"The Best Art In The World"
Matsutani: Gutai Spirit Forever
Galerie Richard, New York
February 7th – April 20th, 2013
“Out of your womb of injury, a dragon dusted white and pouring,
gluing your id-entity to the pulsation of your blood.
A ragged black blot presses through the hibernation
consciousness can be.”
by Taney Roniger
For over five decades, Takesada Matsutani has been tirelessly pursuing his vision of a living art in which the regenerative power of nature is embodied in works with emphatic material presence. Since his first exhibition in 1960 with the newly-founded Gutai Art Association, a group of young Japanese artists with which he was affiliated until its dissolution in 1972, Matsutani has both maintained an uncompromising commitment to the aesthetic and philosophical principles of Gutai and forged an artistic identity wholly his own. With Matsutani: Gutai Spirit Forever, the artist’s first retrospective in this country, we were given a comprehensive view of Matsutani’s oeuvre, which includes not just paintings and works on paper but also performance pieces. Presented in two installments, with selections from earlier works followed by later and current, the show also included a live performance by the artist enacted in two parts. Timed to run concurrently with the Guggenheim Museum’s Gutai: Splendid Playground, a monumental survey of the movement that includes two of Matsutani’s early works, this is a retrospective that transcended the historical nature of the genre, proffering insights that are as relevant today as they are historically elucidating.
In the 1956 manifesto that would become the group’s rallying cry, Gutai leader Jiro Yoshihara called on his fellow artists to turn to the material world (the word “gutai” means concrete), not as a source of base matter with which to shape new art forms but as a source of inchoate life whose calling forth was to be these artists’ foremost charge: “Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life…In Gutai art the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other.” With this injunction against intellectual affectation and falsity of any kind came another, equally emphatic and no less urgent: Make it new. Any art worthy of being called Gutai would have to bring to the world something it had never before seen. Following much trial and error, the young Matsutani’s discovery of the sensual qualities of vinyl wood glue and his subsequent mastery of the medium to create his signature biomorphic relief paintings earned him a place among the group’s luminaries and set the course for his prolific career to come.
In the first part of the exhibition, which featured works from 1964 to 1976, some of the artist’s earliest experiments with his newfound medium hung alongside flat canvases from the same period made with the more conventional materials of oil and acrylic paint. In both the flat paintings and the bas-reliefs, whose bulging protrusions are the result of poured vinyl glue subjected to the pressures of blown air and gravity, corpuscular forms abound. Evoking at equal turns the sumptuous curves of cells, breasts, and nipples, and the swelling, oozing, and rippling of wounded flesh, these early works are fraught with a tension between eros and pathos that belies their reductive aesthetic. Large areas of solid color ranging from ultramarine blue to deep crimson saturate the forms in the flat paintings, while in the glue-sculpted reliefs the color is more muted and organic. In Propagation 70 (1970), for example, the only color other than the flat white of the primed canvas is the translucent amber-like orange that the unpainted glue has acquired over the decades (originally it was clear). Further testifying to the living nature of Matsutani’s art, many of the swollen forms are known to expand and contract with fluctuations in the humidity, as if inhaling and exhaling some of the life each new environment occasions. From one of the womb-like forms – this one entirely covered with an opaque white – a single red string hangs delicately, falling to about twenty inches below the painting’s lowermost edge. A whisker, or an antenna, perhaps, it too responds to the environment, gently swaying with the draft of each passer-by.
In the second part of the show, which featured works from 1977 to the present, the poetry of Matsutani’s fluid eroticism was rendered more potent still with the introduction of the second material by which his oeuvre has come to be defined: graphite. In these works, the rippling, sagging, and blistering forms that protrude from the canvases are covered with a soft, metallic black skin whose exquisite sensitivity to light renders every surface detail visible. Every wrinkle, pock, and rupture in the forms’ swells and folds now comes to life, endowing the work with a human presence that is occasionally uncanny (even as the sole occupant of the gallery, one feels somehow unalone in the room). Although by 1977 Matsutani had eliminated color from his work, returning to the simplicity and absence of superfluous ornament characteristic of the traditional Japanese aesthetic, it is these later works that are the most sensuously beautiful in his entire corpus.
