Japan’s Gutai artists celebrated like never before

by Bronwyn Mahoney

Special To The Japan Times

“Do what no one has done before,” was the rallying cry that Jiro Yoshihara, founder of the postwar Japanese art group the Gutai Art Association, demanded of his fellow members.

A work by one of the group’s important painters, Kazuo Shiraga, fulfilled the edict last week, selling at auction on June 4 for €1,665,500 (¥215,965,000) — more than twice its estimated price — and breaking the artist’s previous auction record, set shortly after his death in 2008.

Painted in 1961, “Chiretsusei Katsusemba,” a canvas thick with rich, dark red and blue paint, applied with the artist’s body and carrying traces of his movements, was offered by Christie’s Paris as part of a group of works including that of Gutai artists from the collection of Parisian gallerist Rodolphe Stadler.

Gutai, meaning “embodiment” or “concreteness” (depending on the translation), was started by Yoshihara in Osaka in 1954, and he remained the group’s nucleus until his sudden death in 1972. It was he who decided who was included in the group — and who was out — and a list of members was included in the group’s innovative journal. The association suffered the infighting and difficulties common to such groups, but during the 18 years of Gutai’s existence, around 59 artists were members at one time or another.

Their work was incredibly diverse. The thing that linked them was that desire to do something never before done: painting with the body instead of brushes, interactive art — such as selling paintings from a vending machine that actually hid the artist inside — and multimedia, kinetic, and sound works. There was no aesthetic link, rather the thread was in the approach to art and materials.

Yoshihara, the son of an Osaka industrialist, published the Gutai Manifesto in 1956, a year after the Swiss-born Stadler, also the son of an industrialist, opened his gallery at 51 Rue de Seine.

Stadler was to become one of the Gutai group’s most important supporters, working closely with renowned French critic Michel Tapié, who, according to Christie’s catalogue for the June 4 sale, created the gallery’s aesthetic line and the specific identity for the exhibitions. Stadler described their relationship as a shared adventure, with Tapié acting as a kind of talent scout for the gallery.

Tapié had long been interested in art that broke away from precise formal concerns, that which challenged painting. According to Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Junior Specialist Paul Nyzam, Tapié first heard of the Gutai from Japanese artists living in Paris in the 1950s, including Toshimitsu Imai (whose two paintings in this recent auction also found buyers and solid prices). Tapié traveled to Japan in 1957 with the French abstract artist Georges Mathieu to investigate, meeting Yoshihara and other Gutai artists. The next year Tapié presented a lecture titled “What is New Art,” and as Ming Tiampo explains in her book “Gutai: Decentering Modernism,” 11 works were presented during the lecture, including Shiraga’s.

A year later, Stadler first showed Shiraga’s work in a 1959 group show, and in 1962 held the artist’s first solo show outside Japan. As Stadler himself said, “My role was not to exhibit painters who had already proved themselves. I saw myself even less in the role of impresario for the better known. It may be (overly) conceited, but I like to discover things for myself and introduce them, even if it takes time.”

Gutai was exactly what Stadler was looking for, artists working outside the academic tradition, outside of the center. Osaka, not Tokyo. Nyzam says Stadler’s collection really epitomizes this approach, with a focus on the body’s relation to the material, from the earliest works such as the 1961 Shigara to the later documentary photos of performances by artists such as Gina Pane. The collection, he says, demonstrates “a great eye, reflecting the spirit of the time and the spirit of the gallerist who, in a kind of way, was very unique at this time.”

In the “Gutai Manifesto,” Yoshihara notes that Shiraga did not wish to make his unorthodox methods public, that he “had merely found the method which enabled him to confront and unite the material he had chosen with his own spiritual dynamics.” Shiraga tried many different approaches: painting with his feet, with his entire body, hanging from the ceiling. But it was a method that resonated with the aims Yoshihara set forth of directly experiencing the material.

Postwar Japan moved from a place of incredible destruction to the second strongest economy in the world, and Gutai accompanied this rapid economic growth. By the time of its inclusion in the seminal Expo ’70, the Gutai group had created a worldwide network of likeminded artists, focused ideas on the environment, performance and materials, and utilized the importance of publication with its journal.

As Alexandra Munroe, cocurator of the recently closed Guggenheim exhibition “Gutai: Splendid Playground,” explains in a video on the exhibition website, it was a part of art history, not an addendum to a canon that had been focused solely on the West. Instead, it was “a significant agent to that avant-garde.” Gutai was a fundamental influence on its contemporaries and later artists and groups: Jackson Pollock owned a copy of the second issue of the Gutai journal, the father of “Happenings” Allan Kaprow cited it as an influence, and its mark is strong on the work of the Fluxus artists.

In the Christie’s catalogue, Stadler’s friend Alain Mousseigne describes the gallerist as a prescient and determined man who played “a fundamental role in the historic developments and directions” that art took in the second half of the 20th century. The recognition being afforded to the work of the Gutai artists now is changing how art history is written.

As Nyzam notes, “The market is changing. … (There was) the big exhibition in New York around Gutai and museums are looking more closely to these artists. Prices are getting much higher than they were just three or four years ago, which is a good sign.” The works in the Stadler collection are evidence of not only new approaches to art, but of new currents in the art world. The links and friendships that made the exhibition of Japanese artists in 1960s Paris possible were a forerunner of today’s global art world.