Fifteen years in the making, the current Guggenheim exhibition on Gutai presents a groundbreaking spectrum of the art of that group, shaking to its core the notion of the West as the epicenter of contemporary art practices. The show, curated by Ming Tiampo, associate professor of art history at Carlton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the museum, is titled Gutai: Splendid Playground, an odd sobriquet to describe the annihilating force that birthed the group in postwar Japan. They held together for 18 years, from 1954 to 1972, as a coterie of roughly 59 artists grappling with the annihilation of the past, but also, in their later phase, looking towards the glories and hidden trappings of a imagined technological future. No movement was more primal than Gutai (which translates as “concreteness”), for no other culture on earth had been incinerated by the nuclear bomb. Rising phoenix-like from the ashes of Allied occupation, they upended convention through remarkable developments in painting, performance, installation, experimental film, and sound, kinetic, light, and environmental art.
Collective artists’ organizations, called bijutsu dantai, had a long history of state sponsorship in Japan, but they tended to squash innovation. The Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai, or Gutai Art Association, based in Ashuya, near Osaka, was founded in 1954 by 49-year-old painter Yoshihara Jiro, a George Maciunas-like figure who mandated, “Never imitate others — make something that has never existed.” Using the loose structure of the dantai, Yoshihara chose younger artists open to new ideas to populate his association. As with the art movements of Dada and Fluxus, the members of Gutai issued a manifesto published in the art journal Geijiutsu Shincho:
These objects are in disguise and their materials such as paint, pieces of cloth, metals, clay or marble are loaded with false significance by human hand and by way of fraud, so that, instead of just presenting their own material, they take on the appearance of something else. Under the cloak of an intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us.
Lock these corpses into their tombs. Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life. Gutai art does not falsify the material. In Gutai art the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other, even though they are otherwise opposed to each other.
By January 1, 1955, the group began publishing the Gutai Journals of their artworks, essays, photographs, and documentation of outdoor and stage pieces, one of the few ways anyone outside of Japan knew of their existence. Copies found their way to Europe, the US, and even South America. In 1956, artist Shimamoto Shozo enclosed copies of the magazine in a letter to artist Jackson Pollock. The composer Earle Brown and his wife, dancer Carolyn Brown, avidly collected the journals, sharing them among their avant-garde circle of friends. Gutai 6 even published a spread on Pollock in both English and Japanese. By 1958, the group had gained enough traction to stage the 6th Gutai Art Exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York — and was resoundly dismissed. Critic Dore Ashton wrote in the New York Times that they were “ineffectual” and derivative of “Pollock followers.” A few astute artists, including Paul Jenkins and Allan Kaprow, who included them in his book on Happenings, begged to differ. Yoshihara later quipped to his Western critics that Gutai artists did not favor the expectation of “Orientalism” in their work.
The current Guggenheim exhibition contains 145 works by 25 artists and begins in the museum’s rotunda with a luscious sculptural installation by the late Motonaga Sadamasa titled “Work (Water),” which employs long, thin, clear industrial plastic tubes weighted by colored water and suspended from the coiling inner spirals of the museum’s walkway.
The Gutai constantly combined materials with the urgency of alchemists, as if by conjuring matter in original ways art could somehow banish man’s inhumanity to man. “Disregarding the frame getting off the walls, shifting from immobile time to lived time, we aspire to create a new painting,” they declared, using sawdust, gravel, dirt, newspapers, glass, their feet, gravity, hot tar, nails, oil, boar hide, and spent bullets as painting materials. Shiraga Kazuo, in the Art Using the Stage show, swung from a rope and paint with his bare feet, a process he called “Sambaso Super Modern”; he said he wanted to make work “as slippery … as a sea cucumber.” One of the revelations of the Guggenheim exhibition is its display of faded videos of his (and others’) process, where one can actually watch his messy, slippery, balletic glide over the canvas.
