I Didn’t Go Home: Takesada Matsutani

Takesada Matsutani and Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation


Hans Ulrich Obrist discusses influences, materials, and trajectories with Takesada Matsutani, a second-generation Gutai protagonist. Throughout his career, Matsutani has continuously developed his voice and discovered new potentials to express the inner subjective dimension. Spanning five decades, Matsutani’s work continuously redefined the relation between the artist and the substance of his practice—it has been a discipline against the grain.


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Let’s begin at the beginning and talk about how it all started. How did you come to art?

TAKESADA MATSUTANI: When I was fifteen years old, I developed tuberculosis. At that time there were no medicines, as Japan was not so rich. We realized that if I wanted to go into business, my body would not be strong enough. So I elected for art. I decided before high school that I wanted to be an artist. Then during art school in Osaka, again the tuberculosis came back. I was thinking: What should I do? But my body slowly got better, and by that time there was medicine. Many of my paintings from that time were about sickness or about slowly regaining health, and they were figurative. In high school I studied traditional Japanese art, nihonga. And at that time, in the 1950s, it was the abstract epoch, but I thought Gutai was not art. Impossible! I did figurative work, landscapes and things like that. But I was young, I didn’t have enough education. Then slowly, lots of information began coming from Europe and America, in photos and writing. I was influenced, logically, by Wassily Kandinsky, in realizing that art is not a copy of an object or a landscape or whatever.I came to think that there was something inside that I wanted to show.

HUO: So the early paintings had to do with survival?

TM: [indicating a work] That is my face, and this is a big ship. For me this is a mental bateau, pressing ahead. Slowly getting healthy, life, banzai! [laughs]

HUO: So you started to move away from traditional work. How did you get in contact with the Gutai group? Some of the Gutai people were much older than you.

TM: Yes, they were one generation older. I lived in Nishinomiya, which is between Osaka and Kobe, 500 kilometers from Tokyo, very provincial compared to the capital. But Osaka people are close to Kyoto and Nara, and we have quite an old tradition that is important. We don’t think about it, but we feel it. Gutai’s director, our fondateur, Yoshihara Jiro, was not always an artist; he was the son of a famous cooking oil company founder. His father said, “You like painting, so you can paint a lot. But you will never be an artist. Please follow in my footsteps.” So Yoshihara worked at the company and painted at the same time. When Yoshihara was young, Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita came back to Japan.

HUO: The famous Japanese-French painter who was then living in Paris. 

TM: Yes, and Yoshihara wanted to show him his work. Foujita said, “Yoshihara-kun, this is like Matisse, this is like Miró. All these influences are not good. You should be original, invent it.”

HUO: Amazing.

TM: And meanwhile, his father was saying, “You can’t go to Paris, you must stay in Osaka.” It was an engaging time in Japan in the 1950s. At one point, everybody—graphic designers, sculptors, and painters—got together to have a discussion, and Yoshihara was one of the artists invited. A lot of young artists went to listen. At the same time Yoshihara organized a small show in Kobe.

HUO: And that was the beginning of Gutai. 

TM: Yes. I was at high school at that time, so I knew of it.

HUO: Gutai was in large part a response to this conservative climate after the war.

TM: Exactly, Yoshihara was against the formality. But he was not against art, you understand.

HUO: Yes, Gutai was not anti-art; it was against formal art.

TM: Yes. In Japan there is not such a strict line between painting and craft, ceramics, woodworking. Well, sometimes it’s divided, but it’s more about how things are made than the medium per se. So Gutai was influenced by craft, by hand making. Also Japanese history—the Meiji period, after the Edo epoch—and literature, art, industry. Yoshihara understood many things intuitively, and he made people want to join him.

HUO: Like Andy Warhol, it was a factory. Could we say that Yoshihara was the Andy Warhol of Japan?

TM: Yes! [laughs] He was very good. He was a good painter, and a good navigator. I was objective then. I was figurative in my paintings, as I mentioned, but I was slowly changing my ideas. In my youth I loved to do figurative drawings, I was so proud of my talent. Because of my sickness I would have to lie down and all the illusions that I saw, I would draw. But art cannot only be surface. That’s why I used the sickness time for imagination as well. In 1958 or 1959, Sadamasa Motonaga lived near my house. I asked him, “Can you introduce me to Gutai?” Gutai was so active, I was envious of that energy. So I started to participate in Gutai at the end of 1959. But the first time I showed my paintings, influenced by the style of the period, Yoshihara told me, “No, these are not good. Nor these either.” This was something he had gotten from Foujita!

HUO: So he did to you what Foujita did to him?