In the mid-career and later works, the element of time, which is implicit in the earlier works, is made more explicit. Moving around the paintings, one begins to notice the individual strokes with which the graphite was applied to the surfaces and their accumulation to form dense fields of shimmering movement. Subtly rhythmic and pulsating, and clearly originating from the artist’s hand rather than some mechanical instrument, the repetitive marks evoke a sense of ritual along with the distinct sense of timelessness that ritual tends to induce. In the presence of these works, the countless hours, months, and years that witnessed the artist’s concentrated engagement with his materials – the rhythmic rubbing of body against matter – are palpable. The overall effect is a profound sense of connectedness with an all-absorbing vastness, the psycho-spiritual equivalent of being immersed in a warm, calm sea. There is uncertainty in the sea (who knows what lurks beneath the surface?), but in Matsutani’s waters we feel we are at home.
Further deepening the water metaphor that runs through all of Matsutani’s work is the appearance in his later pieces of a recurring wave form and a variously-embodied stream motif. While the former appears as a subtle glue-sculpted swell that rises and falls across several of the canvases, the latter can be instantiated by the dripping of ink onto a stone or a cascading tangle of graphite-covered rope falling from canvas to floor. In Superposition 92-2 (1992), a wall-sized rectangular piece of unstretched, graphite-covered canvas serves as a ground from which a hard, dark circle protrudes, bearing a skein of black metallic tendrils whose ends rest in a cluster on the gallery’s floor. In this piece, the dense mass of rope evokes a sense of chaos and turmoil, but the downward flow effected by the pull of gravity gives it a sense of fluidity and structure. The stream is inherently unpredictable, but its flow is constant and inevitable.
Flux and flow being central to Matsutani’s work, the considerable role played by chance is evident throughout. In many of the latest works, a calligraphic gesture – a loose, sweeping stroke made with turpentine-saturated pigment – erupts across the visual field, creating a dynamic tension with the more methodically layered forms and fields. With these incidents, we are reminded that every painting is in some sense a record of unique actions and occurrences that can never be reproduced, but here this evidentiary quality also bespeaks the fundamental necessity of contingency, or the pivotal role played by the unknown and unexpected, both in the creative act and in life itself. The cycle of life very much on our minds, we are reminded that biological evolution – the very paragon of creativity – would be impossible without the uncontrollable forces of random mutation. In this sense, Matsutani’s engagement with matter is profoundly dialogical. Not seeking to impose his own will on his materials – to force them into the shape of preconceived ideas – Matsutani both speaks and listens. Sometimes he is silent altogether, and the materials simply speak for themselves.
From a historical perspective, it is impossible to understand Gutai without taking into account the context out of which it arose. The context, of course, is that of a devastated country, still smoldering and reeling from the war that introduced the world to the horrors of nuclear annihilation. Given the national trauma these artists were exposed to as youth (most of them would have been under ten in 1945), Gutai’s insistence on novelty and its deep and pervasive affirmation of life are more than expressions of youthful exuberance; indeed, they are nothing less than a cry for resurrection, an impassioned plea for the healing of a deeply wounded collective psyche. For Matsutani, this yearning for release from darkness has a more personal source as well. Shortly after the war, when he was fourteen years old, he was stricken with tuberculosis, and the illness forced him into confinement for eight long years. Intensely isolated and despairing, he began making art during these years, and this protracted period of forced involution continues to inform his sensibility to this day. It also remains with him as a source of deep gratitude and wisdom; having emerged from a moratorium most of us have not had to endure, he never forgets what it means to be alive.
The appeal to concrete matter in Gutai can be seen as an impulse to return to fundamentals, to identify that alone by which one can truly affirm one’s existence. As human beings, our first encounters with the world are mediated by the sense of touch; the tactile sensation of the mother’s breast, the warmth of other bodies, the different surfaces and textures of the things around us – these experiences constitute our first stratum of knowledge. As such, this return to matter (the original matrix) is also a return to innocence, to a kind of prelapsarian state before the fall into ideation and the cleaving of mind from body that it portends. The sense of play inherent in Gutai also evokes this return to a childlike innocence, where to play for play’s sake alone is the highest expression of freedom. For Matsutani, matter is both wound and womb, the locus of both suffering and regeneration, and from this fertile ground he has cultivated a masterful poetry.
For a culture still very much mired in Cartesian epistemology – the cogito ergo sum by which we affirm our existence through thought and thought alone – the most formidable statement made by this retrospective is its testament to the fundamental intelligence of the human body. Especially in a time when we are becoming increasingly alienated from the haptic with our absorption in the dematerialized realm of digital technology, the call for a return to the body could hardly be more timely. Before there was knowing-by-thinking there was knowing-by-touching, and to lose sight of this is to deny ourselves a deep reservoir of strength and resilience we may not even know we have. Matsutani’s art implores us to remember it; there is life there, if we want it.
Taney Roniger is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, New York.view all articles from this author