ArtWeekend

Japan’s Radical Conceptual Art of the 1960s

An exhibition at Japan Society makes room in the modernist canon for the heady, playful ideas of free-thinking renegades.

Kō Nakajima, “Yutaka Matsuzawa’s Psi Zashiki Room” (1969), one image from a projection of twenty 35-milimeter color slides (courtesy of Keiō University Art Center, Tokyo)

It is the rare exhibition that cuts through the earnestness and self-importance of some of conceptual art’s supposedly heady offerings; it is even rarer for one to expose, in an illuminating and pleasurable way, the intellectual richness of its subject matter, reveling in its inventiveness while neatly unpacking its more obscure details.

With Radicalism in the Wilderness: Japanese Artists in the Global 1960s, which is on view at Japan Society through June 9, Reiko Tomii has done just that. Here, this Japanese-born, New York-based art historian and curator, a specialist in post-World War II modern art in Japan and this show’s organizer, makes exploring the ideas that motivate the works on display as engaging as the most unusual creations among them.

Throughout the exhibition, which focuses on the work and ideas of Yutaka Matsuzawa (1922–2006), and of two artists’ collectives, GUN, from Niigata Prefecture, in north-central Japan, and The Play, which was based in Osaka (both groups became active in 1967), Tomii’s sense of excitement about her subjects’ philosophical outlooks and unconventional working methods is palpable.

Michio Horikawa, works from various iterations of "The Shinano River Plan," a mail-art project that began in 1969; stones, wire, and paper tags; objects sent by postal mail and addressed to artists and other recipients (various collections, photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Michio Horikawa, works from various iterations of “The Shinano River Plan,” a mail-art project that began in 1969; stones, wire, and paper tags; objects sent by postal mail and addressed to artists and other recipients (various collections, photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The exhibition emerged out of the research Tomii conducted for her book with a somewhat similar title, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (MIT Press), which I reviewed in Hyperallergic when it was published three years ago. Working backward from book to physical presentation, Radicalism, the art show, gives tangible form to the insights and historical findings of Tomii’s originally published survey.

Both the book and this exhibition offer vivid examples of the fresh approach that has been taken in recent decades by a younger generation of scholars and curators in Europe, the US, and Japan to examining modern art’s evolution. Looking beyond such familiar centers of its development as Paris, Berlin, and New York, they have proposed a more multifaceted version of its history that also considers modernism’s rise in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Thus, as Tomii looks back at how modern-art forms emerged in Japan during the latter half of the 20th century, she calls attention to “connections” and “resonances” that occurred between certain artists at different points in time. A “connection,” she explains, “existed between two parties when there was an actual interpersonal or informational encounter” between them, even if such a relationship might have been one-sided. A “resonance” refers to an affinity of some kind between the work or ideas of two or more different artists in different places, without any explicit “connections” discernible between them; sometimes, “resonances” can more obviously be recognized in retrospect.

Curator Reiko Tomii with works by Yutaka Matsuzawa featuring the white circles the artist regarded as visual aids for meditation; he intentionally displayed the white-ink-on-paper silkscreen on the right with its back side facing out (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Curator Reiko Tomii with works by Yutaka Matsuzawa featuring the white circles the artist regarded as visual aids for meditation; he intentionally displayed the white-ink-on-paper silkscreen on the right with its back side facing out (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

During a recent walk-through of the Radicalism show, Tomii observed, “The evidence of certain resonances and then, later, certain connections between the work of Matsuzawa and his peers in Japan, the US, and Europe is very interesting, but given that he worked alone, in isolation, his unusual ideas about what art could be and his unique philosophical vision are especially remarkable.”

As Tomii explains in her book and in the current show, the “wilderness” in which these artists lived and worked — Matsuzawa’s home base in Shimo Suwa, in central Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, or the collective bases of the members of GUN and The Play — was both geographical and imagined. Their respective locations were far enough away from Tokyo and its influential national arts institutions that they could easily be regarded as “isolated” and that they would feel a sense of isolation themselves. Tomii adds that their ideas were “out there” in an aesthetic-conceptual wilderness, too, compared to those of more mainstream modern artists.

