San Francisco

Masashi Matsumoto

Lawson De Celle Gallery

All too often, an elusive figure bites the dust upon close examination. En route to see recent work by Masashi Matsumoto I hoped this wouldn’t happen, and was pleasantly reassured at the sight of 15 works using the door imagery which the artist made highly visible in a San Francisco billboard in 1977.

Matsumoto is something of a legend in certain circles. Mysterious sentences attributed to him have turned up on broadsides and in museum exhibition catalogues (in Tom Garver’s 1974 New Photography in San Francisco and the Bay Area, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, he is quoted, “You are considered mad until your idea succeeds.”): he is rumored to have painted a room yellow and allowed visitors to view it through a very small hole; played an audio tape rather than speaking aloud while a panelist at a conference; and, most recently, to have paid tribute to the concept, if not the substance, of Tom Marioni’s well-known 1970 piece, “Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art.” Clearly the artist is not without humor, but would 15 paintings of doors in a gallery and not out of doors, as the billboard had been, contribute to or detract from a growing legend? The question proved unnecessary, and the doors explore and combine rather subtly a number of post-Minimal concerns in ways that promise a solid future for humor as well as art.

Eight small (12-by-20-inch) door works are acrylic on paper with plexiglass frames. The paint, which was laid down next to taped lines, leaves faint ridges which give a collagelike effect. Large white areas, such as the door panels, are painted as well, but in such a way that the surface quality of the paper is not obscured. Individually, the pieces are visual games of a type used to increase visual perception. They are also low keyed and amusing, containing at least one art historical reference. Albers’ color relationship squares come to mind at once, although Magritte’s doors follow closely. There is no indication that Matsumoto intended specific ancestors, yet the intention to provide this assortment of rectangles with associations beyond the minimal is obvious. Juxtaposition of solid color areas—red, yellow, green—with white panels and black trim or shadow lines increases the ambiguity without diminishing the strength of the color. Quickly one learns to look for the unexpected: two doors with right side knobs next to one with a left side knob; another work called Mixed Up Door in which the nonsequential shadow lines add to the surreal ambience. These smaller works were done in 1978, and seem to serve as a prelude to the remainder of the show, six large acrylic-on-canvas doors.

The large (86-by-42-inch) paintings are shown in two other rooms, four in one and two in another. They are differentiated only by color—the four black ones have a pinstripe in yellow, red or green and a tiny correspondingly colored keyhole. Again the effect borders on the surreal—if the pinstripe, which seems to be on the door is green, how can the keyhole, which obviously goes through to some region beyond, show the same color? The other room contains a white-on-white Matsumoto door in which the surreal moves on to the mystical. The impact of the doors is heightened by the casual installation in which the paintings lean on, rather than hang on, the walls. The paintings are covered with tightly wrapped sheets of plastic which look as though they might have been left on accidentally. The partially obscured surfaces and ambiguous placement of the doorlike canvases suggests that one has entered a transitional environment.

Mary Stofflet