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When Japanese artists took painting to new heights

On View: A Guggenheim Museum exhibition in New York explores the Gutai Art Association, whose members wanted to overthrow all pre-WWII art forms.

February 24, 2013|By Scarlet Cheng
  • Sadamasa Motonaga's “Work (Water)” used sunlight filtering through its tubing to create different effects. The 1956 piece is being replicated in New York.
Sadamasa Motonaga's “Work (Water)” used sunlight… (Motonaga Nakatsuji Etsuko…)

NEW YORK — In the mid-1950s, Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga took action painting to new heights. Though trained as a traditional brush painter, he tossed them. He tried painting with his fingers, then in public performances he spread paint on paper or canvas with his bare feet. In more elaborate versions, he suspended himself from overhead ropes and swung his body freely, his feet swirling the paint below.

"It was by removing himself from his training that he was able to fully express himself," says Ming Tiampo, co-curator of a new exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum featuring Shiraga and fellow members of the Gutai Art Association. In the post World War II era, they sought nothing less than the overthrow of all art forms made in their homeland before the catastrophe.

In a way, they had to, says Alexandra Munroe, exhibition co-curator and the museum's senior curator of Asian art. "How do you make art after the atomic bomb? How do you make art after the holocaust?"

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These were the big questions confronting Japanese artists in the aftermath of World War II. In 1954, the Gutai was founded and largely funded by artist Jiro Yoshihara, who saw that past practices had led artists to contribute to the war machine — he himself had made paintings that could be seen as pro-war propaganda. In the postwar era, in a body politic already reshaped by the American occupation of the country, art would be different. It would awaken people to the individual (kotai) rather than the national (kokutai), as was previously emphasized.

"The art of the past ... seems fraudulent," Yoshihara wrote in the Gutai Manifesto of 1956. "Let's bid farewell to the hoaxes.... Ours is a free site of creation wherein we have actively pursued diverse experimentations ranging from art to be appreciated with the whole body to tactile art to Gutai music."

Five years in the making, "Gutai: Splendid Playground" (through May 8) fills the museum's entire main atrium and includes collaborations with several living Gutai artists to re-create installations and conceptual works. Altogether, 145 works by 25 artists are featured, spanning the beginnings of Gutai until its end in 1972.

For the members of Gutai, which means "concreteness" or "embodiment," notions of play and engagement with the public were key, so a number of kinetic and interactive works are included. Upon entry, visitors will find a free-standing board marked "Please Draw Freely," replicating Yoshihara's installation at the Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition of 1956, which took place in a public park. "What Gutai tells viewers is, 'You're not here just as a passive observer, you're here as a participant,'" says co-curator Tiampo, an art history professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. (Visitors will be provided markers to draw on the board.)

Overhead, slung from the balustrades spiraling upward, will be large, flexible plastic tubes filled with colored water, replicating Sadamasa Motonaga's "Work (Water)" from the same event. Sunlight from the rooftop oculus will filter through these tubes, creating different effects during the day — a "painting" without the usual paint and canvas. Nearby is a re-creation of "Work (Red Cube)" by Tsuruko Yamazaki, again from the same exhibition — a large red cube suspended 31/2 feet from the ground. Visitors are invited to go inside "and experience red," says Tiampo.

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The Gutai used unusual materials — sometimes dictated by the artists' poverty. They also employed unusual processes, trying to unfetter themselves from tradition. With their emphasis on direct action, they often used the body as their tool, as Shiraga did. Saburo Murakami threw himself through sheets of paper mounted on frames — a series also included in the recent Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void." In a 1956 performance, Murakami hurtled himself so vigorously through 21 paper screens that he gave himself a concussion.

Over time, additional artists joined the Gutai, and although most of the 59 members were men, a few women participated too. Perhaps the most influential was Atsuko Tanaka. She became famous for a garment made of colored light bulbs and tubes, "Electric Dress" (1956), which she wore like a hooded cloak from head to foot. It reflected her interest in melding art and technology, and even the masses of wiring required became part of the sculpture's outlandish appearance.

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