PRINT January 2013

Focus Preview

“Gutai: Splendid Playground”

Saburō Murakami, Passing Through, 1956. Performance view, Ohara Kaikan, Tokyo, ca. October 11–17, 1956. From “2nd Gutai Art Exhibition,” 1956. Photo: Ōtsuji Kiyoji.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
February 15–May 8
Curated by Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe

FOR THE GROUP that officially called itself the Gutai Art Association, being one step ahead was always something of a fine art. Founded in 1954 by Jirō Yoshihara, a painter who urged his younger colleagues to “create things that have never been done before,” the Gutai group, until its dissolution after Yoshihara’s death in 1972, produced an extraordinary range of works encompassing performances, paintings, sculptures, outdoor installations, experimental films, and even wearables (as vividly exemplified by Atsuko Tanaka’s iconic Electric Dress, 1956/1986). And though they were based in the sleepy hamlet of Ashiya, well outside the bounds of the Tokyo art establishment, Gutai never lost sight of other nations’ artistic developments, becoming the first postwar Japanese artistic movement to gain real recognition overseas. This was partially due to their remarkable savvy regarding the role of mass media in the production of a distinctly international art world—an acumen amply illustrated by the scenes they carefully staged for the benefit of news reporters, as well as their promotion of their own eponymous journal, copies of which were famously owned by Jackson Pollock.

Despite the scope of their production and endorsement at the time, however, Gutai is largely remembered today as an intriguing but somehow lesser counterpart to Abstract Expressionism and art informel, a view inadvertently cultivated by Michel Tapié’s insistence on framing their works as examples of gestural abstraction following his travels to Japan in 1957. “Gutai: Splendid Playground” will irrupt such views altogether with a dazzlingly expansive approach that includes not only celebrated feats (such as Kazuo Shiraga’s epic struggles with mud and paint) but also little-known works (such as Akira Kanayama’s inflatables and the assemblages of Saburō Murakami). With some 120 objects on display dating from 1954 to 1972, the exhibition promises to give a clearer view of what might be the group’s most important legacy: the capacity of its members to think of painting as an intrinsically elastic structure, unencumbered by any false promises of fidelity to the medium and liberated by a uniquely fluid understanding of the interaction between notions of frame, support, gesture, and trace.

Although Gutai has attracted significant interest outside Japan in the past decade, even to the point of being integrated into classroom surveys of postwar art, much important archival research is still available only in Japan or to Japanese speakers, and most scholarship has focused on the early years, occluding much-needed investigation into the group’s legacy as a whole. This exhibition will be a crucial palliative, offering the most comprehensive gathering to date of the artists’ works outside their native country. Organizers Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, who helped catalyze interest in postwar Japanese art with the landmark 1994 exhibition “Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky,” and Ming Tiampo, associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and the author of Gutai: Decentering Modernism (2010), have taken pains to reconstruct the specific conditions under which Gutai production and promotion took place, via the inclusion of documentary, archival materials. An accompanying catalogue contains essays by scholars Pedro Erber, Lyn Hsieh, Mizuho Katō, Izumi Nakajima, Judith Rodenbeck, Shōichi Hirai, Reiko Tomii, and Midori Yoshimoto, further enhancing what will be yet another chance for Gutai to beat the odds—namely, those stacked against the realization of an authentically flexible history of postwar art.

Joan Kee