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Jiro Takamatsu is not easy to understand. He was an idiosyncratic avant-garde artist who worked with a variety of materials to create arcane art that expressed philosophical ideas. This is immediately off-putting to some and intriguing to others. However, the exhibition “Takamatsu Jiro: Mysteries” at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo is designed so that most visitors will be able to find something to take from it.

One of the key concepts needed to understand Takamatsu is his deep and profound interest in epistemology — the study of what can be known — and his view that human subjectivity prevents us from perceiving things as they actually are. The bilingual exhibition catalog sums up his views as follows:

“Ultimately human beings cannot sufficiently comprehend those things that exist outside of themselves. These things are immediately sullied by our biased perceptions. This being the case, even if we try to pursue the consummate form of things, we can never hope to attain them. Therefore, we should make this process itself into art.”

This may sound rather abstract, but you immediately understand what is meant when you encounter “Compound,” a conceptual work from 1972, created by placing a brick under a chair leg.

When we see a chair, our subjectivity kicks in, and we immediately see it as something to sit on. The addition of the brick under the leg, however, removes it from this category. We no longer wish to sit upon it, and so we view it in a different way, instead perceiving its forms and shape in what Takamatsu would see as more objective and aesthetic.

A similar effect is achieved in the section of the exhibition called The Shadow Lab, where visitors can experience some of the mechanisms that Takamatsu used to make one of his most successful series, the “Shadow Painting” series, by casting and capturing shadows.

One of the installations here is chair suspended from the ceiling and spotlighted from two directions as it slowly revolves. This creates a moving pattern that presents the formal essence of the chair; completely removing it from its function yet again. In short, we see it as something no longer related to our posterior comfort and this liberates the object.

Takamatsu captured many of his “Shadow” works by casting them onto walls or canvases and then painting the silhouettes with a lacquer that mimicked the shadow. This may seem rather like a practical joke and a parody of artistic illusionism, but it is all part of a consistent theme that runs throughout his work — an intense interest in the essence of things.

This can also be seen in drawings and paintings from the 1950s, which show his early obsession with dots and points. For Takamatsu, a “point” was two things: a meeting point of interacting forces as well as a vanishing point in space. As he wrote in his notebooks: “The infinity that is the white canvas. The infinity that is me. The things therein that cannot be further unravelled, divided, ruptured . . . that is to say, that which ‘points’ summarize. Sometimes, the touch of a brush. The lips of a woman.”

The paintings that stemmed from this approach have hints of absurdity and profundity, but generally look like frantic doodles as points become larger and larger. Finally, he started to create works using bundles of wire and string covered in paint or lacquer to express these ideas.

At times, he seems to be artistically working through his understanding of some of the paradoxes of atomic and quantum physics, such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, by which the more you observe a point the more you distort it. Takamatsu’s point paintings then evolved into his “String” works, presaging, in a very literal way, the String Theory of physics that emerged a few years after he developed the pieces.

But these “String” works also drew him toward the conceptual and performance art that he explored in the radical, neo-Dadaist Hi Red Center group. One of the representative works from this period is “Strings in Bottles” (1963), which is exactly that, various kinds of string and rope pushed into bottles — possibly an ironic statement on returning the artistic genie to the lamp.

One problem with avant-garde artists is that we usually encounter their works decontextualized, and so get the impression that they were slightly mad — something that would likely happen if you saw “Strings in Bottles” on its own.

This exhibition, however, brings all the works together into a coherent, even sensible, narrative. You find yourself thinking of Takamatsu as a methodical and logical thinker. At times he seems almost pedantic. But through this you also come into contact with Takamatsu’s endless ambition, hunger and curiosity — qualities that together were his main strength as an artist.

“Takamatsu Jiro: Mysteries” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs till March 1; 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥900. Closed Mon. www.momat.go.jp/english/artmuseum/index.html

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