New York

Atsuko Tanaka

New York University Grey Art Gallery/Paula Cooper Gallery

“Make it new” was the mandate of Gutaï, a pioneering collective in postwar Japan. The dictum was realized emphatically in many of the group’s performance works, such as Kazuo Shiraga’s Challenge to the Mud, 1955, in which the artist writhed in a pile of slop, creating a constantly shifting live informe sculpture that made Pollock’s rhythmic pouring and dripping seem positively genteel. In another radical act, Atsuko Tanaka donned a potentially dangerous costume of tangled cords and brightly painted incandescent bulbs that lit up with the flick of a switch. Like Shiraga’s mud encounter, Electric Dress, 1956, has become an emblem of Gutaï ’s performative spirit and a successful manifestation of their desire to unify body and material. Gutaï officially disbanded in 1972, but many members, including Tanaka (one of the few women in the group), continued to work. Now seventy-two years old and still painting, Tanaka was the subject of two recent shows, one good and one very good, which focused on her work during and after Gutai.

The first, an exhibition at the New York University Grey Art Gallery, includes a reconstructed version of Electric Dress. Inspired by neon advertising signage, the shapeless garment externalizes the body’s circuitry and acts as a transformative, all-consuming costume. Here the work lights up periodically, buzzing with life like an alien creature. When Tanaka wore it, only her face and hands were visible, and she has acknowledged the trepidation she felt on donning it for the first time and flipping the switch: “I had the fleeting thought: Is this how a death-row inmate would feel?”

Electric Dress forcefully embodies the anxiety of being subsumed completely by technology and modernization and, in its postwar context, also references the devastating power of the atomic bomb. It also reimagines painting, which even then was central to Tanaka’s practice, as literally charged and moving, a three-dimensional force that envelops and threatens to engulf its maker. Tanaka’s technical sketches of the work initiated the formal language—based on rows of colored circles connected with networks of lines—that she still uses in her paintings and drawings, which can be read like electrical diagrams, one colored mass emitting a charge that travels to another and another in endless possible configurations of productive energy.

With their nervous, attenuated lines, Tanaka’s drawings generate their own kind of visual charge. In her paintings, shiny enamel gives the colors a particular density and appealing slickness, as in Three Black Balls, 1962, and the bull’s-eyes of the round painting Spring, 1966. This work is activated by the press of a button, which starts a simple belt-driven engine that very slowly turns the painting in keeping with the artist’s lo-fi aesthetic. Also featured are a few performance videos including Round on Sand, 1968, which shows her on the beach making a huge drawing with a stick over an expanse of sand as the surf gradually creeps forward.

The Grey Art Gallery concentrates on Tanaka’s Gutaï period and also features video and other documentation of the movement. At Paula Cooper Gallery, we saw Tanaka on her own, far from that era, through paintings and drawings the bulk of which were completed between 1980 and 2002. The later paintings are based on arrangements of colorful circles and lines similar to those in Tanaka’s earlier work. But it was difficult to tell whether they were meant to be understood in relation to the same set of concerns. The paintings are generally larger and self-contained, yet somehow Tanaka’s art of the ’50s and ’60s seems fresher. Perhaps I just felt nostalgic for the ephemerality and risk in her earlier work: Nothing feels as free and full of potential renewal as watching Tanaka make those seemingly endless drawings in the sand as the tide rolls in.

Meghan Dailey