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For some time now, at home and abroad, the energetic art of Japan’s post-World War II, avant-garde Gutai group has been enjoying what is commonly known as “a moment.” Born of innovative art-making ideas and a creative spirit that emerged from the ashes of war, numerous Gutai creations are now recognized by modern-art historians as having anticipated such subsequent genres as happenings, performance art, mixed-media installation art, and high-tech kinetic art.
More than half a century after 16 young artists from Osaka and Kobe, along with their mentor, Jirō Yoshihara, a 49-year-old businessman and scion of a wholesale cooking-oil company, founded the Gutai Art Association in southern Japan in 1954, many of the group’s concoctions still look and feel as fresh and unexpected as they did when they were first produced.
Outside Japan, an apotheosis in the appreciation of the group’s accomplishments came in 2013 with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s presentation of Gutai: Splendid Playground. That exhibition examined in depth the development of the Gutai artists’ theories and working methods. The show also reflected a shift in critical thinking, which had begun to look beyond the modernist narrative’s familiar hot spots — Paris, Berlin, London, New York — to consider “peripheral” centers of modernist art-making, including Tokyo, Osaka and other places in East Asia, and bring them equally into that canonical tale.
As numerous Gutai exhibitions in galleries and museums in Japan, Europe and the United States have raised the profile of the Japanese group as a whole, a number of others have shed much-deserved light on the individual achievements of some of this avant-garde movement’s most noteworthy participants. Among them: Atsuko Tanaka (1932-2005); Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008); Sadamasa Motonaga (1922-2011); Tsuyoshi Maekawa (born 1936); and Takesada Matsutani (born 1937).
Now, the New York dealer Fergus McCaffrey, who has previously shown Shiraga’s and Motonaga’s vigorously abstract paintings, is showcasing the work of Toshio Yoshida, one of the less well-known but most experimental of the Gutai group’s members. The survey, Toshio Yoshida (1928-1997), will remain on view through June 24.
Even for viewers familiar with the diversity of art forms cooked up by the Gutai artists and the attitudes that informed them, much of what is on display in this Yoshida show may come as a surprise.
Compared to other Gutai members, relatively little has been documented about Yoshida’s early history. He was born in Kobe in 1928 and as a young man worked in a secretarial-administrative job at Jirō Yoshihara’s family company. Like his Gutai peers, he was aware that Yoshihara, who was based in Ashiya, near Osaka, was a passionate oil painter. Yoshihara had begun teaching himself how to paint in junior high school and, in addition to his business activities, had been giving younger artists lessons in Western-style, modernist, oil-painting techniques.
Yoshida was among the founders of the Gutai Art Association, which was active through 1972, the year Yoshihara died. Yoshida regularly exhibited his work with the group and helped assemble its eponymous, periodically issued booklet-magazine, which chronicled and publicized its activities.
Above all, like his fellow Gutai participants, Yoshida was keenly aware of the group’s fundamental dictates, which were enshrined in a manifesto Yoshihara had composed; it was first published in 1956. Dismissing “the art of the past” as “fraudulent,” that new-art tract’s cri de coeur declared, “Gutai art does not alter matter. Gutai art imparts life to matter. Gutai art does not distort matter. In Gutai art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance.”
Yoshihara’s marching orders to his young charges were adamant: “Do something no one’s ever done before!”
In some of Yoshida’s earliest works, from 1954, the artist gave tangible form to the Gutai spirit by pressing hot coals or a soldering iron against the surfaces of wood panels to make “burn paintings.” (Like many Gutai works, most of Yoshida’s creations are untitled or simply bear the Japanese name “Sakuhin,” meaning “Work,” and a number.)
In those works, with pointed dabs or dark, rectangular burn marks, Yoshida devised remarkably vibrant and well-balanced compositions that bring to mind ancient East Asian ink-wash paintings, as well as the psycho-mysterious, “automatic” drawings of the Surrealists. (Yoshida’s wood-burning technique will remind some viewers that, in the mid-1950s, the Italian modernist Alberto Burri, who had made texture-rich “paintings” using scraps from burlap sacks, began producing torched-wood works of his own, as well as some made from melted plastic.)
