PRINT May 1999


THOUGH THE JAPANESE GROUP Gutaï has received some exposure in the US in recent years, most notably in the 1994 “Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky” exhibition (at the SoHo Guggenheim, New York, and SF MOMA) and 1998’s “Out of Actions” (which opened at MOCA, Los Angeles, before traveling abroad), the extraordinary activities of these artists during the ’50s and early ’60s remains largely unknown in this country. No exhibition devoted solely to the group’s efforts seems to have followed the Martha Jackson Gallery show in 1958. Europe at least has been better served, with a 1990 retrospective at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome and the far more complete show in 1991 at the Institut Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt, Germany. With yet another European presentation due to open this month, at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, in Paris, one can only hope that an American institution will finally take on the task of giving this original and idiosyncratic group a much-warranted examination.

For in many ways the American audience was the one that Gutaï dreamed of: Copies of the journal published by the group were found in Pollock’s library after his death, no doubt reverently sent by their emissary, the French critic and high priest of Informel, Michel Tapié. In fact, Pollock was perhaps their signal point of departure, or at least Hans Namuth’s photographs of the artist at work along with Harold Rosenberg’s formulation of “action painting.” Grouped around and financed by the fatherly figure of Jiro Yoshihara, whose paintings were, at the time of the group’s formation in 1954, provincial versions of European postwar abstraction, the young Gutaï artists endeavored to literalize Rosenberg’s notion of the Abstract Expressionist canvas as an “arena for action,” with the corollary that the pictures themselves were far less significant than the gestures that produced them. The most eloquent of these artists was undoubtedly Kazuo Shiraga, whose dramatic performance at the first Gutaï exhibition (Tokyo, 1955), Challenge to the Mud, in which the artist rolled half naked in a pile of mud, remains the most celebrated event associated with the group. At the second Gutaï show in 1956, Shiraga made his appropriation of the notion of the “arena” even more explicit as he used his feet to paint a large canvas sprawled across the floor. Another key member, Saburo Murakami (whose 1955 performance Laceration of Paper, in which the artist ran through a paper screen, remains stunning), realized a series of paintings in 1954 by throwing a ball soaked in ink at paper; his action was followed by Shozo Shimamoto, who began crashing glass jars filled with pigment on his canvases (most often, once again, laid out on the floor) in 1956, calling these works “Throws of Color.”

As spectacular as these performances undoubtedly were, the resulting objects were not as compelling (Shiraga’s numerous “foot paintings,” the indexical marks clearly registering the choreography of the artist’s feet dragging the slick, oily paints around the canvas, are the exception). In retrospect, it is obvious that the Gutaï artists knew as much; initially at least, they did not put much value on these remnants, concentrating their energy on brilliant multimedia installations and performances as well as on documentation. But before long, perhaps under the pressure of the market, they started exhibiting the paintings as such, which marked the beginning of their downfall: Gutaï did not disband until 1972. (at the death of Yoshihara), but by the mid-’60s the group had become a caricature of itself, and there wasn’t much difference between its activity and, say, that of the archreactionary French painter Georges Mathieu, whose shtick included covering a canvas with grandiloquent gestures, in front of an audience of gallery-goers, in a few minutes’ time.

Mathieu was a protégé of Tapié, who had organized Gutaï’s 1958 show at Martha Jackson. In the New York show, Tapié had chosen to exhibit mainly paintings, which—at the very juncture where the notion of “action painting” had become utterly academic in America—were understandably badly received. The show, however, also provided some documentation (via slides and apparently films) of the early performances, which were instantly championed by Allan Kaprow. With characteristic generosity, Kaprow saw them as anticipating his Happenings (he later reproduced many photographs of Gutaï performances in his book Assemblage, Environments and Happenings). As curator Alexandra Munroe has noted, his reading was to an extent a misrepresentation, for the aesthetic component of many Gutaï performances, not to mention their sheer elegance, was completely foreign to the funk attitude pervasive in the Happenings as defined by Kaprow. But this split reception (bad AbEx, good Happenings) set the tone and, with the waning of the Happenings in the ’70s, the group was quickly forgotten. But a glance at the vast archival material that remains, and at the rare sculptures produced in the early years of the movement (some of them notable for their refined use of such materials as plastic, others for their striking similarity to the anti-form and arte povera works they preceded by a decade), is enough to convince anyone that Gutaï needs to be seriously revisited. Which is to say critically revisited, so that the many contradictions of the movement in the particular context of postwar Japan (the conflation of high and low, of the ritualistic and the ludic) are not overwhelmed by the group’s unique version of the spectacular.