For over six decades, the Osaka-born, Paris-based artist Takesada Matsutani has lived by the credo “make it new.” This phrase, made famous by Ezra Pound, was not only the unofficial manifesto of Modernism but also of one of that movement’s intellectual and aesthetic descendants — the avant-garde collective of some 20 Japanese artists formed in Osaka in 1954 and known as Gutai. The group is often credited with anticipating both performance and conceptual art and is perhaps best known for Saburo Murakami’s “Laceration of Paper” (1955), for which he ran through a series of paper screens at speed, his body punctuating each surface like a torpedo. Matsutani was accepted into Gutai in 1963, when he was only 26 years old, on account of his vinyl-glue works — canvases with protrusions of dried glue that resembled, as the text accompanying his first solo show put it, “nipples, blisters or swelling from a burn.”
And he’s continued making work in the years following Gutai’s dissolution in 1972: silk-screen prints featuring geometric planes of color, wall-length scrolls covered in thousands of graphite strokes, performance works exploring his feelings of displacement as a Japanese artist living in France. Earlier this month, “Combine,” an exhibition of Matsutani’s work that includes 11 of his recent three-dimensional canvases, their paintedsurfaces thick with adhesive glue, as well as a 1992 scroll from his “Stream” series that hangs from the ceiling, opened at Hauser & Wirth in Manhattan. For decades, the artist was partial to black in his paintings, but the works in the show make use of color — most memorably, a yolky shade of yellow. “I wanted to change,” he says, “it’s the Gutai way.”
At 85, Matsutani is sprightly when we meet in the former cabinetmaker’s atelier in Paris’s 11th Arrondissement that houses his studio, which, despite the artist’s philosophy, suggests ample respect for the past. “They call it the Matsutani museum,” he says, chuckling and holding up a small 1964 drawing of globular forms done in burgundy ink on Japanese hard-backed shikishi paper that’s now spotted with mold. “It’s still good!” he says of the work. “ Très moderne! ” He’s kept everything, from paintings he made as a teenager with mineral pigments in the traditional Japanese nihongastyle to engravings from Stanley William Hayter’s time as his assistant, British artist Stanley William Hayter to boxes full of meticulously catalogued letters from Japan friends.
To Matsutani, “make it new” is synonymous with freedom — from tradition, from war and from illness. He was one of four children born to middle-class parents, and he recalls Osaka’s Second World War bombing. Large swathes of the city were decimated. He was a distracted child who spent his time mimicking and finding sticks. chanbaraHe took up Japanese sword fighting until he was 14 when he contracted tuberculosis. He spent eight years in hospital, was bedridden and deprived from school until the necessary medicines became available. The experience left him, he says, with “a complex” about his lack of education, but it also set him on a course toward becoming an artist. “With tuberculosis, you always must sleep and lie down. I was always watching the ceiling,” says Matsutani, who would make drawings of the knots and lines in the wood, and of characters from the manga comics he loved.
Other early artistic endeavors were faithful. nihongaHe created a series of mountain landscapes in Cubism style. In his 20s, he discovered Cubism and began to paint jumbled-up works that spoke of his inner turmoil. He shows me a 1958 self-portrait titled “Resistance (Pressure),” in which a ship is balanced atop a segmented but clearly frowning face. “I…