Jiro Takamatsu, Oneness of Brick, 1971, paint on brick, 2 3/8 x 8 1/2 x 4". © The Estate of Jiro Takamatsu.

Jiro Takamatsu, Oneness of Brick, 1971, paint on brick, 2 3/8 x 8 1/2 x 4". © The Estate of Jiro Takamatsu.

Jiro Takamatsu

Jiro Takamatsu, Oneness of Brick, 1971, paint on brick, 2 3/8 x 8 1/2 x 4". © The Estate of Jiro Takamatsu.

“The Temperature of Sculpture” was an ambitious first survey of Jiro Takamatsu (1936–1998) outside his home country of Japan, significant not only because Takamatsu is a seminal postwar avant-gardist, but because the show was designed around key moments from his exhibition history. The seventy-two items on display included objects, photographic documents of actions and installations, sketches, and diagrams. Focusing on the period between 1961, when Takamatsu turned from painting to sculpture, and 1977, the year of his inclusion in Documenta 6, the show was divided into sections based on key ideas such as “string,” “point,” “slack,” and “perspective.”

Though loosely categorized as sculpture, some of these works were not so much art objects as intellectual propositions to see and know. For instance, “string,” according to Takamatsu, “is an immaterial, abstract, and conceptual object that is length.” He would stuff wire into soda bottles or coat it in black lacquer and mass it in bush-like forms on the wall. But the performance that best illuminates the artist’s thought is The Yamanote Line Incident, 1962. Working with Natsuyuki Nakanishi, who would soon join with him and Genpei Akasegawa to form the short-lived but vastly influential group Hi Red Center, Takamatsu dropped more than two miles of rope along one of Tokyo’s commuter rail lines.

At the 1970 Tokyo Biennale, artists were invited to create works in situ; Takamatsu chose to install a group of carved logs standing upright in a gallery, titling the work 36 pieces of Oneness, 1970. For Oneness of Cedar, from the same year and on view here, he carved a rectangular volume at the top of a log. The raw, untouched lower half suggests a plinth for the small, smooth, cubic volume on top. The idea was that within a tree one could find a piece of lumber like a pillar, perhaps a perfect form. Here, he drew attention to wood as simultaneously pure nature and a material subject to human intercession. Bricks, paper, and rusty metal all come under similar consideration as conceptual objects in the “Oneness” series, 1969–72. Works such as these demonstrate Takamatsu’s affinities with the Mono-ha movement, several of whose members had been his students and were influenced by his sense of materiality.

In other works, Takamatsu drew on his training as a painter, capturing the shadows of objects and figures. In Shadow No. 241, 1968, a hook sticks out of a panel, but the artist painted shadows on the cream-colored ground that instead suggest the shape of an absent key. The painted elements of Shadows on the Door, 1968, describe human silhouettes on a pair of off-white doors that open out to reveal a canvas depicting blue doors inside and another pair of shadows. Is Takamatsu catching different moments in time? Or views from inside and outside? He seems to be trying to give something ephemeral more solidity. But either consciously or unconsciously, these shadow works also evoke a memory: that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where shadows were left behind by people killed in the nuclear attacks. Whether painted on billboards, canvas, or doors, these haunting silhouettes suggest human absence. Despite the diverse range of ideas from the anarchic actions of Hi Red Center to the Zen-like “Oneness” works, Takamatsu’s approach is always to find the core of his subject, whether material or immaterial.

Sherman Sam