Yuji Agematsu, untitled (detail), 2014, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Yuji Agematsu, untitled (detail), 2014, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Yuji Agematsu

Yale Union (YU)

Yuji Agematsu, untitled (detail), 2014, mixed media, dimensions variable.

The use of trash in the making of art during the past century is so widespread as to defy summarization. Dada, Cubism, Arte Povera, and so-called abject art—not to mention the work of every other coffee-shop collagist and front-yard bricoleur—have all greatly depended on found refuse, with as many meanings generated as there have been artists repurposing the rubbish. Yuji Agematsu, a longtime New Yorker enjoying a happy renaissance (thanks in part to his 2012 exhibition at Real Fine Arts) after a twenty-year hiatus from solo exhibitions, uses garbage, too—in his case to elegantly formalist effect, offset by Cagean notes of improvisation and chance.

Agematsu, who landed in the US from Japan in 1980, has spent much of his adult life collecting discarded materials on walks through Manhattan, then archiving his finds in banker’s boxes stored in his studio and, on occasion, mining his trove to create delicate, ephemeral installations. Sometimes the pickings are displayed unchanged, simply placed on a wall; sometimes they are combined into new, hybrid arrangements. In his recent show at Yale Union, the work, arrayed on the painted white cork tops of Douglas fir tables handmade by Agematsu and designer Scott Ponik for the occasion, took on a horizontal aspect. On these austere planes, which seemed to float between foot and chest level at increments based on Agematsu’s banker’s boxes, the assembled trash turned into a kind of Zen rock garden, a tour de force of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection. In a way, the installation revealed an indebtedness to the modular display techniques of Donald Judd. (One of Agematsu’s many selves serves as the building supervisor of the Judd Foundation at 101 Spring Street in SoHo.)

On one tabletop: a hair cloud braided with golden tinsel thread; a lip of chewed gum atop a shard of broken glass; a scorched, flattened, plastic bottle. On another: rows of cellophane cigarette wrappers filled with crud—broken glass, moss scruff, sidewalk weeds, pebbles, condoms, candy foil, costume jewelry, and unidentifiable charred remains—like little terraria or decomposed versions of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. Low to the ground on a small plinth: a ragged swath of posters torn from a telephone pole, laid out to resemble a caught fish or a beaver pelt. As the viewer circulated among the tables, a cosmos unfolded: flattened coffee cups embedded with gravel, a loose grid of chewed-gum wads, six flattened cupcake wrappers–cum-starbursts. Metaphors proliferated, both ecological and gustatory. The tables were hors d’oeuvres trays or sushi plates, presenting variously savory and bitter nourishments, always rigorously composed, and studded with hard-candy-like broken glass and plastic shrapnel for an optical dessert.

In many cases, Agematsu’s taxonomical impulse was evident, as with the tables of cigarette butts seemingly pinned in place by a lepidopterist; in other cases, a more purely formalist energy drove the arrangements—one table offered a few anchoring shapes and winding lines that suggested an improvised Kandinsky composition. Throughout the show, the artist’s voice was modest. Unlike, say, the work of Isa Genzken, whose towers of consumer detritus speak in critical, hortatory imperatives, this was quiet stuff that chastely brought beautiful observations into view. Indeed, to wander Agematsu’s garden was to perceive that his medium may just be daily life itself—and his gossamer poetry of the cast-off and overlooked carries on a New York tradition (rooted in Frank O’Hara’s 1964 “Lunch Poems” and the Combines of Robert Rauschenberg) that perhaps finds itself endangered in the hedge-fund jungle of today’s art world. Agematsu’s work casts a spell potent enough to make one wonder: New York City surely isn’t in danger of losing its garbage anytime soon, but could it possibly be in danger of losing its poets of garbage?

Jon Raymond