Partial installation view of YUTAKA MATSUZAWA’s The Nine Meditation Chambers, 1977, 12 handwritten and typed sheets, 18 × 25.6 cm each, at Nonaka-Hill Gallery, Los Angeles, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Nonaka-Hill Gallery. 

Yutaka Matsuzawa

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Widely considered the father of conceptual art in Japan, Yutaka Matsuzawa (1922–2006) spent most of his life attempting to formulate an impactful art practice characterized by invisibility and impermanence. According to an autobiographical account from the artist, he was born with eyes closed, and did not open them until 22 days after birth. Later, at the age of 42, Matsuzawa claimed that a revelatory voice once exhorted him to “eradicate all objects” from his practice. 

Ultimately, Matsuzawa’s work remains solidly tied to tactile materials, due in part to his continued reliance on language, symbols, and other written forms as opposed to turning to performance or other fleeting modes of communication. But what is more significant is not necessarily the physical outcome of the works but the metaphysical experience they are able to elicit—a fact that was fully on display in the artist’s small but enlightening show at Nonaka-Hill Gallery. 

Upon entering the gallery the viewer was confronted with a single, seemingly simple framed work on paper, Contemplate a White Circle in This White Sheet of Paper (Swan Song) (1976). The top half of the paper is blank. On the lower half, text in Japanese, Italian, and English asks the viewer to envision a circle and to view it as a “moribund swan” while hearing a swan song. In theory, one supposes, the true artwork lives within the viewer’s consciousness: the act of imagining the dying swan, visible only in the mind’s eye. To take it a step further, the artwork would vary infinitely depending on who is imagining it and under what influence or mood. 

Throughout his career, Matsuzawa had a fixation on death. Instead of seeing it as a terminus, the artist seems to have viewed it as an opportunity for unending possibility. In My Own Death (1970), a placard in Japanese and English hung from the ceiling in the empty gallery asks the viewer to walk across the room and envision the artist’s death, considering the event’s similarity to the viewer’s “own future death” as well as the “past hundred hundred millions of human beings’ deaths and also future thousand trillions of human beings’ [deaths].” The request made the barren gallery feel as if it were brimming. 

A transcendent view of death was also present in the installation The Nine Meditation Chambers (1977). On the floor, nine sheets of blank paper were laid out in a neat grid. On the walls, directives asked the viewer to “contemplate this paper” and “incantate” nine elements or concepts in the following order: earth, water, fire, wind, space, consciousness, time, catastrophe, and, finally, nirvana. Throughout the show, Matsuzawa’s instructions ring with didacticism as well as religiosity. There is a monastic or ritualistic quality about them, as if the artist were seeking to transcend his time and place for some unknown but hopeful beyond. Some critics have tied this obsession with death and impermanence to his witnessing of the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which left more than 100,000 people dead and at least one million people homeless. Perhaps seeing life obliterated sparked a desire in the artist to formulate an existence apart from this one. 

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a folio of eight volumes dedicated to his work, Matsuzawa Yutaka: ψ _Box (1983), was laid out against a wall, featuring images and captions of drawings, paintings, Cornell-like boxes (Matsuzawa was an admirer of Joseph Cornell and attempted to contact the Surrealist assemblage artist during his brief time in New York in the mid-1950s), timed-based works, photographs, and more. The abstruse but fascinating images came with little explanation. In all, the show felt like a powerfully compelling proposal for a more thorough retrospective on Matsuzawa at a larger institution—one that could bring together loans and recreations of his work along with meaningful research and scholarship on this little understood artist. 

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