TM: Exactly! Because I had an imagination, I liked some organic images, things that were in three dimensions, but not sculpture. I like the flat surface. That’s why, one day, I bought some vinyl glue (which today you can buy anyplace). It was a nice day, a little windy, I put the vinyl glue on the canvas and turned it over, and of course vinyl is water-based and most of it dripped off, but some parts dried. Then I thought, “Aha, this is a good form, fairly controlled.” It was a very sexual form.

HUO: Was it the actions of Gutai that drew you to the group, or something else?

TM: Usually I explain it by saying that I was weak, then, conserving energy. And Gutai was energy. I felt that each person involved had originality. Everybody was good.

HUO: Fundamental to the workings of Gutai was a balance between individualism and community, a focus on the horizontal over the hierarchical. I am always interested in this idea of the collective. 

TM: You have to see that in Japanese culture the collective and the individual go together, they are not opposite. And all Japan works that way. Also Gutai wouldn’t say “creative,” we say jikken, “experiment.” They don’t create; they experiment.

HUO: So the emphasis was on freedom? Freedom to experiment.

TM: Freedom from war. Freedom from our important traditions, from formality. My education was very short, and my family was very middle class, and I was a very sad boy. I hated myself, until I figured out how could I break with all that. I was a fortunate artist. I was influenced by a lot of Gutai people and abstract painters.

HUO: So Gutai helped you to find your own freedom. Originality seems to be an important concept for it, as when Foujita told Yoshihara not to do Matisse. It was important to do what no one else does. Do you know my book on Metabolism? It’s in English and Japanese. Rem Koolhaas and I worked on it for ten years. While researching that book we found out how much Metabolism had to do with the war. Do you talk about the war?

TM:I can talk about the war. I was very young then, though.

HUO: What are your memories of the war? And how do you think Gutai was a reaction to that? John Latham and Gustav Metzger worked on Auto-destructive art in the 1960s in London, and Latham told me that during the war he was on a ship that blew up, and that that had a big impact on the work. Otto Piene and Günther Uecker, from Zero in Germany, told me that the war explains the nails, the lights. I suppose it’s true also for your generation.

TM: It’s an interesting question, because everybody in Gutai had experienced a horrible time in the war. They were young. Yoshihara wrote about war, he saw a bad scene near Hirosaki, but his paintings are not about war. I think that Yoshihara’s statement was more about refusing politics, story, sentimentality. Just objects, just material itself. He was also, let’s say, spiritual, as in, “shake hands.” His idea was that everybody should be respected.

HUO: Did you ever see any of Shozo Shimamoto’s performances?

TM: Some, yes. But I didn’t see the first ones in 1954.

HUO: Did you yourself ever do performances?

TM: I only did installations. Gutai showed one time in a department store, a big space. On one side was a copy machine shop, and in between someone asked me to make a frontière, so I made a porte. I have a photo.

HUO: So you made a door?

TM: Yes, see in this picture. That’s the copy shop.

HUO: Copy machines and typewriters lead us to another aspect of Gutai, also connected to the American artist Ray Johnson, which is the idea of mail art. The Gutai artists used these nengajo, the New Year postcards, and I think you must have some because it was your friend Motonaga who did the first one. Is he still alive, Motonaga? He was fifteen years older than you, and certainly the one you were closest to.

TM: No, but he lived a long life.

HUO: [looking at the nengajo] Oh that looks amazing! These are the originals?

TM: Yes.

HUO: So you did one too? This one is yours?

TM: That’s mine.

HUO: Beautiful.

TM: Yoshihara said to each artist, “Come, you must make one.”

HUO: It’s like a portable museum. I’m so touched to see these cards, this is really incredible. I see they are very small. Who had the idea for these cards? They are all originals in a way.

TM: It was Yoshihara. We made a hundred, and every year, at the end of the year, we sent them all over the world.

HUO: One last question about Gutai before we move on. You were referred to as one of the “three M’s.”

TM: Mukai, Maekawa, and Matsutani: we were the same generation, and became part of Gutai in the 1960s.

HUO: So Motonaga was the “father.”

TM: Exactly. Well, maybe more like the uncle or older.

HUO: Motonaga was a pioneer. Can you tell me more about him, and his influence? How do you think of his role in the Gutai movement?

TM: First of all, he was very charming, and a tall, handsome guy.
And a nice guy. And his work was organic. I felt that it looked like the inside of an organ, the product of a mind that is sensual. Also, you have to understand, any artist in Gutai—of course they were artists, so they were all enemies of each other. Or, well, in competition. You know what I mean. When I made my first works, I asked Mukai and Maekawa, “Please look at them, I can’t decide if they’re good.” They came and said, “Matsutani, this is interesting; you must show Yoshihara.” Then, in 1970 in the Osaka international exposition, the world’s fair, they offered a big space to Gutai, and they had lots of funding for it from an investment company. That was the first time Gutai saw big money, and unfortunately it became political.

