventually, in a gallery and spent two years there and met a lot of artists, and then I met Bill afterward.

ORC: Kate, when do you get to Paris and why?

KVH: I came in 1965, after having spent three years studying in Italy. Which was too bad, but it was time to leave Italy. I took a train here. I thought, “I’ll come and see Paris before I return to New York.” That was my idea, anyway. But I had no money, so I had to go to work.

ORC: What did you practice and study in your formative years?

KVH: In university I’d studied history, but I always painted. And then I just decided to be an artist. I decided I was committed to being an artist. I went to Italy because it was cheaper and easier to live there than New York. I was at the Accademia di Brera in Milan for three years studying—well, sort of studying—sculpture.

ORC: So you all came here around the same time, in the ’60s, Matsutani a little later.

TM: Yes, and there’s one thing I want to remember to say. When I was ill, I read a lot of art books, and I knew about Stanley William Hayter’s studio in Paris before the war and all the artists who had worked with him—Picasso, Giacometti, Miró, Ernst, so many. After I came to Paris, I remembered Hayter, also because I saw a work by him at the Second International Biennial Exhibition of Prints in 1960, where he won first prize. I never forgot his name.

ORC: It’s interesting because today we’re gathered here in part to talk about Bill Hayter and his place in your lives as artists and also about the importance of the practice of printing, whether it’s serigraphs or gravure or etching or many other forms. When you came to Paris, Matsutani, did you look for a print studio right away? Or was it Hayter specifically who drew you into printing?

TM: After I returned from Egypt and Greece, I came back to Paris. I had a Japanese friend, the artist Go Yayanagi, who was already working at Hayter’s Atelier 17 print studio. I asked him to introduce me. Just after the New Year, we went to the atelier. Hayter was there. He said, “Okay. Welcome. You can do what you want.”

ORC: The first to meet Bill Hayter in this conversation obviously is Désirée. That was around 1964, if I understand correctly.

DMH: 1965.

“I went to the atelier with a small portfolio of drawings under my arm, which [Stanley William] Hayter didn't care to look at. He just spoke to me and explained very briefly that this was an experimental community of artists and said, ‘Come. Come and work.’ That was how it happened.”—Kate Van Houten

ORC: You made his acquaintance for professional reasons, in the art world?

DMH: No. I met him at La Coupole over a drink!

ORC: That’s a very good reason. That predates the internet. [Laughs.] Did you get interested in his work, in his atelier? You obviously knew a lot of artists already.

DM: I didn’t know his work at all until he brought me back to the studio. He was working on a great, great big painting at the time, which was very exciting. Then the relationship just took off from there, and I became very familiar with his work and really liked it. We became romantically involved, and while we had no intention of getting married, he was having a bit of trouble with his ex-wife, as it were, so we decided to get married after all, in 1972, and that was that.

ORC: Who of Matsutani and Kate meets Hayter first?

KVH: I did. The conditions for me to work in Paris weren’t good. I was having too much fun. What I did mostly was go to jazz clubs and movies. At one jazz club I met a guy, an American, and we kibitzed and he said, “You have no place to work? You have to come over to the Atelier 17. Come and do etching. At least you’ll have a place to work.” I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I had no idea about the print world. But I thought: “There’s a good idea. Bon.” I went to the atelier with a small portfolio of drawings under my arm, which Hayter didn’t care to look at. He just spoke to me and explained very briefly that this was an experimental community of artists and said, “Come. Come and work.” That was how it happened.

ORC: When did you go, Matsutani?

TM: Early ’67.

ORC: And Kate is there already.

TM: Yeah, but I didn’t know her.

KVH: We were introduced, darling.

TM: Yeah? I can’t remember.

KVH: I remember very clearly! [Laughs.]

TM: When I was there, slowly, through my eyes, I began to see how completely different Europe was from Japan, our history, everything. And what I figured out that I wanted to do in the studio was explore flatness. I was making three-dimensional paintings already in Japan—not paintings, really, but more like kinds of objects—but I did not have the space for this in Paris. I wanted to figure out about flatness through the engraving, how to make images that I thought of as flat.

