PRINT February 2013


Though TSURUKO YAMAZAKI is one of the longest-standing members of the Gutai group, much of her oeuvre still remains obscure. In the following pages, Artforum presents a selection of Yamazaki’s singular works—some published here for the first time—displaying the artist’s resolute investigations into chemical and physical transformation, from her early washes of dye on tin to her Pop paintings of the 1960s and her viscous abstractions from the past several years. Scholar JOAN KEE introduces this special portfolio with a discussion of the historical context in which Yamazaki emerged, and of her legacy, lasting long after the dissolution of Gutai.

Tsuruko Yamazaki in front of Not a Triple Mirror, 1956/2007, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, 2009. Photo: Keizo Kobashi.

DESPITE THE MULTIPLICITY of their approaches, the artists of Gutai were bound by a mutual interest in engaging directly with an artwork’s constituent materials or, as their leader, Jirō Yoshihara, proclaimed in the group’s celebrated manifesto, in letting “the human spirit and the material shake hands.” Yet where many Gutai members sought to affirm their own capacity for action by staging contests between the mark and its trace—resulting in intense, sometimes histrionic, displays of physical exertion—Tsuruko Yamazaki endorsed a distinctly nonhumanist view of agency by emphasizing the interface between material properties themselves. Although her work’s range and vibrancy of colors are what most immediately catch the viewer’s attention, to describe Yamazaki as a colorist would be to diminish the urgency with which she has sought to denature the bond between materials and their expected uses, particularly in her experiments with tin, vinyl, acrylic, and mirrors.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Yamazaki applied aniline dye to tin panels, allowing the compounds to slowly oxidize into vivid shades of indigo and magenta, earthy greens and violets, a process accentuated by the works’ thin, reflective, and nonabsorbent surfaces. Yamazaki’s engagement with tin was inaugurated in Tin Cans, 1955, presented at the “First Gutai Art Exhibition” at Tokyo’s Ohara Kaikan hall. Several shiny red cans—some stacked in columns—were scattered on the ground, a decision that separated the objects both from their practical function as containers and from what were then common assumptions regarding the relationship between quotidian objects and freestanding sculpture. In another group of works from the late 1950s, the artist covered rectangular supports with tin, then punctured the facades with small holes or manipulated them into creases, so that the panels protruded irregularly from the wall. She attached colored gels to floor lights and pointed the latter toward the pieces, a move that generated a viewing experience that likely appealed more readily to one’s sense of touch than one’s sense of sight. At once surface and substance, these works alluded to the monochrome, a strategy of depiction Yamazaki shared with her Gutai colleagues, including Fujiko and Kazuo Shiraga, and which informed some of the group’s most effective attempts at recalibrating the parameters via which abstraction was understood in 1950s and ’60s Japan.

Further exploration of the tension between substance and surface led Yamazaki to paint on mirrors, as well as on supports wrapped in plastic. Her interest in this tension continued even after many of her Gutai counterparts explicitly aligned themselves with art informel, following Michel Tapié’s visit to Japan in 1957. While Yamazaki, too, focused on paintings on canvas following Tapié’s encouragement, she trained her sights on picturing the effects of material interaction without validating them as the inevitable result of a singular hand. In this way, she had far more in common with a budding legion of younger artists like Ushio Shinohara and those of the Kyūshuū-ha, for whom painting, especially abstraction, was largely a question of ongoing interaction rather than of creating discrete products.

In proving herself exceptionally faithful to the literal meaning of gutai, which her early mentor Yoshihara once described as “concrete form,” Yamazaki understood, perhaps better than any of her colleagues, the generative possibilities of thinking about visual manifestation and substance together. Objects were always as they appeared, and herein lay the challenge. Produced for the “Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition” of 1956, Work (Red Cube) (sometimes referred to as Room) consisted of bright red vinyl sheets stretched over a wooden scaffold. The titular cube was then suspended from tree branches and illuminated from within, so that viewers who entered it from below would see their shadows cast on its sides. This was less an inert object than a material situation produced from the accumulation of surfaces activated by the interplay of light and shadow. More provocative still was Not a Triple Mirror, 1956/2007, an eleven-foot-tall reddish-pink work comprising dozens of rectangular tin sheets painted with a combination of dye, lacquer, and vinyl thinner. From a distance, the triptych resembles an oversize folding screen, a painting format that excludes and demarcates physical space yet also emphasizes the artwork as coterminous with the space it occupies. Yamazaki capitalizes on this double function by enlarging the screen so that it both affirms and competes with its physical environment. To “shake hands” with material is not enough; as Yamazaki demonstrates, the real work is to recognize how and when materials show up in the first place.

Joan Kee is an assistant professor in the department of art history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Tsuruko Yamazaki, Work, 1957, aniline dye and varnish on tin, 28 7/8 x 32 1/2".

Tsuruko Yamazaki, Work, 1962, vinyl paint on canvas, 63 7/8 x 38 1/4".

Tsuruko Yamazaki, Work, 2010, dye, lacquer, and vinyl thinner on tin, 37 1/2 x 37 1/2".

Tsuruko Yamazaki, Work, 2009, dye, lacquer, and vinyl thinner on tin, 18 3/4 x 18 3/4".

Tsuruko Yamazaki, Work, 2004, dye, lacquer, and vinyl thinner on tin, 34 x 39 3/4".