Japan’s one-time rebellious artistic vanguard

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

The term “art group” barely does justice to the collective of artists in postwar Japan known as Gutai. Founded in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara, the group renegotiated the borders of art, incorporating performance, installation and even the natural environment into their creations.

Bringing together more than 150 artworks, the National Art Center (NACT) is currently holding “Gutai: The Spirit of an Era,” Tokyo’s first major retrospective of the art movement. Even though in recent decades, the group has garnered interest and acclaim in the Kansai region of Japan where the movement started as well as abroad, Tokyo has, surprisingly, only seen a few small-scale shows.

But then, Gutai always had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the nation’s capital. While recognizing the importance of making a name for itself in the metropolis (it held its first exhibition under the Gutai banner there in late 1955) it chose to first showcase its work not only far from city, but also in the open air rather than in a typical white-cube gallery. Installations from this event, “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Burning Sun,” held in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, are featured early on in this NACT show.

While interactive works such as Fujiko Shiraga’s “White Board” (1955) anticipate environmental art and involve the viewer (or user, we could say) in a new relationship with the natural world, others seem to pose a challenge to nature, such as “Work (nail)” by Sadamasa Motonaga — two vertical wooden poles studded with nails like a spiky Christmas tree.

The group also attempted to bring art to life on the stage. Footage of performances held in 1957 shows the group using fantastic costumes, mechanical devices and other props to create a multi-dimensional experience as artistic as it was theatrical.

The group’s strategically-minded leader, Yoshihara, had first attempted to launch the group into public, and even global, consciousness by introducing the members’ artworks through a journal, which was simply titled Gutai. The first issue was published early in 1955 and Yoshihara’s tactics were vindicated when, in 1957, the journal landed in the hands of French art critic and sometime-dealer Michel Tapie.

Tapie was a champion of Art Informel (a kind of European abstract expressionism)who saw an affinity with the Japanese artists’ concerns and his own. As soon as he took up the Gutai cause in Europe, the group’s previously wide-ranging activities became focused solely on producing paintings that could be transported and sold abroad. Tapie was attracted to the materiality of these works, which stretched the definition of “painting” from the usual oil on canvas to include crayon on cotton, cement on board, even stone and sand on plywood.

Together with the group’s name — “gutai” means “concrete” — this materiality could reasonably suggest a concern with the physical over the spiritual. But Yoshihara was equally interested in matters of the soul and artists’ individual “creative spirit.” He encouraged colleagues to try out ideas never attempted before and to create personal styles. This manifested in many differences between, say, the restrained effect of Fujiko Shiraga’s torn and then repaired white sheets of paper and the chaos of the ravaged black and red surface of Saburo Murakami’s “Work” from 1957, which likely struck a note with those for whom the destruction of World War II was still fresh in their minds.

As Japan rebuilt itself and became increasingly prosperous, the concerns of the times changed. The association with Tapie and Art Informel had helped spread Gutai’s reputation, particularly across Europe, but many members, including Yoshihara, began to feel constricted. In 1965, Gutai made a clean break by recruiting a stable of new members and branching out in new directions.

Where previous exhibitions on Gutai have centered on its pioneering early and mid-periods, considering later work to be evidence of the group’s decline, “Gutai: The Spirit of an Era” includes dozens of those neglected installations, sculptures, objects, machines and paintings. The paintings — typified by a move away from the hot-headed expressionism of earlier works toward a cooler aesthetic, intersecting at times with the concerns of optical and pop art) — can seem like that of a different art group entirely.

The smoother surfaces and the increased use of synthetic paints were evidence not of a group losing their way but of a movement responding to a new zeitgeist and moving on. This new energy, however, was not to last forever. A few years after what is considered the group’s grand finale at the Expo70 in Osaka, Gutai split up following Yoshihara’s sudden death in 1972.

We have 10 pairs of tickets to give away for this exhibition, see Ticket Giveaway for details. “Gutai: The Spirit of an Era” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till Sept. 10; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp.