‘They decide on their own comfortable positions,” Yuji Agematsu said of the bits of detritus—candy wrappers, rubber bands, feathers, rat bones, string—that coalesce in his otherworldly art. “My duty is just to help fix them in place.” Made with findings collected on wide-eyed city strolls, the artist’s oftentimes micro-scale sculptures double as moving monuments to decay, their materials transfigured through reverence for their peculiar beauty.
Agematsu was in his studio on the outskirts of Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, where boxes line the walls, each marked with ranges of dates going back decades. Within the boxes are the artist’s discoveries from the streets he tends to favor around New York. These treasures are meticulously logged, first in notebooks, where he records his daily perambulations with hand-drawn maps, and then in archives, where they may sit for years before assuming the status of art. As a mass, they stand in for the history of a city as it has been built up and beaten down, developed in certain areas and neglected in others. They keep a record of a world of abandoned things that remains ever-present even as the particulars around it change.
On this cold winter day, with minimal piano music by Morton Feldman hovering in the air, Agematsu was preparing for two New York exhibitions—“Serialities,” a group show of artists given to systematic practices at Hauser & Wirth, and a solo show at Miguel Abreu Gallery titled “Self-Portrait”—as well as “Speak, Lokal,” a survey of various responses to locality at Kunsthalle Zürich. All three shows followed Agematsu’s inclusion last year in “The Keeper,” a New Museum exhibition devoted to artists who class as idiosyncratic collectors.
Agematsu is best-known for the tiny still lifes he assembles within cellophane sleeves stripped from cigarette packs. As part of a practice he began in the late 1990s (after working similarly for a decade with clear plastic bags), he fills one cellophane holder a day with prized debris and then, without interfering much with the arrangement, secures it with dabs of resin. Presentations of Agematsu’s work often feature these pieces displayed on shelves, along with their corresponding notebooks. At Miguel Abreu, a large side room was given over to Agematsu’s daily trove for the year 2016, each month’s worth of scavengings encased in a Plexiglas box resembling a three-dimensional calendar page.
But other modes of presentation abound. When Agematsu first worked his way into the downtown art scene, it was by way of experimental music performances and presentations of slide shows and films of a psycho-geographic bent. Then came gallery displays of his rummagings. Common among all his ways of working is a devotion to exploring ignored corners of the city for forsaken signs of life.
“He can bring out this unbelievable detail but then also amplify, superimpose, complicate, or estrange an urban space so that you see something that veers on pure abstraction,” said curator Jay Sanders, who in 2014 commissioned Agematsu to make a work chronicling the Meatpacking District milieu then being reconfigured by the construction of the new Whitney Museum of American Art. Shown in the Whitney’s theater upon the museum’s opening a year later, Agematsu’s Walk On A, B, C featured multiple projections of images and field-recordings of sounds heard while casing the streets outside. “It was a massive scale-shift of micro/macro views of the area,” Sanders said. “He sees animism in the everyday.”
Robert Snowden, who curated a show of Agematsu’s at Yale Union in Portland, Oregon, in 2014, fixed on the work’s uncanny effects. “The immediate feeling is of this completely alien language,” Snowden said. “I would go looking for that feeling anywhere.” (In a pamphlet published for the show, Snowden wrote, “This muck heaves and palpitates. It has a mayor.”)
Agematsu hesitates to define what he does too strictly. “Usually I’m not thinking of myself as an artist,” he said. “Sometimes conservators decide what things or happenings could be art, whether you are an artist or not. I’m always suspended between.”
“That kind of gravity,” he continued, drawing out a pause, “I like.”
Such ambiguity suits an ascendance that has been organic and slow. When Agematsu moved to New York in 1980, eager to flee Japan for a city he knew only from photographs shown to him by a traveler—“very attractive: industrial, nothing,” he recalled of the pictures—he needed a framework to help make it his home. Exploratory walks gave his wandering a sense of direction, and the objects he found along the way served as evidence of his engagement with new terrain. “I started marking time and location because I came from another country,” he said. “I wanted to organize my lifestyle and make my own purpose.”
Shortly after his arrival in New York, Agematsu went to work for John Weber Gallery as an art handler. He got to know artists in and around the SoHo scene whose ways of living in the world made an impression: Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, On Kawara (“detectivelike, always wearing a hat and trench coat,” he remembered, “and looking around very carefully”), and especially Nam June Paik.
Many years passed, however, before Agematsu started to think of his own activities as art. It wasn’t until 1993 that he had his first show, at TZ’Art & Co., at the urging of a friend. Occasional musical performances and media-based installations followed, but it was nearly two decades before he had his next solo gallery exhibition, this one a more proper debut—“more mature,” in his words—at Real Fine Arts in Brooklyn, in 2012. “He was an artist who had a lifetime’s worth of work, but he hadn’t figured out how to make it public in any way,” said Snowden, who got to know him around that time. “It was more of a private thing.”
Agematsu regarded the almost 20-year span between shows as important. “I needed time to stay away from the art scene,” he said. “With galleries, you need to be careful. They consume very quickly, and then say goodbye.”
In the interim, he continued his practice on his own. “When I stepped into this city I started to travel around,” said Agematsu, who turned 60 this year. “Travel means trying to step into another atmosphere or creating a new sense of site. When I turn a corner, the landscape will always change and I will encounter another spot.” Picking up things like broken plastic fingernails, iridescent foil, Crayons, bottle caps, and price tags for 99¢ bags of Utz potato chips ritualizes this simple act of exploration. “Since I was a kid I loved to walk around without purpose,” he said. “Then I started to pick up objects. It’s a fundamental movement: walking and touching the ground.”
He likened it to musical gestures of a kind he learned during a decade of study in New York with the mystically inclined improv-jazz percussionist Milford Graves. “If you want to play the drums, you have to learn the function of your body,” Agematsu said of Graves’s teachings. “You have to feel your heartbeat before touching a drum.”
A similar sensitivity attends his ways of looking through cast-off trash and finding the materials for his transfixing, transporting art. “There’s a kind of radical exuberance involved,” said Abreu. “It’s a kind of new materialism that is ready to be considered. It has an inherent life span, both past and future, built in.”
At a Japanese coffee shop a few days after the opening of his revealing “Self-Portrait” show—his first with Abreu and among the most momentous of his career thus far—Agematsu offered a quiet master class without really meaning to. “If I pick up this rubber band, everybody can recognize,” he said, after spying a rubber band more magisterial than most on the floor. “Then if I stick it with this”—a similarly littered Sweet & Low packet, with a strange sort of poetry in its tattered pink paper—“it is an artwork for me.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 100 under the title “Search & Preserve.”