ORC: What was the crowd of artists like around Hayter’s studio in those days and the circles of artists you all knew?

TM: A very interesting mixture.

KVH: It was very mixed internationally and with people of all ages. We ourselves were all quite young, but not everyone in the studio was young. The only stipulation Bill had for involvement was that you had to have the serious intention of being a professional artist. And the only other rule he had, probably because this was the late 1960s in Paris and we all know what came along by 1968, was: No politics. The internationality of the studio was really extraordinary and there were many women involved, which you couldn’t say about other parts of the art world in those days, especially the United States.

Matsutani in his studio, July 2023. Photo: Laura Stevens

Hector Saunier and Matsutani using the hot plate for inking intaglio plates at Atelier 17, 1968

“I looked up and saw a young man with a crew cut and a button-down shirt and I thought, ‘Ah, a Japanese artist from California.’ But then I realized he didn't speak very much English, and less French.… What he was doing was totally different from anyone else, and that made me curious. Where did he come up with these images?”—Van Houten

ORC: How old was Hayter when you met him, Désirée? I understand there was a bit of an age difference.

DMH: He was sixty-three and I was twenty-three.

ORC: Good for you. And good for him. Who did you meet through him and through the studio?

DMH: There was nobody overtly famous in the studio at that time, but there were a lot of very good artists at work. There was Jean Lodge, a wonderful painter and printmaker expat from the Midwest.

TM: Gail Singer, originally from Texas, was there, too. Very good artist.

DMH: There was a Chilean friend of ours there, Eugenio Tellez.

TM: And Yayanagi, who was working on great animation style at that time.

ORC: It seems to me, based on the feeling that you’re communicating, that the studio was a bit like a commune, like you were all together all the time.

DMH: It was like being back in school. It was one big sort of family, and we spent a lot of time in the back offices of the workshop, and people got together on weekends, and Bill would give about two big parties a year. There was just a very open, very good atmosphere.

KVH: Bill had a lot of “tea” parties. [Laughter.] Bill introduced me to Matsutani himself. I looked up and saw a young man with a crew cut and a button-down shirt and I thought, “Ah, a Japanese artist from California.” But then I realized he didn’t speak very much English, and less French. He came in every morning and he always sat in the same corner. Nobody had designated seating. We had our boxes stored on shelves. We took them off, and we grabbed whatever place was open. But Matsutani took his box, and he always put it on the left-hand corner of the first table as you came in, and nobody ever sat there, because it was Matsutani’s place. I was very impressed by the way he concentrated on whatever he was learning, whatever he was doing. And his curiosity about the images. What he was doing was totally different from anyone else, and that made me curious. How did he come up with these images?

ORC: Matsutani, was there a point at which you began to concentrate on Kate? [Laughs.]

TM: Well, I couldn’t really speak well, in English or French. I knew a lot of foreigners but it was hard to talk, so I just worked and worked. Every day I went to the studio at the same time and I went home at the same time.

ORC: Just as you do today. You’re a very rigorous person.

TM: I was already married at this time, also, and I had a son back in Japan. It was very hard to know what to do. They were so far away. It was very confusing to me, love and art. What do you choose? What’s your answer? Family or art or Kate? But I decided not to go back home, to stay in Paris. And that was my answer.

Takesada Matsutani, La Propagation-K, 1967. Etching, burin and aquatint on BFK paper (ed. 30), 19 1/2 × 25 1/2 in. (49.4 × 64.8 cm). Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich

Takesada Matsutani, La Propagation-M, 1967–69. Etching, burin and aquatint on BFK paper (ed. 30), 19 3/4 × 25 3/8 in. (50.2 × 64.6 cm). Photo: Genevieve Hanson. Artworks courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

ORC: Désirée, what were your feelings about your relationship with Bill and making a life in Paris?

DMH: I had no conflicted feelings whatsoever. I was fascinated by the whole thing. It was a whole new world. He introduced me to science and mathematics and art, all sorts of wonderful things. He was an absolute fountain of information and an extremely vivacious and lively person. It was wonderful.

KVH: There was a discipline in the thinking and the execution of things at the atelier. It was a wonderful space for me. At that time I did not have much discipline, and I had a lot of indecision in my life. With printmaking, if you have a copper plate or a zinc plate and you’re working with the acid or burin, whatever your tool, it’s permanent. That’s it. You can’t go back. Hayter always seemed to be distant, not particularly interested in any of us. And then one day he would come over when he would see you were at a moment of indecision and he’d say something simple to help you figure out what you wanted. And I’d realize how exceptional he was. He watched people. He knew what they were doing.

Anders Bergstrom: I wanted to jump in here if I might. Matsutani, I wanted to ask about the Gutai and its philosophy that, to be part of the group, you really had to try to find something new. There are lines in the Gutai manifesto that speak of a “daring advance into the unknown world” and of goals that seem almost mystical: “Gutai Art does not alter matter. Gutai Art imparts life to matter.” But then here in Paris, at Atelier 17, it seems like it was a very different feeling, a more collaborative, open environment.

TM: Yes, it was very different. Gutai was so much about intuition, about trying to find a way around logic and to just do something that felt like a big jump. It was the mentality of the movement, about daring. The other artists were very honest with you about whether they thought you were worthy. With Hayter it was more open. But coming from Gutai gave me courage to do my own thing. At the atelier, everyone wanted to work with color, because Hayter had pioneered viscosity printing, which gave you the ability to get multiple colors from a single plate.

AB: And if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t really want to learn viscosity, because at that time you were very interested in the uses of black.

KVH: When we were first at the atelier, everyone was using viscosity.

TM: And often the work ended up looking the same. So I wanted to go another way. I wanted to see what I could get from black.

AB: You made the black etchings for the series that you called Propagations.

TM: That’s right.

DMH: There were other people who were not using color at that time, even though it was very popular to do. Bill didn’t want people to use color just to make a pretty image or focus on color. He wanted something definitive. He would get pretty upset when people were producing something and when people saw it they would immediately say, “Oh, that’s an Atelier 17 color.” He thought it gave the studio a bad name. I remember thinking immediately that Matsutani’s black-and-white engravings were beautiful. I bought one at the time.

Takesada Matsutani, La propagation-ronde, 1967. Etching on paper (ed. 40),195/8x251/2in. (50 × 65 cm). © Takesada Matsutani. Photo: Stefan Altenburger. Collection Art Institute of Chicago.

Takesada Matsutani, Copperplate for La Propagation-5, 1967. Photo: Kenneth Adlard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth.

Takesada Matsutani, La Propagation-5, 1967. Etching and burin on BFK paper (ed. 50), 19 5/8 × 25 5/8 in (50 x 65 cm). © Takesada Matsutani. Photo: Genevieve Hanson. Collection Art Institute of Chicago

AB: I know that there are some color etchings from Matsutani around this time, along with the black and white, so you were doing some experimenting with color. How would this all work on the press?

KVH: There were a lot of us. You had to schedule time on the press. Usually, there would be two people working on the big press on a given day. So let’s say Matsutani is working with Gail Singer. Gail used color, so she would choose her colors. She might ask: “Do you want some of my color, Matsutani?” You had an option. You weren’t obliged, but often you would experiment with different colors. Experimenting was important. We’ve found in Matsutani’s notebook that he actually kept clear notes about this and with whom he was working on the press.

DMH: Gail Singer always knew exactly what she wanted with her colors. She never made a mistake.

TM: She had a very powerful sense of originality.

AB: Then at a certain point, both you and Kate began exploring screen printing, correct?

TM: Well, there was a point at which I started to get impatient and wanted more time on press. I thought, “I must have another studio, but I’ve no money.” And then Kate got her own studio.

KVH: What happened was that, with a friend, I had left Bill Hayter’s studio, because I got interested in the very rich quality of silkscreen colors. For the work that I was hoping to do then, silkscreen suited me. A Canadian artist, Carl Heywood, introduced me to it, using Versatex inks. Lorna Taylor, a South African artist who was a friend of mine, wanted to get into silkscreen for the very kinetic imagery she was doing, and I said yes. We already had a funny little place in the 14th arrondissement, which had a studio on the ground floor. Originally it had been a bake shop, and we turned it into a studio. She and I worked there for more than a year. Matsutani and I were together, getting very close. And he said one day, “Show me how you do all of this.” And he came into the studio. But he remained very involved with Hayter, who loved Matsutani and made him an assistant, which helped a little with money at that time.

ORC: On that subject, I’d love to ask about the economics of the time for a minute. Is anyone around you making any money? How does this whole existence sustain itself?

“Gutai was so much about intuition, about trying to find a way around logic.… The other artists were very honest with you about whether they thought you were worthy. With Hayter it was all more open. But coming from Gutai gave me courage to do my own thing.”—Takesada Matsutani

KVH: None of us were making any money. Hayter kept the costs for us as low as possible. There was his rent, things that had to be covered—utilities, the acids, the materials. There were certain materials that were provided with the participation fees we paid. Sometimes people’s parents would come and visit, and they’d buy a few prints from us, and that always helped. Most of us were on very tight leashes financially. Everyone had a different solution or had an odd job to make ends meet. There was one woman who had some money, and she was very shy about being able to afford things. We said, “Stop being embarrassed. Buy us a coffee.”

AB: I have another very print-specific question. You had access to the two shops, Kate’s and Hayter’s, and at some point you start doing etchings on top of screen prints, right? Which was probably a pretty radical idea at the time, mixing mediums on the same sheet.

TM: Right. I wanted to try new kinds of ideas. Technically, that’s why I did it. For the silkscreen, the paper had to be dry. And for etching it had to be humid. I made a screen print first at Kate’s; then at Hayter’s I would soak it and do the etching on top.

KVH: It was radical, very experimental.

TM: It was difficult. I couldn’t print many.

AB: The great printmaker and teacher Krishna Reddy was also in Paris at this time, correct? He was the other pioneer of viscosity printing, along with Hayter.

KVH: Reddy and Bill worked together, actually, though Reddy had a different technique for making the viscosity prints, a dot technique. Krishna came in 1951, and so he was in Paris over a very long stretch and we kept in touch with him and his wife, Judy Blum, for many years afterward, after they moved to New York.

AB: I love prints, if you couldn’t tell [laughs], and I’ve always thought that artists who work in printmaking understand other parts of their practice in ways that non-printmakers don’t, that there’s a lot of value in it besides just the works. Matsutani, was printmaking important to you in figuring out what you wanted to do more broadly?

TM: I think so. But just being in Hayter’s studio, with so many people, was also valuable to me. I listen to people. If what they say or do seems important, I take it and I think about what I could do with it. It’s the same was walking down the street. You keep your eyes open. You see so many different things. Sometimes you take things from here and things from there and it makes you a great soup. See?

ORC: I always notice, Matsutani, that when we go to exhibitions together, before you look deeply at a picture, you seem to look to understand the technique. Is that correct?

Takesada Matsutani, 8, rue de la Ferronnerie, Paris 1er Arrondissement, 1979. Washi paper and photo by Matsutani on cardboard mounted on plywood, 11.8 x 18.9 in. (30 × 48 cm). Photo: Benoît Fougeirol. Collection of the artist

Takesada Matsutani, Grand Palais-B, 1974. Silkscreen on offset paper, 25 3/8 × 19 3/4 in. (65 × 50 cm). Photo: Benoît Fougeirol

TM: It is. But I also want to see whether the technique feels honest for the work, does that make sense? Honesty is what I think about. Not whether something is good or bad. I never think in those terms.

ORC: When does the Hayter studio ultimately close? Did it continue to exist after the passing of Bill? Tell us a little bit about that, Désirée.

DMH: Bill died in 1988, and the studio was handed over to Juan Valladares and Hector Saunier and the name was changed to Atelier Contrepoint. So you can say that Atelier 17 itself went from 1927 until 1988, first in Paris and then in New York during the war, and back in Paris.

