“Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan, 1945–1965”

Since World War II, Japanese art has undergone a transformation as radical as any in the West, from which it somewhat derives. The socialist realism of official
war artists was quickly ousted by expressionistic depictions of devastation and the similarly macabre subject matter of the surrealists, who had been suppressed during the war for their suspected liaison with the communist faction. Among the latter, Kikuji Yamashita tried to be controversially distasteful in his raw and often inane paintings of social injustices. Human vulnerability was treated with more finesse by surrealists such as Shigeo Ishii, On Kawara, and Tatsuo Ikeda, who clung grimly to a perhaps unfashionable esthetic delicacy. The hint of agreement among these artists on a common theme masked a fierce debate about pictorial content. “Why don’t they see that the spirit of our time can be expressed even by a flower?” mourned the art critic Yoshiaki Tono in 1954. There are no comforting cherry blossoms in this show.

Deprived of its legendary isolation, Japanese art as well as industry learned to ignore geographical divisions and to court Western favor. Surrealism, art informel, and American abstraction and Pop art were all absorbed with apparent ease. Reinterpreting Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, 1955, Akira Shimizu’s admittedly tidier Recreation No. 1, 1963, involves a stuffed eagle diving through a bed. There seems to be someone under the covers. Shimizu sacrificed eroticism for a violent incongruity, like Lautreamont’s “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.” It is matched by Tetsumi Kudo’s horrifying L’Amour, 1964, two enormous humanoid heads, adorned with rudimentary hair, minute ears, and big red lips, that sit on chairs opposite each other and are joined in a never-ending kiss that, not surprisingly, has lost its romantic appeal. But the melodramatic pessimism of these assemblages is partially eased in Mokuma Kikuhata’s The Genealogy of Slaves—Disc Mirror, 1962, which offers only vague suggestions of literal organic decay, and Shozo Shimamoto’s reserved, evenly slashed abstract pictures.

What did flower in Japan, as elsewhere, was a concentration on artistic methods and manners. Atsuko Tanaka’s colorful Painting, 1960, of spots connected by dripped ribbons of paint seems to owe less to Jackson Pollock than to a Japanese tradition of juxtaposing flat areas of rich color, to sumi-e, and to Tanaka’s own dadaist Light Dress, 1956, made of colored lightbulbs and electrical wiring. Intentionally less original, Akira Kanayama’s machine-made action painting Work, 1958, is a cross between a pile of black paint and the illusion of a black hole. Genpei Akasegawa questioned the “artistic” process to the point of abandoning it altogether, and explains in a catalogue essay how, in order to attain “the maximum degree of projection from the surface of the picture;’ the artists laced their paint with sand, stones, pieces of tinplate, and, unbuttoning further, shreds of underwear. Akasegawa’s own work protruded beyond the already elasticized confines of art when he printed several good copies of the 1,000-yen note. Adding to the Duchampian effect, he was charged with counterfeiting; found guilty, he responded by printing and selling zero-yen notes marked ”Legal Art—Genuine Article."

Japanese art may formerly have prided itself on its native traditions, but the postwar avant-garde discovered that “the spirit of our time” sought by Tono was, and continues to be, internationalist.

Lucy Ellmann