GUN, “Event to Change the Image of Snow” (1970), photo of performance-art event in progress (photo © Hanaga Mitsutoshi)

The Japanese-born art historian Reiko Tomii is one of those researchers who is both passionate about her subjects and recognized among her peers for her meticulous mapping of the cultural-intellectual terrain from which they emerge. An independent scholar who has lived and worked in the United States since the mid-1980s and has been based in New York for many years, Tomii has focused on the artists and art movements of post-World War II Japan, carefully classifying their evolution and ideas, as well as their constituent parts, antecedents and relevant affinities.

Although she admits that “art history is not a precise science,” her own approach is unmistakably fine-tuned, and she is an inventive thinker. The results and revelations of her method are well showcased in her new book, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (MIT Press).

“Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan” by Reiko Tomii (courtesy MIT Press) (click to enlarge)

In it, she takes on modern-art history’s familiar, canonical narrative, which, understandably, has long focused on the ideas, artists, movements, and milestone events that are linked to its roots territories in Europe and North America. However, Tomii does not take a crowbar to this history with the intent of forcing open its pantheon of recognized masters to make room for less well-known but attention-deserving modernists from Japan.

Instead, her objective reflects the interests of a still-evolving but ever more notable tendency among certain researchers and curators in the U.S., Europe and East Asia to examine modern art’s development with a broader, deeper, more inclusive scope.

Their new consideration of modern art’s story has brought such places as Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Delhi and Prague into sharper focus. (In the US, Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York has been a trailblazer in this effort since the mid-1990s. More recently, such museums as Tate Modern in London, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and the Museum of Modern Art in New York have appointed new curators or developed special research programs to pursue this new outlook.)

Tomii’s own research and curatorial work have contributed significantly to this new, so-called global view of modern art’s history. In Radicalism in the Wilderness, she describes “international contemporaneity” as “a geohistorical concept, one that liberates us from the inevitable obsession with the present inherent in ‘contemporaneity’ as used in the English construction of ‘contemporary art’ (whose basic meaning is ‘art of present times’) and helps us devise an expansive historical framework” by means of which “a multicentered world art history” may be told. She argues that an understanding of this phenomenon may make room for overlooked or ignored currents in the story of modern art as it developed in 20th-century Japan after World War II. She also puts forth the related notions of what she calls “connections” and “resonances,” the meanings of which become self-evident as her study unfolds.

Japanese artist Yutaka Matsuzawa and his “Banner of Vanishing (Humans, Let’s Vanish, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Gate, Gate, Anti-Civilization Committee)” (1966), at Mount Misa, Japan, 1970 (photo © Hanaga Mitsutoshi) (click to enlarge)

However, looking back at past events and examining the “international contemporaneity” of a certain moment or era from a particular vantage point is not quite the same as taking the pulse of its Zeitgeist. Instead, keen observers like Tomii are on the lookout for similar expressions, ideas, or breakthroughs that occur in different places at more or less the same time. In this way, Tomii notes, historians aiming to construct a global history of modern art must “seek out and examine linkable ‘contact points’ of geohistory,” where they will find evidence of what she calls “connections,” or “actual interactions and other kinds of links” between artists, critics, curators and other figures in the world of art, and “resonances,” which she defines as “visual or conceptual similarities” between artists’ ideas, creations or activities, even in situations in which “few or faint links existed.”

Tomii uses the examples of one solo artist and two artists’ collectives that were active in Japan in the 1960s, and whose works can be classified as conceptual art, to illustrate her observations about “international contemporaneity.” These artists’ careers offer intentional and unwitting points of contact with artists in the US and Europe. Tomii cites Yutaka Matsuzawa, who was born in 1922 in central Japan, earned a degree in architecture in Tokyo, and returned to his native region, where he later came up with art forms that reflected his disenchantment with “material civilization.”

