Seeing beyond Jiro Takamatsu’s shadows

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

“Jiro Takamatsu: Trajectory of Work” is taxonomic, breaking down everything in the artist’s oeuvre into relatively neat successions of projects and including his paintings and sculptures, copious sketches and the marginalia. Even the catalog seemingly calls for a scientific approach, this exhibition being the opportunity to “conduct objective and detailed research and analysis.”

Yet while all is clearly tagged and categorized, the organizers note that they were unable to reach clear conclusions about certain artworks, so they were omitted from the show and some conclusions set aside. While the exhibition is the most comprehensive on the artist to date, we are told that it should by no means be regarded as a definitive assessment. Much about Takamatsu’s career remains unknown and his theorizing can often seem esoteric.

Takamatsu’s (1936-1998) star began to rise when he and two other artists formed the short-lived early 1960s’ postwar avant-garde group Hi-Red Center, which by “descending into the everyday” — as was the art scene’s catch phrase of the period — produced happenings such as the scrubbing of pavements in the Ginza district of Tokyo in preparation for the 1964 Olympics. That event involved Hi-Red Center members dressed in surgical attire as they parodied the citizen-activists who wanted to clean up the city before the world turned its eyes on it.

Painting had largely become passe by the early ’60s. Junk art and anti-art had ascended, and Takamatsu’s “Point” series of works paralleled the art-world trend. Beginning two-dimensionally in pigment with abstract lines forming messy circular compositions, works evolved into three dimensions with lines formed by thick string or lacquer and wire. String was subsequently stuffed into Coca-Cola bottles with a thread or two coming out the nozzles as free-standing sculptures.

Then, in late 1963, Takamatsu about-turned and resuscitated the supposedly moribund painting tableau in his “Shadow” series. Through trompe l’oeil paintings of people’s shadows cast on white walls, uneven surfaces or planks of wood, and his use of multiple light sources to double those shadows, Takamatsu’s imagery recalls Roman writer Pliny the Elder’s account of the origins of painting, which tells us of a potter’s daughter, Dibutades, tracing the silhouette of her lover before he left to travel overseas. Takamatsu’s “Shadow” series is also conceptual portraiture, as its works refer to the absence of the subjects casting the shadows. His shadows seemingly call upon the spectator to discover the person “outside” of the painting.

The next great group in modern Japanese artists after the Hi-Red Center was Mono-ha (School of Things) from 1968, the genesis of which lay in a 1968 exhibition titled “Tricks and Vision — Stolen Eyes,” at which Takamatsu’s “Shadow” paintings and “Perspective” constructions were also displayed. The latter sculptures and paintings utilized reverse perspective in an attempt to break away from how we see the world, or took a two-dimensional drawing and made it into a three-dimensional sculptural work that when viewed from a certain angle still appeared flat.

When Mono-ha emerged, it was originally interpreted as part of a trend in optical illusions. Takamatsu’s assistant at the time was Nobuo Sekine, who went on to inaugurate Mono-ha with the giant earthwork “Phase — Mother Earth” (1968), a large cylindrical hole dug into the ground with its removed dirt then fashioned into a tube, shaped as the positive form of the negative hole.

The optical-trick art approach was quickly abandoned and Mono-ha artists shifted to exhibiting natural, unprocessed materials that set up relations or situations. An example of Takamatsu’s contribution would be “Documentary Photography of ‘Oneness of Cedar’ ” (1970), a tree trunk with its flanks cut away leaving a thin wooden column rising up from the intact tree base. Takamatsu’s synchronicity with the Mono-ha attempt to transcend Western modernism assured him of his place in postwar Japanese art history.

The early series’ “Point,” “Shadow” and “Perspective” are considered Takamatsu’s growth phase, though arguably these are his best works and certainly the best-known ones. The later series’ “Oneness” and “Compound” are said to be representative of the mature artist, and we see pleasing tensions in sculptural works such as “Rusty Ground” (1977), for which slabs of iron were placed on the floor with a thin wire holding one of them on a tilt — a precarious balance between fragility and solidity. “Space in Two Dimensions,” “Space and Poles” and the “Space” series then followed in succession in the later ’70s and through into the ’80s.

While Takamatsu’s early oeuvre was a series of projects resulting in constant variations on a single or small group of themes, his late career became repetitive in two significant ways: He turned to abstract squiggly paintings largely only differentiated by their colors and immersed himself in book illustration that returned to his “Shadow” paintings for the covers of novels by authors such as Yoshie Hotta. Here, the once avant-garde paintings of yesteryear came down from the museum walls and entered the world of commercial publishing.

“Jiro Takamatsu: Trajectory of Work” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, runs till July 5; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.). ¥900. Closed Mon. www.nmao.go.jp/en