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 painted surfaces 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 nihonga style to engravings from his time as an assistant to the British artist Stanley William Hayter to boxes of carefully cataloged letters from old friends from Japan.
To Matsutani, “make it new” is synonymous with freedom — from tradition, from war and from illness. One of four children born to middle-class parents in 1937, he remembers the Second World War bombing of Osaka, during which large swaths of the city were destroyed. An easily distracted child, he spent his free time finding sticks and mimicking chanbara, or Japanese sword fighting, until he hit 14 and contracted tuberculosis. He was in and out of the hospital for eight years, bedridden and deprived of schooling until the requisite medicines finally 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 efforts were faithful nihonga-style landscapes of the mountains near his home. When he discovered Cubism in his early 20s, he began painting jumbled-up works that spoke to 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 was suffering, with this heavy bateau of pressure in my head,” he says. Around this time, he began reading about the work of Gutai. Written off as provincial by critics in Tokyo, the group initially sparked skepticism in him, too: “I thought, ‘That is not art. What I am doing is art.’ ” Yet he was attracted by the energy of the group, and started experimenting with assemblage works, affixing sand and pieces of scrap wood to his paintings. He showed the pieces to Gutai’s leader, Jiro Yoshihara, after an introduction from a friend, but they were rejected for being unoriginal.
In 1961, Matsutani had his Damascene moment when he discovered polyvinyl acetate adhesive, otherwise known as Elmer’s glue. One day when the weather was fine, he headed outside and poured some on a canvas. A chance gust of wind blew it into the shape of stalactites. Then he began to experiment with manipulating glue with hair dryers and fans. “I liked them to be organic, very sensual,” Matsutani says of the protrusions’ shapes. Inspired by okonomiyaki — savory pancakes made with wheat flour batter and enlivened with toppings of seaweed and meat — he added “toppings” of acrylic and oil paints to the round swellings. Finally, Yoshihara accepted Matsutani’s work as genuinely innovative. The artist’s official welcome into Gutai was sealed with a solo show at the group’s pinacotheca, or picture gallery, in Osaka in 1963. Three years later, one of his prints earned him first prize at the Mainichi Contemporary Art Exhibition and a six-month scholarship to study in Paris, where he’s lived ever since.
A constant thread in Matsutani’s work has been the foregrounding of the line. “One line: That is the originality of the artist,” he says. In the early 1970s, in the aftermath of Gutai’s disbanding, he set himself a challenge. “One day, I said to myself, ‘Matsutani, you have white paper, take a pencil.’ What do you do? I can’t write a poem. I can’t write history. I just draw.” He began covering pages in repeating pencil marks. The pages got bigger, some of them reaching over 32 feet long. And he began staging performances in which he threw turpentine on the graphite to make it run, or rubbed calligraphy blocks on chunks of rock to spray ink all over canvases on the floor, forming his “Stream” series. He refers to the running of graphite as “the future” and revels in the fact that the painstakingly applied marks become chaotic when the white spirit is added. As he wrote in the catalog accompanying his 2019 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, “My regular rhythm, my precise gestures, are now out of my control. Everything flows off the paper, insistent, unruly.”
He takes me from the ground-floor studio, where we have been talking, up to the third floor of the building, where he has a second studio and archive. On the landing, he shows me a calathea orbifolia plant. “I take care of this plant every day. I cut the old leaves two days ago,” he says. He opens the heavy door and gestures at the wooden floor, which is black with pencil marks and resembles one of his graphite scrolls. “It’s a work of art,” he says of the floor with a smile. “Every day, I am here drawing.” He alternates between pencil drawings and his vinyl works, though qualifies: “If you use vinyl glue, it’s less working, more watching,” he says. Speaking of less working, it’s time for a coffee — Matsutani wants to take me to his local Tabac, which he’s frequented nearly every day for over 30 years. He closes and locks the door to the studio: “Museum is closed!”
Here, Matsutani answers T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
What is your daily routine?
In general, I wake up between 8 and 8:30 a.m. I have a cup of English tea. (I have Japanese tea — either green tea or thé fumé — in the studio.) Then I do my gymnastics. For more than 30 years I have done 30 minutes of exercise in the morning. That maybe makes me healthy. It’s not medicine, but discipline is important. I am on the floor and I move my arms and legs. The only object I use is a piece of bamboo cut in half; it massages my bare feet. We call it takifumi. Then I eat some toast. I go to the Tabac on the corner and have a coffee — I have been going there since the father’s time; now it’s the son, Ludovic, who runs it. Then I come to the studio. I am here until quite late at night, between 8 and 9 p.m.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
After school once, when I was 12 or 13, I made a porno. On a roll of paper five inches wide with two sticks attached for rolling the drawing, I drew a couple making love. Then, I put it in a box with a lamp to project the image onto a wall. I invited my friends to come to see it, and I asked people to pay me. Nobody wanted to pay! [Laughs.] After some time, my mother found it and did away with it. Later, I made a work with manga drawings in the same way. But I wasn’t really thinking of being an artist then.