Tomii describes Matsuzawa as “a quintessential master of the wilderness,” whose formative years coincided with Japan’s militarization and war-making in East Asia. In 1943, he moved to Tokyo to attend Waseda University; he was exempted from the military draft because his field of study, architecture, was seen as vital to the war effort. In February 1945, he was sent to work in a factory in western Japan, thereby missing the US bombing of the capital the following month.

As Tomii writes in her book, he returned to Tokyo to find the metropolis “razed to the ground, literally presenting a landscape of nothingness.” In his graduation thesis, Matsuzawa, already disenchanted with material civilization, wrote, “That which humans make will eventually perish, humans will eventually perish.” In a graduation speech, he declared, “I want to create an architecture of soul, a formless architecture, an invisible architecture.”

GUN, “Event to Change the Image of Snow” (1970), image from a series of documentary photographs of outdoor performance in the riverbed of the Shinano River, Niigata Prefecture, Japan (photo ©Mitsutoshi Hanaga, courtesy of Japan Society)
GUN, “Event to Change the Image of Snow” (1970), image from a series of documentary photographs of outdoor performance in the riverbed of the Shinano River, Niigata Prefecture, Japan (©Mitsutoshi Hanaga, image courtesy Japan Society)

By 1948, having given up architecture, Matsuzawa returned to his native region, where he pursued painting and poetry, and taught mathematics at a nighttime high school. He studied signs and symbols, cybernetics, and general semantics, and, with a poet friend, wrote a manifesto calling for the breaking-down of barriers between the sciences and the humanities. He won a Fulbright Fellowship to the US and studied in Wisconsin — his proposed research topic: the “objective measurement of beauty” — and in 1956, thanks to a Japan Society fellowship, moved to New York to study religious philosophy and art history at Columbia University. In fact, his real education in New York came from visits to galleries, museums, and the public library.

For Matsuzawa, a turning point in his search for an alternative to the material-physical and for finding ways to express the invisible invisibly in art came with his discovery, in 1957, while he was in New York, of a late-night talk show on the radio station WOR, whose host and guests discussed UFOs, extraterrestrials, and paranormal phenomena.

Matsuzawa cut short his US stay, headed back to Japan, and, inspired by parapsychology and other esoteric sources, began developing his assorted “Psi” (pronounced “pusai” in Japanese) works. He created a studio-cum-installation-work, his “Psi Zashiki Room,” a small section of which he displayed in the 1963 Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, a group show in Tokyo sponsored by a leading national newspaper.

The Play, “Current of Contemporary Art” (1969), documentary photograph of outdoor performance (photo courtesy of The Play)
The Play, “Current of Contemporary Art” (1969), documentary photograph of outdoor performance (photo courtesy The Play)

Moving from abstract, mixed-media “paintings” and watercolors on paper to mixed-media assemblages and the use of symbols or written language in compositions laid out in mandala-like, nine-square grids, Matsuzawa sought to provoke in his viewers what Tomii calls “a complex set of transcendental time-space experiences.”

In 1964, the artist apparently had a transcendental time-space experience of his own. In what he called a “revelation,” he heard a voice ordering him to “Vanish matter!” — to stop producing art objects once and for all. Unbeknownst to Matsuzawa out in his “wilderness,” various artist peers in North America and Europe were also pioneering what was first known as “idea art” or “concept art” and, finally, as “conceptual art”; like him, they were seeking to, as the American critic and art historian Lucy R. Lippard would later observe, “dematerialize” the art object. In a good example of a “resonance” between artists who lived and worked continents apart, Matsuzawa would ultimately make written language alone the content and “material” of his art.

On view are photographs by Matsuzawa’s friend Kō Nakajima of the artist’s art-filled “Psi Zashiki Room” and of a group of his “Psi” assemblages. Many of his hand-written or printed texts are presented in square vitrines whose layouts evoke the grid-based, Buddhist-mandala format Matsuzawa often employed in such works. Each glass case is accompanied by printed cards bearing Tomii’s translations into English of Matzusawa’s writing, along with explanations of how their original Japanese versions are meant to be read (often, in a spiraling-out manner from the center of a composition).

