“To today’s consciousness, the art of the past, which on the whole presents an alluring appearance, seems fraudulent.” So wrote Jiro Yoshihara at the beginning of the Gutai Art Manifesto, issued in 1956. Yoshihara, a Japanese artist and impresario who had founded the Gutai Art Association near Osaka in 1955, went on to add, “Let us bid farewell to the hoaxes piled up on the altars and palaces, the drawing rooms and the antique shops.” Calling for a radical assault by artists on the monolithic mindset of Japan’s wartime totalitarianism, the charismatic Yoshihara established Gutai as the most important expression of Japanese art during the postwar period.
Co-curated by Ming Tiampo and the Guggenheim’s Asian-art specialist, Alexandra Munroe, “Gutai: Splendid Playground” is the first exhibition in America to survey this unwieldy movement. On tap are more than 100 objects that look as if they were created yesterday—paintings, sculptures, kinetic artworks, interactive installations, performances, films. With an eye toward providing this material a historical context while making it seem fresh and new, the curators have enlarged the videos and photographs documenting the more ephemeral pieces, giving them a visual weight equal to the paintings and sculptures on view.
From the moment you step into the Guggenheim’s rotunda, you are treated to what can only be described as the Gutai experience. Sadamasa Motonaga’s Work (Water) from 1956 soars overhead, a network of clear, narrow polyethylene bags, slung at varying levels across the atrium like so many hammocks, supporting the weight of brightly colored pockets of water. This meditation on light and space is both beautiful and fascinating to behold. A walk up the ramp reveals a film of its original installation, hanging from trees in a public park. Most of the other contributions to “Splendid Playground” equally defy categorization. Kazuo Shiraga, a star of Gutai, is represnted by a photo mural of him “wrestling” mud in a performance piece from 1955, and a grisly abstract painting, Wild Boar Hunting II (1963), incorporating a dead boar’s hide as well as stray bullets.
When Gutai artists first exhibited in the United States, at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1958, their paintings were dismissed as derivative of Abstract Expressionism. What is obvious now is that these artists were ahead of their time: They made the transient act of creation just as significant as its result. They swung from ropes to paint with pigments smeared on their feet, or ran toy cars that dribbled colors. Atsuko Tanaka, a formidable female presence in the group, created her dazzling, Christmas-tree-like Electric Dress (1956) to wear in performances. A short video from 1968 depicts her on a beach creating a similarly of-the-moment piece, drawing circles in the sand as waves come up to wash them away.
It was Yoshihara’s grand vision that Gutai be considered an international movement, and he spread word of their exhibitions through the Gutai Journal, which was mailed to artists, critics and curators in Europe and the U.S. (one was found among Jackson Pollock’s papers.) There is certainly no doubt that Gutai artists were heavily influenced by what was going on in America and Europe at the time. But in certain respects, they leapfrogged their sources—which explains why many of these half-century-old works seem startlingly contemporary, anticipating, for example, what we call relational aesthetics today.
By the late 1960s, Gutai artists began to delve into the impact of technology on art, with such works as Minoru Yoshida’s motorized Bisexual Flower (1969), a fluorescent-lit sculpture featuring cut-out Plexiglas shapes reminiscent of sea horses. Their heads bob up and down as water fills and then empties out of the small spherical tanks that form their bodies. The piece, shown at Osaka’s Expo ’70 world’s fair, resembles nothing so much as a futuristic, nautically themed carousel. Senkichiro Nasaka’s 50-foot-long network of aluminum pipes, meanwhile, emits orchestral sounds composed for the Guggenheim exhibit by Vance Stevenson.
Although MoMA’s current show, “Tokyo 1955–1970,” covers more historical ground, “Gutai: Splendid Playground” makes a better case for the art itself. The paintings burst with energy, while vintage footage brings back to life the vitality of the happenings staged by the collective, which lasted for nearly 20 years. For anyone who still disregards non-Western approaches to modernism, or is unfamiliar with Japanese art before Takashi Murakami’s anime-fueled pop, this show will come as a true revelation.—Barbara Pollack