ORC: It’s an extraordinarily long run. And Matsutani and Kate, you continued to work with him up to the 1970s, correct? When did you stop and why did you stop?

KVH: The nature of projects changes and ultimately you just move away a little. But we were always close with him and Désirée.

ORC: Then there’s a point not much after this time in which the two of you, Matsutani and Kate, really began to collaborate with each other, yes? With making books of poetry and work together?

TM: Yes. You know, we’re very different. American and Japanese, from very different backgrounds, sometimes like oil and water. That’s why it’s always been so interesting with this lady. I’ve learned a lot from her. I don’t know if she’s learned a lot from me. But maybe she has. We’ve been together a lot of years.

KVH: We must have exchanged something. [Laughs.]

TM: Sometimes, I’m sure she’s also very fed up with me. [Laughs.]

DMH: It’s really lovely to sit here talking together today, the three of us. We’ve known each other for a long time. In those early days at the atelier, they were each in their own way quite exceptional. Kate would listen to Hayter and she really understood what he was trying to do. And Matsutani was always an incredible worker, very, very respectful of Hayter. They had something different from the other people in the workshop. They were very professional, even at that age. But you know, we were all young and we also had a lot of fun. Paris was such a great place for it, for parties together and good times together. I remember a party at Bill’s when I obviously had too much to drink and I ended up jumping up and down on the bed and fell down and broke two front teeth! Matsutani and Kate have been very good to me. And I love them both.

KVH: And we still have lovely times together. We just don’t jump up and down on the bed as much anymore. The knees won’t take it!

Matsutani in front of a new canvas in his studio, July 2023. Photo: Laura Stevens

Matsutani at his studio door, July 2023. Photo: Laura Stevens

Anders Bergstrom directs the editions program at Hauser & Wirth in New York. Bergstrom is an advocate for prints and printmakers, and is an artist himself.

Kate Van Houten studied at Western College for Women in Ohio and at the Art Students League in New York before moving to Milan and later Paris. In 1967, she joined the Paris-based Atelier 17 printmaking workshop. With friends, she later set up a silkscreen studio. Her prints were first shown at the Galerie Zunini in 1968 and later alongside her paintings at the Galerie Haut-Pave. Van Houten has participated in printmaking biennales in Kraków, Poland; Brooklyn, New York; Conde-Bonsecours, Belgium; Bradford, England; Bhopal, India and Chamaliere, France, along with solo exhibitions in France, Japan and the U.S. Her work is represented in public and private collections throughout the world.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Takesada Matsutani was a key member of the second generation of the Gutai Art Association, the influential postwar Japanese art collective. Over five decades, he has developed a unique visual language, melding form and materials. After the Gutai group disbanded in 1972, Matsutani developed a radical solo practice, informed by his experience at the renowned Atelier 17 print workshop in Paris. He began creating vast expanses of metallic black graphite on mural-size sheets of paper, painstakingly built up with individual strokes. This ritualized process presents a time-based record of his gestures and is reminiscent of his artistic beginnings in Japan, though it is translated into an artistic language entirely his own.

Désirée Moorhead-Hayter was born in England in 1942. She arrived in Paris in 1962 and worked various jobs before meeting Stanley William Hayter in 1965. She helped administer Hayter’s Atelier 17 and was his assistant and collaborator until his death in 1988. She now lives between France and Ireland and is married to Francis Levy. She continues to promote Hayter’s work and preserve his legacy.

Olivier Renaud-Clément has organized exhibitions and acted as an advisor to artists and estates in the U.S., Europe and Japan for many years. He has worked frequently with Hauser & Wirth, collaborating with the gallery on more than thirty exhibitions. He has collaborated with Takesada Matsutani and the estates of Fabio Mauri, Lygia Pape, August Sander and Mira Schendel, among others. He is based in Paris and New York.

MATSUTANI” is on view at Hauser & Wirth Paris through 18 May 2024.

Archival photos courtesy Takesada Matsutani studio. Photographers unknown