Like the instructional pieces of such Fluxus artists as Yoko Ono, Matsuzawa’s mature works invite viewer-participants to realize them in their own imaginations. Matsuzawa’s lofty art, which expresses his notion of “kannen” (meditative visualization), reached its apotheosis in his “hypothesis,” as he called it, “that contemporary civilization is nothing but a mistake.” He famously inscribed on a banner accompanying one of his performance-art pieces, “Humans, let’s vanish! Let’s go, let’s go…”

Yutaka Matsuzawa with “White Circle” (1969), digital print reproduced from “Y. Matsuzawa,” exhibition brochure published by Aoki Gallery, Tokyo, 1969, 6 x 4 1/8 inches (original photo by Kō Nakajima, this photo courtesy of Japan Society)
Yutaka Matsuzawa with “White Circle” (1969), digital print reproduced from “Y. Matsuzawa,” exhibition brochure published by Aoki Gallery, Tokyo, 1969, 6 x 4 1/8 inches (original photo by Kō Nakajima, this photo courtesy Japan Society)

The Radicalism exhibition also looks at Group Ultra Niigata, or GUN, which became known for performance art and land art. In Event to Change the Image of Snow (1970), GUN’s members used a fertilizer blower to spray colored food dyes across a wide, snow-covered gravel riverbed of the Shinano River in Niigata Prefecture, a region famous for its long, dreary winters and heavy snowfalls. No sooner did the artists create abstract patterns on the snow’s white surface than fast-falling flakes obscured their handiwork.

The show highlights some of the projects of GUN member Michio Horikawa (its central figure, along with Tadashi Maeyama), who, beginning in 1969, sent stones he collected near the Shinano River to Japanese critics and artists in a series of mail-art actions inspired by the moon-rock gathering of American astronauts. Among the recipients of his peculiar missives: President Richard M. Nixon, whose ambassador in Tokyo sent Horikawa a letter thanking him for sending his boss “a most unusual Christmas gift.”

GUN’s activities were rooted in the geographical-physical characteristics of the group’s native region but they sometimes became overtly political, too. It produced anti-war banners and stickers, and Maeyama dared to create a photo-illustrated artist’s book critiquing the Japanese emperor system and its entrenched links to — and its nuanced manifestations of — state power.

The Play, “Thunder” (1977-86), documentary photograph of pyramid structure constructed for outdoor performances (photo courtesy of The Play)
The Play, “Thunder” (1977–86), documentary photograph of pyramid structure constructed for outdoor performances (photo courtesy The Play)

Finally, Radicalism examines the activities of The Play, a group of self-styled “happeners” who assembled in Osaka in 1967. Concocting “happenings,” or partially scripted, partially improvised events that challenged the work of art as a physical object, The Play’s main objective, Tomii writes in the exhibition’s accompanying brochure, was “to take everyday consciousness trapped in familiar space and time out into the landscape.”

The Play meticulously planned each of its events. In Voyage: Happening in an Egg (1968), the group created a gigantic fiberglass egg, which it released with theatrical flair into the ocean near the southernmost tip of Japan’s main island, hoping that it would reach California’s coast. Japanese marine-safety officials required that the artists write on their odd vessel, in English, “Would you please report [to] us the place and date when you found this egg[?]” Not properly weighted, it did not travel on the current the artists had anticipated for its journey; it was once sighted out at sea and then never spotted again.

In Current of Contemporary Art (1969), The Play’s members paddled a large river raft from Kyoto to Osaka, calling attention to urban dwellers’ relationship with nature. Through their playfulness, they shook up a sense of mundane, everyday life. Each summer from 1977 through 1986, in an ongoing event titled Thunder, The Play used logs to build a large pyramid structure topped with a copper lightning rod, and then waited for lightning to strike. It never did, but they enthusiastically documented their nature-coaxing efforts all the same.

“In effect, this version of my Radicalism research is three monographic shows in one,” Tomii said, describing the exhibition’s scope and content. In showcasing the diversity of the ideas and projects of the Japanese artists whose careers it examines, it makes a strong case for the affinities they shared with those of their unknown foreign peers. These resonances occurred as conceptual art was developing during the postwar period, and now, in retrospect, they can be appreciated within the broader history of the late 20th-century avant-garde.

In light of such relationships, this Radicalism, like the book from which it derives, doesn’t simply propose a place in that narrative for these Japanese artists’ ideas and accomplishments. Instead, from and for the “wilderness,” it demands, and seizes, a spot much closer to this slice of history’s more familiar center.

Just how radical is that?

Radicalism in the Wilderness: Japanese Artists in the Global 1960s continues at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 9. The exhibition is curated by Reiko Tomii.

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