When do you feel a piece of work is finished?
Usually, I leave it for quite a long time. Sometimes, it takes a week. I need to create some distance. That’s why I go out, do other things, come back. You get a lot of ideas. Sometimes, I ask my wife [the artist Kate Van Houten] or my assistants. Also, I hang the works, so people react to them. Women have more interesting reactions. [He mimes pointing at a picture.] “ ‘Ah! Pregnant!’ ” Men, they cross their arms and say, “ ‘I don’t understand.’ ” [Laughs.]
Do you think women and men react differently to art?
Definitely. Especially Japanese men — they are so proud. We have traditions here in Paris, too, but the Japanese traditions are sometimes so strict. Gutai was going against this kind of formality. It was a reaction to our society, our history.
What is the worst studio you’ve ever had?
Ha! It was on the Rue Maurice Ripoche in Montparnasse. The studio was very old, with a big courtyard. The toilet was Greek-style, in the floor. It was a small atelier where we did lots of silk screens, and there was no ventilator. One day, when I was making silk-screen prints, I fell down. I stopped making silk-screen prints after that. My next studio, in [Passage de la] Bonne Graine, was an 80-square-meter atelier that I shared with my wife. We had to go across the street to use the toilets, and I had to shower at a friend’s place. But we were artists, c’est comme ça.
What’s the strangest thing in your studio?
Oh, this! [He takes a small red metal box that looks like a tiny suitcase down from a shelf.] When I was a kid, after the war, we used this in the winter before we had an oil stove. It’s a kotatsu, similar to a hot water bottle. When you sleep in Japan on tatami and a futon, inside this box you add fire, it makes the metal hot, and then you put cotton around it and it heats the bed. I had it in my home. My family wanted to throw it away, but I said “No! Give it to me!” and I made something. I poured some vinyl glue into it in 2018.
Do you listen to music while you work?
Yes, I have a very old radio. I used to have cassettes. I like Japanese enka music, but now I listen to classical music on the radio. I like Mozart but my wife loves opera, so I go to the opera with her. Also, I love contemporary concrete music. I have so many favorite artists: Toru Takemitsu, Toshiro Mayuzimi …
Do you have assistants here?
I have Valérie in my office, and Hiroko in the studio. Hiroko is very strong. [Matsutani pantomimes flexing his biceps.]
What do you wear to work?
You came, so I am wearing a smart outfit. My overalls are hiding today. [He hunts around in a cupboard and pulls out a shirt.] This is my favorite [he takes off the quilted puffer vest he has been wearing over a shirt and foulard and puts on an oversized striped purple and green shirt that is ragged at the collar and covered in paint]. I change my pantalon also, sometimes.
Do you have friends who are artists?
Not so many, maybe two or three that are really friends. One is Daniel Pontoreau. He is a very good artist. I met him maybe 25 years ago. He had a beautiful gallery, which has since closed, and he came to see my 10-meter drawings. We talk often. And my wife and I have one of his sculptures in our home.
Does your wife’s work influence you artistically?
Kate taught me how to make silk-screen prints. But Kate’s character? She is so open. She is like, we say, when we cut a bamboo open very cleanly — take o wata. This kind of mentality, it means very black and white. Me, no. I am very different.
When was the last time that you cried?
When my sister died [of cancer, at the end of 2021]. It was a shock. She kept our old family house, she took care of my mother, everything. Her name was Toyoko. She had a nice shop that stocked clothes from Christian Dior in Osaka. She would come to pick me up from the airport in a big Mercedes-Benz, and I would be in dirty clothes with all my prints! That was a long time ago. She was younger than me — that’s why it was worse. I am 85, she was 80, almost.
What is your favorite artwork by somebody else?
I have been influenced by [Jean] Fautrier. I like his work so much. And Hasegawa Tohaku, a Japanese artist. I like his ink drawings of pine trees. His work is yohaku — empty, but not empty. It’s similar to my pencil work.
What is your biggest luxury?
Baseball. But baseball is a little bit dangerous, so I actually played softball with a Japanese team in Paris. Our uniforms were created by the artist Kumi Sugai. I played first baseman. I don’t watch the sport on television — I don’t watch any television. But I do follow results on the internet.
How does spirituality influence your work?
I believed in spirituality when I was ill. When I was 19 or 20, I even did a waterfall purification ceremony. My parents — my mother, especially — asked me to come to the temple. It was in a Shinto temple in the mountains in Miwa, Nara Prefecture, that had a small waterfall. You can’t just stand under a huge waterfall — you will die! We washed our hands, used salt. Mentally, maybe, I was satisfied. I wanted to be healthy, so I did everything I could. Finally, fortunately, there was medicine.
Do you feel emotion when one of your works leaves the studio?
There is a moment where you feel lonely. But then I forget about it. I start something new.
Do you like to see your work hanging in collectors’ homes?
Sometimes. It’s a strange feeling. It’s a bit like having a kid who lives far away from their parents, and when you see them again: Oh! It’s a feeling of natsukashi — a happy nostalgia.
This interview has been edited and condensed.