An opening night feature of the exhibition Gutai Spirit Forever
Part 1: Works from 1964 to 1976: February 7th – March 16th, 2013
Part 2: Works from 1977 to 2013: March 21st – April 20th, 2013
by Taney Roniger
It is a blustery New York evening, typical for the city in early February, and a crowd has gathered inside Chelsea’s Galerie Richard to attend the opening of Gutai artist Takesada Matsutani’s first U.S. retrospective. The exhibition, which will be installed in two phases under the single title Gutai Spirit Forever, is timed to run concurrently with the artist’s inclusion in Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim Museum, a confluence that further attests to the claim the show’s title advances. In New York this spring, the Gutai spirit is very much alive. It is especially so this evening, as the artist is scheduled to give a live performance to usher in the series of events.
In the center of the gallery, surrounded on all sides by the artist’s early works from the 60s and 70s (the first installment of the show), a square of raw, unstretched canvas, perhaps seven feet across, lies on the floor. At its center sits a single granite stone, perhaps eight inches high and approximating the shape of a cube, which the artist has brought with him from his home in Paris. Suspended several feet over the stone from the gallery’s ceiling is a large canvas-colored sack, swollen and heavy with fluid.
Around this curious arrangement some 60 or 70 guests mill about, examining the works that line the walls, audibly discussing what they see with companions. The room is filled with bustle and commotion, the atmosphere charged with anticipation. The stage has been set, but no one—not even the gallery’s staff—knows what is to occur there.
Approximately 45 minutes into the opening, entirely without introduction or fanfare, a slight Japanese man in his mid-seventies emerges from the crowd and advances toward the canvas, carefully rolling up his sleeves as he approaches. As visitors begin to take notice, a hush falls over the gallery, and before long the silenced crowd has gathered around what has become an arena. In measured, humble gestures more befitting of a private ceremony than a public spectacle, the artist removes a large rectangular block of ink from a cardboard case and steps onto the canvas. From his pocket he withdraws a needle, and with this he proceeds to pierce several small holes into the lowermost region of the sack’s bulge. Water begins to trickle from the sack down to the center of the stone, and, as soon as he is satisfied with the water’s flow, Matsutani kneels down and begins to scrape his ink block against the stone’s uppermost surface. As the falling water gathers on the top of the stone, the solid ink begins to dissolve, forming a velvety black fluid that spills from the face of the granite down all four sides and onto the canvas. Rivulets of ink seep outward from the stone in irregular, capillary-like streams, saturating the canvas’s weave and gathering in pools that swell with each passing moment.
Matsutani continues to scrape in rhythmic, concentrated strokes until, after about five or six minutes, the moment becomes right for his gesture: his signature act that punctuates each of his performances. In this case the gesture is a sweeping, circular movement with which he circumscribes the stone with the face of his ink block, drawing a calligraphic ring around the center of the canvas whose traces will remain visible after all the ink has dried. Having completed his part in the performance, the artist stands, brings his hands together in a gentle bow to his audience, and disappears into the applauding crowd. Before long, the audience has resumed its former activities, and opening night continues in regular, celebratory fashion.
The performance, however, is not over. Central to the Gutai movement, whose philosophical approach Matsutani has continued to practice since his membership in the group as a young man, is the notion that materials have a life of their own. The role of the Gutai artist is not to force matter into submission to serve his own ends, but rather to bring it to life and let it speak for itself. “In Gutai art,” proclaims the group’s 1956 manifesto, “the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other.”
In keeping with this attitude of respect for the life of materials, Matsutani’s ink, stone, water, and canvas are allowed to continue enacting their quiet drama long after the artist’s exit from the performance. By the end of the evening, the heaviest stream of ink-saturated fluid has made its way across the canvas, seeped over the latter’s edges, and settled into a sizeable pool on the gallery’s raw concrete floor. Later, the artist will call this unanticipated gesture an expression of infinity.
