Japanese Art Collective Gutai Group Gets Guggenheim Retrospective

The Gutai Art Association, a dynamic group of artists that formed in the Hansion region in 1954 post-war Japan, re-envisioned a social approach to art making. They lasted until 1972, with works presented via performance, exhibitions in the environment, and galleries, as well as in department stores. But what would it have been like to witness the activity during their formation and watch these interpreters present ideas that paralleled their experience in a forming democratic nation?

Gutai: Splendid Playground, the first full spectrum retrospective in North America landed at the Guggenheim Museum on February 15—a great time to observe this avant-garde’s movement and spot clues that add up to a dynamic visual rebellion. You’ll take away a clearer perspective and keen interest in applying their initiative to your daily life.

The Gutai’s first presentation was a thin publication of black and white reproductions of artwork from the original 17 members in 1955. Moving forward both with the creation of work and the writing of the Gutai Manifesto in 1956, by the founder Yoshihara Jiro, a governance for interacting with material and chance was established. “With our present awareness,” the manifesto states, “the arts we have known up to now appear to us in general to be fakes fitted out with a tremendous affectation.” At its inception, this movement constructed the modern Japanese creative dialect and established a new platform for artists to “make something that had not been made before.” Gutai, translated, means concreteness, and the word is formed by the characters for “tool” and “body.” The meaning shaped the perspectives of these avant-garde artists and the word’s character construction created a framework for them to “put the greatest importance on all daring steps which lead to an undiscovered world.” This was a concrete desire to set their spirits free: “Keeping the life of the material alive also means bringing the spirit alive, and lifting up the spirit means leading the material up to the height of the spirit.”

One artist, Kazuo Shiraga, used aggressive forms of force translated across paper and the ground. He hung from ropes above surfaces covered in pools of paint. Using his feet, he skid-out paintings with unusual composition balance. They look like the aftermath of a tribal ritual. With the earth work and performance piece Challenging Mud (1955), he wrestled with a mixture of wall plaster, cement, and mud. The work results in a photographic record of a fight until exhaustion—a definitive resistance performance piece.

Saburo Murakami lead charges through surfaces with Passing Through (1965) (pictured), a performative painting made by launching his body through a stretched layers of rice paper on multiple frames. These were lined up to form a blocked pathway. Inspired by his young son’s temper tantrums, Murakami’s action left traces that transformed emotional flailing into a manifestation of heroism—like an American small-town football team crashing threw a pep rally banner. Failure only exists if you believe in it.

With all the cultural and artistic transformations, Jiro Yoshihara sought his own form of “satori”, the enlightenment of Zen. With his Circle (1971), he painted out a circular form on a colored canvas. Yoshihara said he could not manage to paint even one circle with satisfaction—an indication of the difficulty to reach a level of peace and his dedication of pursuit for perfection.

Atsuko Tanaka, one of the few women members of Gutai, reinterpreted her physical relationship to space using thoughtfully drawn, and planned out ideas executed as performance. In one, The Electric Dress (1956), she constructed a sculptural work that covered her entire body. It was composed of electric wiring and light bulbs that pulsed and radiated into a space. Only her hands and eyes were visible from the burqa-like couture gown—think Alexander McQueen meets a Bowery Street light store. She became an illumination of a new circulatory system in exhibition spaces. Another work, that is installed and re-created in the Guggenheim exhibition, Work (Bell) (1955), the challenge becomes for the viewer to understand the perimeters of a space. As a loud bell sounds and it’s ringing slowly diminishes, all that remains is an auditory outline that traces the body of the room.

Gutai artists even took to the sky to present exhibitions. With the “International Sky Festival” in 1960, they created reproductions of their drawings and paintings, and incorporated ones from artists outside their immediate community like Lucio Fontana and Alfred Leslie. Set up on the roof of the Takashimaya department store and affixed to balloons, the works slowly rose into the Osaka sky. It’s an announcement of freedom from the confines of the exhibition space. The works become part of the vast span of the atmosphere.

The Gutai group’s goal was liberation. It challenged compositional beliefs and strayed from the rules of technique. When you view the works, focus on how they are inter-connected and use the spiral-arena of the museum to get amongst the visual philosophies. As you gear up to see the exhibition, make a plan to take part in Ei Arakawa’s performance-as-exhibition-tour Concrete Escort I, II, III on March 22 and April 12. The New York–based Japanese performance artist gathers painters, poets, and curators to address Gutai in the present day. You’ll be escorted throughout the galleries of the museum—becoming an active participant in the power and dynamic between women and men; singularity and plurality; performance and painting. Liberate yourself in the New Year—reestablish your relationship to works of art on a concrete and primal level. See this exhibition using the 360-degree perspective, then launch out onto 5th Avenue and challenge the currents of our constructed reality.