Tomokazu Matsuyama’s Approach to Public Art

Yuji Akimoto Director, Nerima Art Museum, Tomokazu Matsuyama In And Out, March 20, 2021

This book documents seven works of public art by Tomokazu Matsuyama, and if these are roughly divided into painting and sculpture, three can be classified as sculptural works. Since the majority of Matsuyama’s works have been paintings, it is to be expected that his public art projects would be in this field, but a sculptural orientation is surprisingly prevalent in his public artworks.


His most recent public art project (pp.12-33) at the east exit of JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, completed in 2020, consists of a plaza centered on a large sculpture, with a two-dimensional painted space expanding on the ground around it to produce that combines aspects of both sculpture and painting. The use of the broad pedestal as a counter-table accompanied by chairs, and other practical, spatial and constructive elements, give the space as a whole a broad social perspective and ambitious sense of scale. The fusion of sculptural, painterly, and architectural perspectives is a notable highlight of this public project.


The stainless steel sculpture standing in the center of the square has a mirror-finished surface that reflects the surrounding scenery and intentionally dilutes the presence of the sculpture itself, weakening its centrality and producing a welcoming atmosphere suitable for a public square. The linear sculpture, resembling the contour lines of Matsuyama’s paintings exploded into three dimensions, tends to disappear as if it blending into the larger space. It reflects weather conditions during the day and neon lights at night, changing its appearance from moment to moment in response to its surroundings. The painting on the ground radiates from the sculpture’s pedestal into the surrounding area, giving the square a feeling of openness. The painting’s colors are selected from the surrounding environment but not fully assimilated, producing a pleasant contrast. Matsuyama described the effects of the work as follows:


“The material has a mirror finish, so it reflects the scenery of Shinjuku and this scenery becomes part of the work. Art can convey messages to the viewer by reframing images of the collective space in which we live and rendering them visible in a different way. That’s why I wanted to make this work like a mirror that reflects the community around it, a patchwork of Shinjuku’s diverse values.”1 With regard to the painting on the ground around the sculpture: “I drew colors from the surrounding commercial signboards and applied them to the ground.”2 And, “The same is true of the materials. All these materials in the surrounding environment, such as concrete, mortar, and tile, are incorporated into the patchwork on the pavement.”3 Matsuyama’s response to this site was to create a space where people can gather freely, one that connects to the surrounding area, rather than a space with emphatic centrality.


Framing elements of the Shinjuku area, and reconstructing them as parts of a work of art, meant exploring ways of expressing Shinjuku’s chaotic atmosphere and rendering it visible in the work. The result is a complex piece of public art with aspects of sculpture, painting and architecture. A work with such a complex set of elements might not have emerged if it were commissioned and produced in the United States, where Matsuyama resides. It seems that this bricolage-like work was created precisely because it was for Shinjuku, a densely cluttered place where many disparate things coexist in close proximity.



The Social Significance of Art


Matsuyama’s interest in public art did not emerge until the 2010s, but it is notable that his artistic career began in the United States, the birthplace of the term “public art,” where presenting art in a public place is as significant as exhibiting it in a museum or gallery and the distinction is not of great importance. Matsuyama seems to have felt that to become a full-fledged artist, in this context, it was necessary to execute one or two major public projects, and to have regarded public art as an important aspect of his career.


Prior to the above-described project at the east exit of JR Shinjuku Station, he executed several large-scale public pieces, including a mural in Williamsburg, New York in 2009 (fig.1),4 an outdoor installation in Harbour City, Hong Kong (2014), and murals in Beverly Hills (2019) and for the Bowery Wall series in New York (2019). All of these are major works, and all are important projects that cannot be omitted from a discussion of Matsuyama’s career.


Needless to say, the nature of public art is that regardless of the artist’s ambitions, they will not be realized without a commission from a client. To secure such commissions an artist must meet certain requirements, and because the artwork is expected to contribute to the community’s vibrancy or scenic appeal, it is first of all necessary to respond effectively to these needs. These may include making the work accessible and easily understandable by the public at large. Also, it is necessary to grasp the social impact of public art and have the social mentality to address them. The artist must recognize the purpose of the public art project, and his or her own role. In that respect Matsuyama is a remarkably outward-facing artist who has always been strongly aware of the relationship between society and art. This is probably thanks to his having been based in New York and in the US, where the role of art in broader society is clearly recognized and it functions in practical terms.


The high status of contemporary art in the US, taken for granted today, is in large part the result of the ongoing efforts of liberal-minded artists, working through unions and associations from the early 20th century onward, to elevate the status of art. This movement called for “art for society’s benefit” and for “democratic American art” that addresses racial and social issues.


Of course there was a time when a conservative emphasis on “art for art’s sake” prevailed in the US as elsewhere, but through art projects connected with people and society, supported by the government during the Great Depression of the 1930s, artists grew more conscious of the art’s significance and duty to society. Among these projects were large-scale public artworks such as murals commissioned by the federally established WPA (Works Progress Administration). Through these activities the liberal, freedom-loving spirit of American art and the practice of “art for society’s benefit” took root.


This trend was halted for a time after the end of World War II in 1945, as American society took a drastic reactionary turn amid the mounting Cold War. Art subsequently became less political and more commercial, and it seemed that the mentality of “art as part of society” and “art for the people” had receded.


However, once this mentality had blossomed for a time, it was quite difficult for artists to fully discard it. While the majority of American art was financially backed by the private sector, there were occasional public art projects led by local government bodies, and the ongoing presentation of contemporary art to a broad audience can be interpreted as the practical legacy of the WPA-era ethos of “art as part of society.”


