Interview with Motonaga Sadamasa conducted by Kato Mizuho and Ikegami Hiroko, December 9, 2008, at Motonaga’s studio, Sakasegawa, Takarazuka City. The artist Nakatsuji Etsuko, Motonaga’s wife, also took part. The interview has been lightly edited by post. (www.oralarthistory.org)
The Japanese version of the interview can be found on the website of the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art. In accordance with Japanese practice, Japanese names are generally written surname first. Exceptions are made for Japanese-born individuals who reside permanently abroad, or are well-known in the West.
Motonaga: , I wanted to see two people: Suda Kokuta and Yoshihara Jiro. When I submitted my work to Ashiya’s city exhibition, I saw Mr. Yoshihara for the first time. When I showed a painting of a nude, which had won a Holbein prize , I couldn’t tell his response. However, the next year I submitted an abstraction. I later heard that during the jury process, my work was almost disqualified after some judge decided, “It’s not a painting.” This happened when Yoshihara stepped out to use the bathroom. When he came back to his seat and saw it, he was very complimentary and said, “It’s interesting. Let us give it a prize.” I gained confidence with this. I thought I could paint as many like that one as I wanted.
Kato: You depicted Mount Maya.
Motonaga: Yes, I was inspired by Mount Maya. I didn’t portray a mountain.
Kato: It’s called Takara ga aru (There’s Treasure) .
Motonaga: Yes, that’s the one. I didn’t know how to make an abstract painting. So I was at a loss for quite a while. One evening, looking from Uozaki toward Kobe, I noticed Mount Maya. It looked like an upside-down bowl on which many neon signs were lit up. Perhaps there was an amusement park there back then.
Kato: Yes, there was. At the top of the mountain.
Motonaga: A few years ago, we went there to shoot a TV program. There is nothing there now except houses and buildings. At any rate, I saw the neon lights on top of Mount Maya. I thought, “A mountain of Kobe is very beautiful.” It’s very dark in the mountains of Iga at night. However, I thought, “Mountains of Kobe are very fashionable. I want to incorporate this into my work.” That’s how I made Takara ga aru. I heard that other judges asked Yoshihara, “Is this enough?” And Jiro-san’s answer was, “It’s interesting.” He had a different way of seeing it. He wanted to see something new, that which had not existed before. In this sense, since I made that painting knowing nothing about abstraction, it looked very new to him. The judge who thought “it’s not a painting” saw it based on a received idea of how a painting should look. My painting was a mess, with paint not sticking to the surface properly. I had never painted abstraction before. I didn’t know what abstraction was and that’s why it was good. Then, I was suddenly called up and told to show something at Gutai’s first outdoor exhibition held in a pine grove in Ashiya . But I had no money. I went to the site, wondering what to do. I saw a water faucet there. “Water is free!” I bought some vinyl sheets , into which I poured water that I colored with ink. Then I hung the sacks from pine branches. That was my first water work.
Motonaga: De Kooning was also Martha Jackson’s artist. Sam , too. Sam and de Kooning. And Appel, too. These artists were in Martha Jackson’s stable.
Kato: How was the new material?
Motonaga:I usually begin with form. In the previous ten years, I had poured paint, but I thought in New York it would be good to return to form. When I let the paint run, I used gravity. It’s beyond my intention. I wondered what could replace it. Then I found an airbrush. I thought of painting in terms of form by using an airbrush. I thought of what I could do with it. That’s how I felt in New York when I resumed my work.
Nakatsuji: I think it was more like you were groping in the dark.
Motonaga: Well, groping in the dark, you say. Yes, that’s what I felt, as I didn’t know what I was doing.
Kato: You just mentioned that you wanted to explore form. I think your color is very particular, too. How about color? How do you decide on colors? Which comes first, color or form?
Motonaga: Form comes first, of course. Otherwise, I cannot decide on color. I always carry a notebook interesting forms, so that I can think about them later. As for color, my basic colors are red and green.
Nakatsuji: You seem to use color intuitively.
Motonaga: Yes, it seems I have my own colors.
Nakatsuji: I think you deliberate on form, but you use color instinctively.
Motonaga: Yes, I have my colors. Say, with crayons, everybody has colors they don’t use. These become leftovers. That’s the person’s character. As a child I could not use the leftover colors, even if I was told to do so. Basically, the colors that get used are my colors. Those are my colors.
Kato: Yes, indeed, orange-tinted red and yellow-green are very characteristic in your work.
Motonaga: My red is vermilion but Shiraga’s red is crimson lake. He loves bloody red. We are very different. I cannot use his red, which is so unpleasant. But humans are strange. We all have our own different colors.
Kato: Certainly, we do not think color. Color is more about the senses.
Nakatsuji: I agree.
Motonaga: Yes, that’s true with color. Still, I am thinking about it.
Nakatsuji: You certainly think about it, but you end up with your colors.
Motonaga: Of course, that’s the way it is. Right now, my colors are red, blue, and yellow. But blue is not easy to work with. I use it in some places in a work. A little bit of blue. But I cannot use it too much.
Nakatsuji: You say too much blue makes it feel cold.
Motonaga: Yes. That’s no good. In place of blue I can use purple, but I don’t like dark purple.
Kato: In fact, I see light purple and yellow .
Nakatsuji: But in the past you used lemon yellow a lot. Recently, you haven’t used it so often.
Motonaga: It’s my age. I used lemon yellow before, but now I like a bit darker yellow.
Kato: I am interested in your forms, but I think your color is special. I sense your color embodies “this is Motonaga!” That is why I wanted to know how color factors into the process of your production.
Motonaga: First, form. I draw form and think about color. So, form and color are inseparable. I cannot think about them separately. So, if you put a red sheet of cellophane on your eyes, everything in the world looks red but things all have their forms. If you look at a white wall, it looks red. That is a world of color. Like Kelly, he paints a whole canvas in yellow.
Kato: Ellsworth Kelly, you mean.
Motonaga: So he does. But, after all, the canvas is a rectangle. So you cannot say it’s formless.
Ikegami: After you quit Gutai, did your work change?
Motonaga: No, it didn’t change. I don’t think my activities changed so much. I have been very busy. That’s a good thing about me.
Ikegami: Yes, you have continued to make your work.
Motonaga: At that time, I thought, “I have graduated from Gutai Art School.” I had known nothing, but at Gutai, I got hands-on training. I showed in many exhibitions and I became a painter. It’s very strange. So I thought, “I graduated from Gutai Art School.” I told this to Saburo, who said, “I cannot graduate from it.” I thought, “That’s one way to say it.” He was a philosopher: “No matter how far I go, I cannot graduate from it.” That’s one way of thinking about it. In my case, Gutai is gone, so I can say I graduated from Gutai. But I think San-chan is right, too. I have not graduated from Gutai’s way of thinking. I still want to do something new, that which has not existed before. My picture books, too, are experimental. I made a picture book with abstraction for children. In that sense, I haven’t graduated from it. Even after graduation, you keep the spirit. I didn’t go to college. So, I want to say I graduated from Gutai Art University.
Sadamasa Motonaga, Work No. 1, 1962
Oil, synthetic resin, and gravel on canvas and board
Sadamasa Motonaga, Work, 1963
Oil and gravel on canvas
Sadamasa Motonaga, Red and Yellow, 1963
Oil, synthetic resin, and gravel on canvas
Sadamasa Motonaga, Work 66-1, 1966
Oil and synthetic resin on canvas
Sadamasa Motonaga, Z Z Z Z Z, 1971
Acrylic on canvas mounted on board
Sadamasa Motonaga, Piron Piron, 1975
Acrylic on canvas