Embedded within this brief performance are many of the motifs that have imbued all Matsutani’s work with its understated beauty and profundity over his five-decade career. First and foremost, there is the emphatic sensuality of his engagement with his materials. If the spirit of Gutai calls for a fundamental respect for the life of matter, Matsutani’s response has been a highly developed and life-affirming fluid-eroticism. The sagging, fluid-filled sack, reminiscent of both wound and womb—along with its flow-inducing penetration—is a recurrent theme. Water being the source of all life, Matsutani’s tactile engagement with fluid matter transforms Gutai’s second injunction—to be original, to “make it new”—into a metaphor for creation itself. Matsutani’s art is indeed original, but it is also, in a deeper sense, “originary.”
In Matsutani’s performances, the allusions to ceremony and ritual implicit in his other works are made explicit. This commitment to art as spiritual practice has its roots not only in Gutai’s emphasis on action (matter and action being the celebrated “Gutai binomial”) but also in the artist’s traditional upbringing in Japan. In the Shingon Buddhism that is the tradition of his family, wisdom is achieved through ritual, through the concentrated, repetitive movement of body, speech, and mind. Matsutani has spoken of the central role of ritual in his youth, both in school and in his home, and of the ritualistic nature of his early engagement with calligraphy. In the artist’s youth, it was a common practice for the entire family to gather as they scraped blocks of sumi ink against stones in preparation for the calligraphic act. The scraping of block against stone served not just to dissolve the ink but also to concentrate the mind, to still and distill the thoughts in order to arrive at a state of emptiness from which spontaneous authenticity can arise. During these formative years is when Matsutani developed his love of ink, of simplicity, and of organic materials. It is also, perhaps, when he first awakened to the keen somatic intelligence—the kind of knowing-by-touching—that has informed all his work.
Respect for the passage of time figures prominently in Matsutani’s oeuvre, and in Stream New York it is rendered palpable. Beholding the live creation of this ink-on-canvas painting is itself a meditative activity, and at a certain point the viewer begins to achieve the same stillness of mind as the artist himself. As the movements of the artist’s body, the dripping water, and the flowing ink settle into a rhythmic pattern, awareness of conventional concepts such as minutes and hours – of “clock time” – starts to disappear, and one enters into another experience of time. Here, time’s passage is measured by quality rather than quantity, by the depth of one’s awareness of being immersed in the unfathomable expanse of time that far exceeds our finite selves. Our senses sharpened, we notice the age of the stone under the artist’s hands, and, being far older than we, it acquires a newfound authority that commands our respect. In Matsutani’s presence, this shift in temporal awareness is endowed with a sense of warmth and welcome, as if in bearing witness to his contact with the larger cycle of time we are assured that we too belong there. When the artist rises to bring his part in the performance to a close, our return to the narrower confines of ordinary time, where we will once again be consumed by our individual past, present, and future, is accompanied by the knowledge that we have experienced things otherwise. Slowly, we move back into clock-time, but we do so much enriched.
If Matsutani’s performances bring to mind Pollock’s “action paintings” and their visual allusions to the infinite (indeed the Gutai Manifesto cites Pollock as a source of inspiration), they also underscore a significant difference between the two. Next to Matsutani’s restrained gestures, humble materials, and minimal intervention in the flow of his fluids, the hubris inherent in Pollock’s enterprise becomes strongly pronounced. Far from being a virtuosic display of mastery over matter, the actions performed in Matsutani’s arena betray a mutually respectful partnership of equals working in tandem for the sake of creation.
Having witnessed Stream New York, one cannot but see the work on the walls with fresh eyes and a renewed appreciation for all that it embodies. For an artist whose work is a sensual address to the passage of time and the eternal cycle of life, a retrospective is a particularly apt context. The two-part nature of this one is also not without significance; as much as we may want to see the whole show at once, the work itself admonishes us to be patient, reminding us at every turn of the greater perspective. For now, we will savor the sensual presence these early works exude as their materials continue to live and thrive, and we will observe with increased attentiveness the fate of the ink stain that lies on the gallery’s floor. When the exhibition comes down, what will be done with infinity? If the show’s title is any indication, it may be with the gallery for some time to come.