In today’s society art is becoming more and more business-oriented, but at the same time the spirit of free expression that questions the relationship of art to society endures. This can be seen as art in an ideal form, unaffected by politics, economics, or any other special interests.


In Matsuyama’s work we see a strong commitment to the principle that art emerges from relationships with society, and that art must lead the way in these relationships. This is probably why Matsuyama takes a leading role in his public art projects, and advances these projects in communities as he does exhibitions at museums and galleries. This sensibility is quite different from that of artists who have built their careers in Japan. He is strongly aware of his social role, and endeavors to create work with significance in the real world.



Concepts Connecting Painting and Sculpture


Let us leave the discussion of the social significance there, and touch on the differences between public art and exhibitions at museums and galleries. Public art’s installation sites are, of course, spaces where ordinary life takes place, such as walls and plazas in cities, each with its own unique history and atmosphere that the work must harmonize with to succeed. Artists seek to create works that satisfy these conditions, while reflecting their own individual character.


Matsuyama has deepened his view of public art by taking on the specific artistic challenges of each project site, rather than simply reproducing his studio works in public places. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, this is true of sculpture as well as painting, and while Matsuyama is best known as a painter he has also been unexpectedly active in sculpture. Indeed, one could say that his engagement with sculpture has been deepened through public art. When speaking of his work’s expansion into three dimensions in the context of public art, Matsuyama has referenced the sculpture of Keith Haring, but there are significant differences between Haring’s and Matsuyama’s direct transformations of paintings into sculptures. There are similarities in that they create sculptures based on contour lines derived from their paintings. However, the similarities end there, and importantly Matsuyama employs mirror-finished stainless steel, a material that reflects light and the surrounding scenery, diminishing the sculpture’s original assertive presence. While he poured enormous efforts into shaping the sculpture’s contour lines, these lines melt away into the surrounding space.


So, why does Matsuyama use mirror-finished stainless steel? The answer relies considerably on this writer’s imagination, but we can look for clues in the artist’s statement quoted earlier, “The material has a mirror finish, so it reflects the real scenery of Shinjuku and this scenery becomes part of the work.”


Let us recall Matsuyama’s approach to painting, in which outlined areas are filled with images and patterns derived from diverse sources. The colors that appear to form shapes within the outlines may actually have nothing to do with the design. This is a structure, like that of a coloring book, that simplifies the paintings, resembling the handling of line in ukiyo-e and other pre-oil painting Japanese art in which line and color exist independent of one another. Form and color can be used to construct pictures in various ways, even if they have no causal relationship. The symbolic clarity of the outlines makes us believe the colors inside them are related, for example that they are shadows along the edges of forms, or that shapes inside outlined areas are determined by their contours, but the colors may in fact be completely irrelevant. A characteristic of Matsuyama’s paintings is that their contents are shaped by fragments derived from various sources – a patchwork of fragments imported from elsewhere, images floating in computer space, patterns appropriated from magazines – and compositions consisting of unrelated externalities create the flatness that takes on a unique meaning in Matsuyama’s paintings, a structure that is carried over into sculpture. The mirror-finished stainless steel reflects and presents fragments of the outside world around it.


If the goal is primarily to maximize mirror-finished stainless steel’s reflection of surrounding scenery, one might think of a large, smooth spherical form like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (nicknamed “the Bean”) (Fig. 2) in Millennium Park, Chicago. Conversely, the more complex the form, the more distorted the scenery’s reflection in the mirrored surface, and the smaller the sculpture’s volume, the more torn and fragmented the image will be. This is precisely the effect of Matsuyama’s sculpture. He intentionally employs linear forms so thin that they show the surrounding environment in a ruptured, splintered and unrecognizable manner. The vibrant scenery of Shinjuku is reflected, but not in a familiar form, only as abstract color and shape. This approach to sculpture is just like Matsuyama’s approach to painting.


In the public art project at the east exit of Shinjuku Station, we see an evolution of his sculptural approach in and of itself. Previously, his three-dimensional forms based on two-dimensional contour lines had the same flatness as his paintings, and he was unable to capitalize fully on the essential quality of sculpture that enables it to be viewed from any point on its 360-degree circumference. In this work, however, he increased the complexity of form, introducing a plurality of viewpoints that could be described at Cubist to produce a three-dimensional work that reveals itself from various directions without sacrificing its two-dimensional iconography. Matsuyama’s originality, already well established in painting, has been reflected in sculpture and has begun to show remarkable results.


Matsuyama has come a long way since his mural in Williamsburg, New York, when he first left the studio and deliberately produced art to be seen by a vast and undefined audience. Having painted several street-side murals a dozen or more meters in length, he has now produced a gigantic work of public art that occupies a large square in Shinjuku. This is a seminal work in which Matsuyama responds to the question of how to create public art, in that it satisfies an important requirement for this genre: it generates a universally accessible space in which people can gather and enjoy themselves.


“Public art” is a term for works of art installed in public spaces, such as in squares or along streets, and that play a role in enhancing the appeal of public spaces, taking into consideration the specific characteristics of the space and their relationship with the surrounding area. We can expect great things from the future development of Matsuyama’s public art, which has a clarity of expression befitting art cultivated in the US where this term originated.


Yuji Akimoto

Director, Nerima Art Museum




1. Bijutsu Techo (online edition) interview, “Tomokazu Matsuyama On His Monumental Public Art Project at JR Shinjuku Station: ‘I Want to Make Art Serve a Purpose,’” July 26, 2020.

2. Ibid.

2. Ibid.

4. Matsuyama realized this project by personally marketing his mural idea in 2009. He painted giant images of birds on the street-facing exterior wall of the Triple Crown bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


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