HUO: Did you participate in Osaka? You were living in Paris at the time.

TM: Good question. They told me, “Matsutani, if you don’t get on this ship, you will be late. Come home.” I didn’t go home.

HUO: You stayed in Paris?

TM: I stayed in Paris.

HUO: The movement split up not long thereafter. Were there any connections between you, Gutai, and Metabolism? Did you know the Metabolist architects? Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa?
They were all the students of Kenzō Tange. Did you know Tange? 

TM: I think Tange was the top guy—like Yoshihara, but in the architecture world.

HUO: Tange played the role of Yoshihara—I mean, Tange was less dictatorial, because he went to the United States and he just gave the young people his studio, so it was sort of laissez-faire. Did you know the architects at that time?

TM: No. I knew Tadao Ando, but only as a friend. An old friend from Osaka. Sometimes I would go back to Japan, and he had a lavender Porsche and would take me around to show me all his new buildings.

HUO: I wanted to ask you also about your first bigger exhibition, which you were invited to do in 1963 at the Gutai Pinacotheca in Osaka. I’ve read the pamphlet. You wanted to do something organic with the vinyl glue and learn from that material; dialogue with material was also a Gutai theme. You said a lot of people were repelled because it wasn’t a material one would normally use for art.

TM: Yes, because I couldn’t make fresh, creative work, finally
I found the glue material, and I made some three-dimensional, organic shapes. Now I say it’s an organic shape, but at that time I didn’t know anything. So as I mentioned, I made the first ones and showed them to Mukai and Murakami, and they said they were interesting. I started the show, and from looking at the objects I made, I realized they were conversations of my thinking, and they expressed a consistent idea, so in that regard I think that in 1963 most of the work was fresh. Michel Tapié said he had never seen this kind of material, and of course he had never seen it—nobody had had the idea. I invented the artistic use of water-based vinyl glue. When it’s dry, it becomes skin-like, very organic.

HUO: Art Informel was a lot about the gestural idea, which then became a one-way street one shouldn’t continue on, but with this work you introduced chance in a different way. What’s the role of chance in this work?

TM: My mind is always on the academic side, like this, to draw something nicely. I still use chance, as I can’t control the glue one hundred percent, it’s impossible. There are no mistakes for me. Rather, I might make a mistake, but if I leave it alone for a day, then look at it again, my mind has changed. I’ve learned much from this.

HUO: François Jullien said he had to go to China to understand France. You went to Paris to understand Japan.

TM: Yes, and myself, and our culture.

HUO: Then you arrived, and there is a beautiful photo of your studio in Rue Daguerre. It seems that you were neighbors with Louise Bourgeois and Joan Mitchell?

TM: Joan Mitchell later became a good friend of my wife Kate, but at the time of this photo she, Louise Bourgeois, and Shirley Jaffe shared a big atelier in the back, and they would have nothing to do with us!

HUO: Why? They were separate?

TM: Very separate.

HUO: And at that time you also started to do these copper plates.

TM: The engravings.

HUO: You were in Paris as a printmaker. It’s interesting that these copper plates are not so well known. Can you tell me a little bit about them? It sort of leads to the black, because the black color is so heavily pressed and strong, and sharper than a painted black.

TM: Well, Atelier 17 was Stanley William Hayter’s studio. I went to study engraving, and the Hayter system is that everybody has the same color work, and the images are maybe different. The most important thing of all, I stayed in a small room and I couldn’t do vinyl work, and it was a culture shock. But I traveled lots, and in the engraving studio you can see lots of different artists from all over the world. [shows works] The shapes all come from vinyl. 

HUO: Wow. So basically you stood up the chance-related vinyl structures, then you drew them.

TM: The vinyls were in three dimensions.

HUO: Fascinating also that there are multiple etchings on one etching.

TM: This is in 1967. I did most of them in 1970. This was the whole reason I came to Europe. I loved Kandinsky’s work.

HUO: What is the reason for the box?

TM: A box makes something tight. Whether it’s out or in.

HUO: And why do you call it Propagation Box? I suppose as a reference to the material of propagation. An organic propagation. It’s also interesting because today there is so much art related to biology, and there’s almost something biological in this. Are you inspired by biology?

TM: Yes. My friend who worked in the hospital made blood tests with a microscope, and I saw it one time and was interested. I drew it a lot by hand. It’s not biological, but only the shape. It is a study.

HUO: So that friendship with the biologist gave you inspiration for the shapes. Because these are like microscopic views. And then you moved to silkscreen; what happened there?