Kanayama Akira squirted paint from an electric toy car, and others wore deep-sea goggles while hurling bombs of pigment. Another approach favored brutally singeing fire onto scorched wooden planks or, in one case, actually burning an entire ouvre. Long before Julian Schnabel’s canvases of smashed plates, Shiraga Fuijiko combined oil, synthetic paint, shards of glass, and paper on canvas. Shimamoto Shozo, too poor to buy canvas, painted on layers of newspaper with glue, leaving gaping holes in the picture plane. Matsutani Takesada used synthetic paint and adhesive to redefine the whole idea of painting and plasticity. But the show-stopping piece is 1955’s “Challenging Mud,” which featured an almost naked Shiraga Kazuo kicking and thrashing in the mud, using his entire body as the brush. It forever broke, in one grimy swoop, the barrier between performance and painting. By 1971, Shiraga was ordained as a Buddhist monk at the Enryaku-ji Monastery on Mount Hiei near Kyoto, taking the simple name Sodo, but he continued to paint until his death.
There were women in Gutai, most notably Tanaka Atsuko. She first premiered her barely wearable “Electric Dress” in 1957 at Sankei Kaikan Hall in Osaka; as it heated up, it threatened to short circuit and to electrocute her. The dress was so dangerous she could only wear it in five-minute intervals. Tanaka also produced the inventive “Stage Clothes,” peeling off successive layers of clothes, under which were endless layers of yet more garments, and “Work (Yellow Cloth),” a radical intervention for which she procured squares of yellow dyed fabric and mounted them as paintings in a gallery, something only Kazimir Malevich and Robert Rauschenberg dared, with their white paintings on white. She then made a film of drawing circles in the sand, an environmental art piece before it became the fashion, and continued the theme of circles with her multiple canvases of circular shapes.
As the critical issues of postwar Japan receded, the Gutai moved from nihilism to exploring the rapid and dehumanizing industrialization and mechanization that accompanied Japan’s economic rejuvenation. Member Joji Kikunami declared:
In order to do something truly human it is imperative that our entire civilization undergo a fundamental transformation, and we should improve human nature individually within social networking our understanding of science and science’s capacity.
In 1962 at the Takashimaya department store in Osaka, the 11th Gutai Art Exhibition showcased the whimsical “Gutai Card Box,” an interactive vending machine with an artist standing inside the structure. When a participant dropped in a ten-yen coin, he received an original art postcard. (The piece has been refabricated for the Guggenheim show.) “Gutai Card Box” was constructed to emphasize the increasingly mechanized and alienated environment of daily life and consumption, including the rise of the soulless vending machine. Three years later, Gutai was exhibiting at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam along with the NUL and Zero movements, and it was then that they truly burst onto the scene.
Many of the group’s later pieces incorporated sensors, kinetic action, light, sound, and most importantly, robotics, in which Japan particularly excelled. Yoshida Minoru’s motorized purple and green Plexiglas and water sculpture “Bisexual Flower,” from 1969, is one of the biggest surprises at the Guggenheim, having not been widely exhibited. It shows a joyful optimism lacking in Gutai’s earlier works.
Caught up in the vigor of the 1960s, the Gutai staged outdoor extravaganzas using helium balloons that lifted actors into the air and made experimental films soaked in vinegar that produced startling Stan Brakhage-like effects on film emulsion. One of Kanayama Akira’s “Balloon” sculptures made vaginal pink inflatable, circular tubes into outdoor environmental sculptures on a hill. In 1967 they took over an amusement park on the outskirts of Osaka and worked with materials relating to rapid industrialization and the imminent space age, playing and forging inroads in optical art.
Expo ’70 Osaka, the first World’s Fair in Asia, marked the beginning of the end for Gutai. They presented “Garden on Garden,” a collaboration directed by Yoshihara, a drama of man and matter, at Festival Plaza under the theme “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” which highlighted the wonders of modern technology. Nasaka Senkichiro and Yoshihara Michio also presented “Work” (1970), a large metal sculptural installation that incorporated sound. In total, 77 countries participated in the Expo, and over 64 million people attended. Isamu Noguchi, from the US, designed a fountain, and robots were showcased.
Two years later, Yoshihara died, and Gutai disbanded. The era of postwar Japanese reconstruction had come to an end. But now, thanks to this exhibition, Western art history is going to have to go through some serious revisions.
Gutai: Splendid Playground is on view at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 8.
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