He spent a couple of years in the US, including a stay in New York in the late 1950s, looking at art— Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed-media “combines” — and learning about parapsychology. Matsuzawa was interested in physics, Buddhist thought and the idea of visualizing the invisible. Back in Japan, he developed works that invited viewer-participants to “vanish” certain subjects — to make them disappear. (He once told an audience at his university, “I don’t believe in the solidness of iron and concrete. I want to create an architecture of soul, a formless architecture, an invisible architecture.”) At the exhibition Tokyo Biennale 1970: Between Man and Matter, in which both Japanese and numerous, well-known Western artists took part — a milestone, Tomii notes in retrospect, of “international contemporaneity” — Matsuzawa offered an empty room titled “My Own Death.”

Printed poster announcing the “First Play Exhibition,” 1967 (photo © The Play) (click to enlarge)

Tomii also looks at the activities of The Play, a group of “Happeners,” founded in Osaka in 1967, who devised and carried out their own versions of “Happenings,” those action-as-art events that blasted the idea of the work of art as a physical object. The Play’s message, Tomii writes, “was constructive, not destructive, as their major concern was to take a ‘voyage’ away from everyday consciousness trapped in familiar space and time.” Their provocative events included erecting a huge cross made of white fabric atop a mountain (for which they intended no specific message, although it called attention to nearby urban zones’ proximity to nature), and group member Keiichi Ikemizu’s “Homo Sapiens” performance piece of 1965, in which he stood for hours like a zoo animal in a cage. A sign identified him as a representative of the human species. In 1968, The Play created a gigantic fiberglass egg, which they released into the ocean near the southernmost tip of Japan’s main island. Ikemizu told a Japanese magazine that “Voyage: Happening in an Egg” offered “an image of liberation from all the material and mental restrictions imposed upon us who live in contemporary times.”

The Play, “Voyage: Happening in an Egg” (1968), photo of performance-art event in progress (photo © The Play) (click to enlarge)

Group Ultra Niigata, or GUN, an artists’ collective from Niigata Prefecture in north-central Japan, is Tomii’s third subject. GUN was known for performance art/environmental art works such as “Event to Change the Image of Snow” (1970), in which its members used a fertilizer sprayer to cover a snow-blanketed riverbed with colored food dyes, only to see their efforts vanquished by new layers of fast-falling snow. GUN member Michio Horikawa also pursued his own projects under the group’s moniker. For example, inspired by the moon rocks retrieved by American astronauts on their Apollo space missions, he sent stones he found near the Shinano River by postal mail to critics, artists and other recipients. Once he sent a small stone to Richard Nixon; in return, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo thanked the artist for his “thoughtfulness in sending [the President] a most unusual Christmas gift.”

Through their varied ephemeral-art or event-art creations, all of these Japanese artists, like their counterparts in the West, were involved in what the American art historian Lucy R. Lippard, looking back in the early 1970s at conceptual art’s evolution, referred to as the “dematerialization” of the art object. Certainly Matsuzawa’s call to “vanish” evidence of “material civilization” took formlessness in art to imaginative extremes.

Michio Horikawa, “The Shinano River Plan 11 (Mail Art by Sending Stones)” (1969), stone, wire, mail tags (mailed to artist Yutaka Matsuzawa) (collection of Kumiko Matsuzawa, photo by Reiko Tomii) (click to enlarge)

Tomii’s attempts to identify artists who worked in what she calls the “wilderness” are central to her effort to broaden modern-art history’s narrative scope. In the case of Japan in the 1960s, she notes, her subject artists found themselves at an intellectual-aesthetic remove from mainstream expectations of the forms art could or should take, and what kinds of subjects art should address. Geographically, she points out, these artists found themselves relatively far from Tokyo, Japan’s media and cultural center, and very far away from — and unknown to — the international art world’s de facto center, New York.

“It cannot be overstated that the more global we want to be in our investigation, the more local we need to be in our attention,” Tomii writes. In turn, by “regrouping” evidence of “contemporaneity” into new chapters of modern-art history, a more inclusive and broadly informed story may be told “from the bottom up (or [from the] ‘periphery in’), rather than imposing a top-down (or ‘center-out’) abstract framework.”

