A New York Art Gallery Where Anything Can Happen

The sui generis dealer Kai Matsumiya favors artists “who question even the most fundamental expectations that art or society has for you.”

installation view of Maryam Jafri, "Generic Corner," 2015, in her 2018 show at the gallery, "War on Wellness." Courtesy the artist and Kai Matsumiya Gallery, New York.

Asked to describe his gallery’s program, the New York art dealer Kai Matsumiya looks crestfallen. “I have mixed feelings about the word ‘program,’” he says. Sure, it could denote “some amount of thoughtfulness, or cultural or intellectual integrity,” he admits, “but that sounds to me, in so many ways, very parallel to branding.” Which is decidedly not his thing.

It’s late January, and Matsumiya is where he usually is, sitting at a tiny desk inside his hole-in-the-wall exhibition space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, eager to talk art. Slim, with angular black hair, he’s a youthful 35 in a dark blazer and boots. “I’ve always really believed in being artist-centric,” he says. But his laissez-faire approach only goes so far. He has a few policies, among them: “No fire hazards, and insects have to be contained.”

Live cockroaches were housed atop a Roomba vacuum—a Craig Kalpakjian piece—in one show, and there have been many other unexpected sights. Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who toys darkly with identity, has shown text drawings made with glow-in-the-dark fingerprints that spell out words like “CRIMINAL”and “TERRORIST LEADER.” And Matsumiya once orchestrated 11 solo shows by widely diverse artists of all ages, each just a few days long and one after another, in rapid succession.

The art dealer Kai Matsumiya in his New York gallery. Portrait by Sean Donnola.

Matthew Higgs, the director of the New York alternative art space White Columns, groups Matsumiya with a rare class of what he calls “maverick dealers”—people for whom “the act of running a gallery is analogous to an artist making work.”

“I’ve always seen exhibitions as types of arguments,” Matsumiya says. “I love making the case for the emerging artist.” Unsurprisingly, he spent time in academia, studying philosophy and art history. But he bristles at discussing himself, wanting the focus to be on the work of his artists, despite their urges for him to embrace the spotlight more. What he will divulge is that he saved money to open his gallery in 2014 while working on HIV/AIDS awareness for the United Nations, and that he was inspired by an aunt who was a curator of contemporary art in Japan. “With an emerging gallery, you’re shouting in the dark, oftentimes,” Matsumiya says, with apparent satisfaction.

His understated, albeit unrelenting, approach has earned him a devoted art-world following. Sadr Haghighian represented Germany at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and developing talents in the gallery’s orbit, like the ace interdisciplinary figure Steffani Jemison and the wry painter Jan Kiefer, have received important museum exhibitions. Obvious visual affinities are hard to spot among the artists he shows, but they share a distinct, irreverent intelligence. “I’m interested in artists who can challenge the times,” Matsumiya says. “Instead of them embodying an ethic of meeting expectations, I like the artists who question even the most fundamental expectations that art or society has for you.”

Pedro Wirz, "Frog Milk (white)," 2018. Courtesy the artist and Kai Matsumiya Gallery, New York.

“I remember him saying, ‘I may be doing things the wrong way, but I’m doing them in the best way possible,’” says the veteran dealer and appraiser Liz Koury, who’s followed Matsumiya’s gallery and is now a friend. In any case, he doesn’t make things easy on himself. “I really appreciate how game—enthusiastic, really—he is about approaching a project without any preconceived ideas about format or convention,” says the artist Zoe Pettijohn Schade, whose hypnotically patterned paintings can take over a year to finish. When she suggested to Matsumiya that, for her most recent show at the gallery, they unite a number of old pieces that had already been sold, he happily agreed, though it meant that fewer works on view would actually be for sale.

Matsumiya recently won the Armory Show’s second-ever Gramercy International Prize, providing a free booth at the New York fair. He staged a solo exhibition there of the sculptural works of Pedro Wirz, whose alluring, discomfiting art addresses the relationship between humans, science, and nature via exotic materials like tree bark and latex. Simultaneously, Wirz is mounting his third one-person outing at Matsumiya’s gallery, furthering a relationship that began in earnest a few years ago, when the artist overheard the dealer enthusiastically discussing his work with an art adviser and correcting her points of reference. “I was completely blown away,” Wirz says, remembering that Matsumiya sounded like “someone who trusts and believes” in his work. “He always says what he really thinks.” Being so candid, and so independently minded, is “very risky” for “an operation of his size,” the artist adds.

The art industry is more crowded, top-heavy, and fiercely competitive than ever. Asked how he sees himself developing his future, Matsumiya mentions “growing, and developing, with the artists that I work with. That really interests me, because I don’t know with some of these artists what they’re up to next.” Don’t expect to see him running a blue-chip multinational. “It’s hard to think about if there is a next phase, where there’s more money,” he says. “It’s hard for me to fathom that in so many ways. I’ve always thought that lean and mean is good.”

Elliott Jamal Robbins, "Fuck what you have to say," 2018. Courtesy the artist and Kai Matsumiya Gallery, New York.

This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.

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