Just a decade after its crushing defeat in World War II, Japan was on its way to becoming an economic superpower, with Tokyo at the center. By the mid-1950s, Japan s capital had a new skyline, a new subway system, and a burgeoning art scene packed with artists and groups determined to question the monolithic mind-set held over from the conflict, as well as the rabid materialism of the postwar period. While it isn t easy to sum up this renaissance in a single survey, MoMA' s "Tokyo 1955–1970" succeeds in conveying the era s sheer abundance of creativity, if not the excitement that these artists generated when their work was first displayed. Though curator Doryun Chong is hindered by limitations of space and a reliance on art-related ephemera, he s definitely given his best shot.
The show begins with the formative years, when artists concentrated on figurative painting with a dose of surrealism none more successfully than Ikeda Tatsuo, whose emotive ink drawings express the deeply felt anguish of the atomic age. Soon after, the scene gave birth to a number of experimental collectives that challenged artistic convention by bringing their practice out of the galleries and into the public realm.
Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) included musicians as well as artists, leading to innovative dance performances and surrealistic films, such as Matsumoto Toshio's Bicycle in Dream (1955). Eight years later, a trio of provocateurs who ( called themselves Hi Red Center created happenings, such as one event in which an audience that included Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono was subjected to outrageous physical examinations all, allegedly, to create wearable fallout shelters. Contributions by another important movement, Tokyo Fluxus, have been jammed into a corner vitrine, where Yoko Ono s sound piece, Cough, can be heard. Unfortunately, such key performances or happenings can ( only be suggested, given the limited amount of documentation that ( has survived.
Gutai, the best known movement to have emerged during these years, is represented by just a few offerings, including a 1958 abstraction by Shiraga Kazuo, which he created by hanging from a rope and painting with his feet. It s virile and exciting, and predates Yves Klein's use of nude models as living brushes by several years. This paucity is excusable, however, since the Guggenheim is mounting a full-scale Gutai retrospective in February. Another movement receiving overdue attention here is Mono-ha, whose artists combined natural and industrial materials to make sculptures intended to induce certain states of meditation provided that viewers were willing to devote the necessary amount of attention. Here again, however, too many of the objects, including Lee Ufan's 1969 arrangement of three boulders connected by a measuring tape, are shoved together in ways that undermine the power of the art.
Individual efforts fair slightly better in a section devoted to the Yomiuri Independent exhibition, an annual nonjuried event that attracted the most in-your-face actions and artworks. Here, the influence of Robert Rauschenberg, who visited Japan in the early 1960s, is notably apparent. Akasegawa Genpei borrows Rauschenberg s idea of hanging a mattress on the wall to fashion a very vaginal-looking bed made from inner tubes, with a hubcap as a pillow. Meanwhile, Kudo Tetsumi goes way beyond American Pop Art with his Philosophy of Impotence. In it, hundreds of black phallic spools hang from net strung overhead, while two columns made up of the same penile forms rise from the floor to seemingly ejaculate pictures from magazines including one of a Jackson Pollock painting and another of a body builder. The installation gives the proceedings a sorely needed centerpiece to hold all of its tangents together.
A final section features posters and graphic design from the 1960s, as well as photography. Don't miss images by Daido Moriyama and Hosoe Eikoh that fairly bristle with the turbulence of Tokyo at this time. Also, catch Matsumoto Toshio's 1968 film, For the Damaged Right Eye, which is packed with details ( of street life, from miniskirts to police brutality.
What the exhibit really could have used, however, is historical background about Japan during these years. Though the catalog includes some information, there s little within the show itself that would tell you about Japanese protests against U.S. atomic testing, for instance, or the student rebellions of the 1960s.
Perhaps that would have made this survey too didactic. Nevertheless, "Tokyo 1955–1970" offers a necessary service: It teaches us about the development of modernism on the other side of the world and demonstrates quite clearly that New York wasn t the world s only art capital.