Critics’ Picks

Takesada Matsutani, Work '65, 1965, vinyl, adhesive relief, oil, acrylic, canvas, plywood, 60 x 40".


“Gutai: The Spirit of an Era”

The National Art Center, Tokyo
7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku
July 4–September 10

Coinciding with a renewed interest worldwide in Japanese avant-gardes of the 1950s and ’60s, this momentous Tokyo retrospective brings to the capital a painstakingly detailed overview of the Osaka- and Kansai (Western Japan)–based movement that draws pertinent connections to New York Abstract Expressionism and action painting, Italian Arte Povera, and French Art Informel. This important show is the latest in a series of ongoing attempts to resituate an important Asian avant-garde in the context of an international modernity that spurned it for being derivative.

Presentations dating from Gutai’s early days in the late ’50s mainly took place on the auditorium stage of the Ohara Hall in Tokyo, collapsing distinctions between stage performance and exhibition space, while other seminal works privileged direct, gestural acts of mark-making and trace-leaving. Saburo Murakami’s Paper Breakthrough, 1956, in which he leaped through a series of paper screens, leaving behind ripped shreds that recorded the trace of his movements—a time-honored ritual that opened all Gutai exhibitions—was reenacted by his son at the opening. The fourth section of the exhibition, “Gutai Goes International 1957–65,” includes Kazuo Shiraga’s treacherously slippery foot-daubing pieces, which are already well known, but it also impresses with less familiar works, such as a suite of automatic paintings by Akira Kanayama, created by handmade electric cars that dripped pigment onto canvases placed on the floor, as well as Shozo Shimamoto’s “cannon paintings,” made by firing paint-filled glass bottles onto a canvas.

These dynamic processes, often aided by technology, sound, and light effects during Gutai’s later period, pioneered a Japanese “intermedia” art that began creating integrated, lavishly orchestrated environments. The last years of Gutai—which ended with leader Jiro Yoshihara’s sudden death in 1972—demonstrate a mellower aesthetic based on a “cool,” restrained, and machinelike geometry, rather than the raw physicality that characterized the “hot” abstraction of the early years. Industrialized consumer society in Japan was reaching its peak, reflected in the polished materials of the late Gutai kinetic sculptures and experiments with optical tricks that are found in the last few galleries. Taken as a whole, this noteworthy and wide-ranging reunion of works drawn from the entirety of the group’s career shines most when fleeting recollections and echoes of their Western contemporaries—Murakami’s paper shreds versus Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases, for instance—seem to drift in and out of sight, finally given the breathing space and lead time to be properly reassessed in light of each other, in a state of what critic Ichiro Haryu has called “international contemporaneity.”