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Sneak preview of Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim

The new show at the Guggenheim explores post-WWII Japanese artist collective Gutai, whose aesthetic invites kid-friendly creativity and play.

  • Photograph: Lee Magill

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

  • Photograph: Lee Magill

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

  • Photograph: Lee Magill

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

  • Photograph: Lee Magill

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

  • Photograph: Lee Magill

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

  • Photograph: Lee Magill

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

    "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

Photograph: Lee Magill

"Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

"Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

When it comes to NYC museums, spring is already here. At least that what it feels like to us, given the bounty of stellar new museum exhibits opening these days. Joining the extraordinary "Gravity and Grace" show at the Brooklyn Museum and the high-tech Avatar exhibit at Liberty Science Center is "Gutai: Splendid Playground," a fascinating look at the post-WWII Japanese art collective Gutai—and the first Gutai exhibit in North America—opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Friday, February 15. The original collective lasted 18 years, working in a town called Ashiya from 1954 to 1972. Though its artists had divergent interests and proclivities, all shared the notion that "concreteness"—actually grappling with physical matter in a creative way—was the only way humanity had to go forward after the atrocities of war of the recent past and the looming challenges of the Atomic Age and rampant consumerism, in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively.


If this sounds a bit like the "action painting" aesthetic of certain Abstract Expressionists, it's no coincidence. The group was fascinated by Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, and he, it turns out, was influenced by Gutai as well after picking up some of their publications. Both movements share the notion that process trumps the final product, and that the act of making (or making by destroying) is the only authentic means of expression left.


Greeting viewers in the Guggenheim Rotunda is the low-tech but ethereal Work: (Water), artist Sadamasa Motonaga's 2011 re-creation of a work he initially created in 1956. Attenuated plastic sheaths containing different colored water are suspended from one side of the rotunda to the other (in the original work they were strung between trees), and the work changes completely even with a few steps. In fact, most of the artwork on view is fresh and alive, in no small part because it elicits dialogue and interaction. Jiro Yoshihara's Please Draw Freely, on the floor of the rotunda, is a work-in-progress: All visitors are welcome to add their expressions to the aggregrate drawing. Similarly, Work: Red Cube, one level up, is a suspended red Plexiglas box you have to enter to understand; once you've entered it, you've essentially become part of the work itself—exactly as the artist intended.


On Saturday, February 16, two Gutai artists, Matsutani Takesada and Horio Sadaharu, will take families (with kids ages 4 to 12) on a special tour of the exhibit, then lead them in an art-making session with a Gutai bent (11am–1:30pm; $30 per family). And that makes sense, because the collective saw life itself as a "splendid playground," a place that has meaning only if you connect with the world around you and engage, like children, in some serious play.


"Gutai: Splendid Playground" is on view from February 15 to May 8 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.



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