TM: Ah, silkscreens were from Hayter’s studio. And Kate had a silkscreen studio. I loved Ellsworth Kelly’s work.

HUO: And then you started to paint the vinyl in a way.

TM: In 1970, then I again went to vinyl.

HUO: Back to vinyl.

TM: All was based on this vinyl glue. [laughs]

HUO: So then out of the etching, at a certain moment you discovered this black material and graphite, and you eliminated color. Obviously black has a different connotation in the West than in the East, because in the West it is the color of death, but in Japan it’s not. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that move to graphite? As far as I understand, Joseph Beuys and ecology played a role.

TM: Ecology for me means most of our human bodily senses, that’s eyes and ears, taste, everything that animals have, but human hands especially. That’s why I started to draw in pencil, to make the surface, line by line. Then it joined with vinyl because I liked this kind of idea. Black was automatic; black was just the easy way. When I was a kid, every New Year the family would sit down in a room to make calligraphy of “Happy New Year” or a simple poem. At school we had a calligraphy class.

HUO: Tadao Ando wrote that with graphite in the 1970s, you “created works in which the human being was symbolized in an abstract painting of lines and planes, with a pencil, so it’s very ascetic,” and you “repeat the act of just drawing with a pencil in such a common style, you apply these black lines, stroke by stroke.” It’s fascinating the way he describes it, because it’s a very repetitive activity. It’s almost like you are painting time, or something.

TM: That’s the most important thing: I had a lot of time. Nobody knew me, and we didn’t work so much. I did wash the dishes as a husband, but I had lots of time, and everybody does calligraphy noir, and so by pencil was maybe different. Time can get inside.

HUO: It’s obviously covered all over. Where does that come from? You once said that you were inspired by Jackson Pollock, but Pollock was more the drips, rather than the fact that it was all over.

TM: At that time I did some dripping, yes.

HUO: Here you do it in a much slower way, but it’s again all over, in a sense.

TM: Yes, it’s a kind of repetition also. But you can look at one done by hand. I wanted to make five meters. This is a five-meter shape formed from vinyl.

HUO: So they are very big, like scrolls.

TM: This is for a big space, so I made it big. But I am always a little bit against mechanizing it, so until I have a malady, I will still do everything by hand.

HUO: And then you also draw sketches.

TM: A lot of sketches, yes. And smaller kinds of—

HUO: Experiments?

TM: No, they are all ordinary.

HUO: And do you give your works titles?

TM: Yes, the titles are sometimes streams.

HUO: And the streams come from the connection to water.

TM: Water and light. Beaucoup here. This is—you can’t believe.
All the antiques. Sometimes the title adds to the idea.

HUO: What is the biggest drawing you’ve made?

TM: About thirteen meters.

HUO: But it is on canvas. It looks incredibly fragile, yet it’s stable.

TM: I’ve kept everything since I started. I have everything.

HUO: Do you have any unrealized projects? For instance, projects that were too big to be realized, or dreams?

TM: What do you mean?

HUO: Things you haven’t done yet. Are you dreaming of something you’d like to do that you’ve never been able to do?

TM: No, I don’t think so.

HUO: One last question. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this little book, Advice to a Young Poet. What would be your advice to a young artist?

TM: Art is special, and it never goes away, I hope. When humans are finished maybe it will die, but while humans are alive, art is also.

HUO: But what would you tell a young artist?

TM: Don’t be influenced so much by information.

HUO: It’s more about inside?

TM: Inside yourself. Influence yourself. That is my advice. 


Takesada Matsutani (1937, Osaka) lives and works in Paris, and Nishinomiya, Japan. From the early 1960s until the 1970s Matsutani was a key member of the “second generation” of the influential postwar Japanese art collective, the Gutai Art Association. After the Gutai group disbanded in 1972, Matsutani eased into a radical yet consistent new body of work, informed by his experience at Atelier 17. Faithful to his Gutai roots, he strove to identify and convey the essential character of vinyl glue with graphite, that were to become his signature materials.

Hans Ulrich Obrist (1968, Zurich) is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first exhibition World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than 300 shows.


Originally published on Mousse 65

Related Articles
Of Familiarity: Polys Peslikas
(Read more)
Driving the Human: A Three-Year Development Process Combining Science, Technology, and the Arts
(Read more)
A Sculpture Looking at You Whilst Touching Itself: Jesse Wine
(Read more)
Ficting and Facting. McKenzie Wark, RIBOCA2—2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2020
(Read more)
the pleasure principle: Stephanie LaCava
(Read more)
Portraits of Landscapes: Tau Lewis
(Read more)