Tomii, who, as an undergraduate in Osaka, first concentrated on mathematics, admits that she is something of an accidental art historian. “Earlier I had studied ikebana [the Japanese art of flower arranging] and I loved it,” she said during a recent interview at a quiet tea shop near her home in Greenwich Village. Tomii continued her studies at the University of Texas in Austin, where she focused on the work of the American artist George Rickey (1907-2002), who was known for his kinetic sculptures.

Artist Keiichi Ikemizu performing “Homo Sapiens” in 1965; installation view on dry riverbed of the Nagara River at the Independent Art Festival, Gifu, Japan (photo courtesy of Ikemizu Keiichi)

After moving to New York, Tomii served as the head of research at the now-defunct Center for International Contemporary Arts; there, she worked with the Guggenheim’s Munroe (then an independent curator), who in 1989 organized CICA’s historic, first-ever retrospective of the work of the Japanese modern artist Yayoi Kusama. Later, Munroe wrote, “[T]he biographical and bibliographic research compiled and translated by Reiko Tomii” for that exhibition “created the foundation for all subsequent research on [Kusama] and her activities in Japan, the US, and Europe from her birth until 1989.”

Tomii worked with Munroe again on the latter’s Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, an exhibition that opened at the Yokohama Museum of Art in Japan and later came to the now-closed Guggenheim SoHo in New York. That survey, the first of its kind in North America, marked the beginning of serious study in the West of post-WWII Japanese modern art, forcing self-styled know-it-alls in the US art establishment to admit that this kind of art had a distinctive history, along with hitherto unexplored sources, themes and purposes.

Scream Against the Sky was very important; it opened the door” to a more global way of looking at modern art, Tomii told me. “It was important for me personally, too. That’s when I discovered that the kinds of artists I’m working on now were as exciting or more radical than their 1960s American peers — which I loved.” Tomii sipped her tea and recalled, “I had been in love with postwar American art but then I discovered postwar Japanese art, which I thought was” — she paused, smiled, and added ⎯ “better.”

The late Jane Farver (left), an American curator, and art historian Reiko Tomii in London, 2000 (photo © Jeff Rothstein) (click to enlarge)

In 1999, Tomii and other curators collaborated with the late Jane Farver on the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, which originated at the Queens Museum. Farver was the museum’s director of exhibitions at that time; she became Tomii’s good friend and mentor. As its title suggests, Global Conceptualism, for which Tomii and the Japanese art historian Shigeo Chiba oversaw a Japan-related section, cast the net wider than earlier, similar surveys in the US and Western Europe. It employed the kinds of affinity-seeking and “contemporaneity”-identifying techniques that have become hallmarks of Tomii’s research.

I asked Tomii what it is about conceptual art that so intrigues her, whatever the quality or character of such art might be. “It’s the way this kind of art offers an institutional critique,” she replied. “Even if a work is not explicitly critiquing an art-world institution like a museum, as in some of Hans Haacke’s pieces, conceptual art still offers institutional critiques of art genres, and I find that interesting,” she said. Interesting enough to keep her trekking out into art history’s “wilderness” and reporting back about her finds.

“This is an open field,” she said, referring to the new global-minded approach to documenting and analyzing modern art’s history. As if sounding a clarion call to curators and art viewers alike, she added, “It’s a collective effort.” As much as Radicalism in the Wilderness offers illuminating assessments of several Japanese artists of the 1960s, whom many readers in the US and Europe will probably encounter in its pages for the first time, it also provides valuable investigative tools for carrying out this kind of fresh-spirited research. As the curator Alexandra Munroe remarked at a recent launch for Tomii’s book, “Now, thanks largely to Reiko’s contributions to this field, there’s no turning back.”

Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (2016) is published by MIT Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise, Yes: Yoko...