Gutai: 1953 –1959
On ViewFergus McCaffrey
April 25 – June 30, 2018
This show unwraps the early years (1953 – 1959) of Japan’s influential post-war avant-garde art collective, Gutai, with a tale of innovation that presents prescient pre-Pop and pre-performance captured in its earliest moments. By spotlighting shocking intentions and notions about what art could be—as earthy, breathtaking manifestations in two and three dimensions—Fergus McCaffrey has managed to encapsulate one of the first periods when art as concept, art as gesture, and art as Game theory became one. Though Gutai lasted until 1972 when its leader’s sudden death brought a halt to the activity, it was these early years that anticipated much of what followed in Happenings, Fluxus, Minimalism, and Performance.
From the early 20th century to the end of WWII, the wealthy, well-read and “with it” from Japan’s political and cultural centers gravitated toward Ashiya’s dramatic silhouette at the foot of Mt. Rokk, where the Gutai Art Association was born between Osaka and Kobe in 1954, crystallizing a hip milieu known as Hanshinkan Modernism as an emerging trend.
The elegant work of Gutai’s charismatic leader, Jiro Yoshihara grounds the first room of the expanded gallery space, setting the stage with three elegant, “colored iron” sculptures, graceful geometric shapes positioned in a mound of sand and surrounded sparsely by walls featuring a few inventive glyph-like works on paper from the early 1950s. (By temporarily acquiring the former Robert Miller Gallery space next door, Fergus McCaffrey more than doubled its space to 15,000 square feet to accommodate over seventy large-scale works by eleven artists—many exhibited in the United States for the first time.)
Yoshihara encouraged young artists to directly use their bodies seeking “the scream of matter itself,” to adrenalize materials and “do what has never been done before.” His disciples responded to his aesthetic and political message of freedom, physicality, and play with paintings, sculpture, and early time-based interactive works not about results but an accumulation of acts.
In nearby Amagasaki, the like-minded Zero-kai group asked “can an idea be a work of art?” as Sadamasa Motonaga’s paintings used the tarashikomi dripping in technique; Kazuo Shiraga battled half-naked with mud, painting with his feet, three years before Yves Klein’s Anthropométries; Saburo Murakami sought notoriety with paper-tearing performances; and Atsuko Tanaka appeared on stage in electric clothing.
Here, concrete evidence from those activities join their later works that bring to life striking photographs of related Gutai activity nearby. Motonaga’s simple childlike constructions are as profound as his hanging bags of colored liquid. Extraordinary Shiraga sponge, fabric, and wood works and both books and intestines under glass enchant us in between cartographic traces of his thick mud works. Murakami provides historical Conceptual gravitas with empty frames and boxes, while Tanaka’s twelve electric bells wired together interrupt the silence next to a 1953 pencil work called Calendar with numbers positioned on a colored background a few years before Jasper Johns would use flags, numbers, and targets as subject matter.
Much work in this show features these artists in two historical moments. First, Shozo Shimamoto, represented here by two of his famous Holes pieces: both aggregated glued paper, one on newspaper painted with oil from 1950, and the other, plain paper caked with white enamel from 1951, convinced the Zero-kai members to join his mentor Yoshihiro’s free-spirited Gutai movement.
Once they did, the other moment surrounds Michel Tapié, French art critic and booster of “Art Informel,” France’s improvisatory and gestural abstract tendency. Tapié saw the inaugural edition of Gutai via a Parisian Japanese friend in Spring ‘57 after a few hundred copies were printed in a storage shed at Shimamoto’s home on a borrowed printing press and mailed to museums and art enthusiasts. The international non-response reversed when Tapié traveled to Osaka the following Fall to investigate, leading to an exhibition, then a Tapié-Yoshihara lecture at Ashiya’s City Hall.
Unlike the exhibit at the Guggenheim in 2013, there are no copies of the Gutai publication here in this rich painting-centric show, but both galleries feature a timeline, each adorned with different black and white photos that show Tapié and various groupings of Gutai artists at work and play.
Tapié’s influence preserved Gutai’s legacy when he proposed more stable materials would generate a market for their works, powering 18 years of striking Gutai output in three different decades, slowly bewitching avant-gardes in the United States and Europe.
The work of Fujiko Shiraga, Kazuo’s wife, spotlights elegant performance art gestures like scratched and torn wet paper and partitioning a ten-meter-long plank of wood, White Board (1955), which bisects the extended gallery’s central hallway.
Toshio Yoshida, a Gutai member from its 1954 inception, has the most works in the show, each assaulting the picture-making traditions preceding him. From hanging loops of string to burned holes to concrete and fabric bonded to canvas surfaces to an outbreak of black gestural globs over white and grey, Yoshida shares his colleague Motonaga’s playfulness while beating Gerhard Richter to the blur by several years.
Finally, Martha Jackson’s sophisticated New York gallery held a 1958 Gutai exhibition, preceding by two years her famous New Forms New Media show that put Neo-Dada on the map. With the upheaval of the 1960s and the dawn of Pop Art on the horizon, this exhibition takes us from the serene, strange influence of American Action Painting in Ashiya in post-war Japan to Tokyo then Italy and the BBC and finally back to New York where these spectacular displays of Gutai on the world stage now necessitate a rewriting of Western art history.