In “Sakuhin (56-12)” (oil on board, 1956), Yoshida calls attention to the inherent physical character and expressive potential of his material with a thick, broad, elbow-macaroni-shaped stroke of creamy-white oil paint on a square, black ground. His mark lies there in a void — one can imagine it stretching out endlessly on all sides — as if to declare, “I, a single brushstroke, am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of any painting, the first and the last element of any painted image.”
Gutai artists famously made paintings with their hands or unusual tools to push their paint around. Shiraga hung from a rope suspended over flat canvases on his studio floor to paint with his feet. Yasuo Sumi (1925-2015) used a soroban (a Japanese abacus) to make explosive, colorful compositions. In the sixth issue of Gutai, which was published in April 1957, Yoshida’s confrère, the artist Shōzō Shimamoto, who was known for shooting plastic bags filled with paint through a cannon at his canvases, wrote, “I believe that the first thing we should do is to set paint free from the paintbrush.”
In his own notes, Yoshida once described the art-making methods he “would like to try,” including the placement of a helicopter inside a giant, roofless tank, whose inner walls would be lined with blank canvas. In such a setting, cans of paint would be attached to the vehicle’s propeller blades, releasing their colorful contents in a sputtering, splattering frenzy as the propeller rotated with increasing speed. The artist also imagined a grand spectacle in the sky over Osaka with colored gases and controlled lightning.
In the 1960s, Yoshida veered toward the psychedelic in oil-on-canvas paintings made of up masses of colored dots in circular compositions set against solid-color grounds or expanding clusters of ever-larger dots. The resulting images resemble abstract, animated mandalas or depictions of some kind of souped-up cellular mitosis on a celestial scale.
In other works, he used what appear to be patches of putty on board, which he slathered with paint, reveling in the audacity of the mix of colors and forms. In still other mixed-media paintings he “drew” with loops of hand-colored rope attached to their surfaces. In 1966, Yoshida came up with a soap-bubble-generating machine, whose frothy outpourings became free-form, kinetic, ephemeral sculptures. A year later, that gizmo was included in the 19th Gutai Art Association Exhibition. (Although Gutai art-making encompassed a variety of innovative forms, in time it was its members’ paintings that became emblematic of the movement; for one thing, it was easier to transport them for out-of-town exhibitions.)
At McCaffrey, some of Yoshida’s most compelling works, which pulsate with raw energy, seem to reveal a latent, form-seeking impulse in the very materials of which they are made. These include such mixed-media paintings as “Sakuhin (61-10)” (1961) and “Sakuhin” (1963). Onto their surfaces the artist slaps layers of oil paint as thick as cake frosting, sometimes mixing them up with papier mâché to create goopy, creeping, multicolored crusts that evoke monster moss growing on otherworldly forest floors.
In a recent e-mail exchange, Hoshihiko Yoshida, the artist’s eldest son, writing from Japan, described his father’s personality. “On the one hand,” he recalled, “he worked with perseverance and methodically; he also had a calm, easygoing side, like that of a small child.”
When his father was developing his soap-bubble sculptures, Hoshihiko Yoshida noted, “he asked my advice about which detergent to use to make them really foam up.” Although he finds it hard to precisely describe his father’s creative spirit, Hoshihiko Yoshida remembered that the artist was fascinated by the cellular structures of plants and animals, and once proposed that maybe the universe is hexagonal in shape. “My image of him is that of someone whose personal independence was limitless,” his son recalled.
This current New York gallery show suggests that Toshio Yoshida’s studious subversiveness both honored the Gutai group’s idealistic motivating principles and further elaborated upon them. With this high-profile presentation of his work, like Tanaka, Shiraga, and a handful of his Gutai peers before him, Yoshida’s own ideas and accomplishments may begin to emerge in their own light, apart from the collective history and identity of their legendary movement.
For, now, twenty years after his death and some six decades since he joined that rebellious gang, Toshio Yoshida is enjoying what is commonly known as “a moment.”
Toshio Yoshida (1928-1997) continues at Fergus McCaffrey (514 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 24.