“Traces: Body and Idea in Contemporary Art,” a new exhibition showing at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (soon to be seen in Tokyo) fleshes out what has been distinctive in art since the postwar ’50s right up to recent times.

Grouping together 125 works, half by Japanese artists and half by a diverse American and European contingent, the story begins with artists’ preoccupation after World War II with the surface they painted on.

In Shimamoto Shozo’s abstract painting “Work,” thick impacted paint is cracked and gives way to reveal the gallery wall behind. Lee U Fan’s “Cut Up” had the artist gouging into a wooden surface. Yoshida Toshio scorched pretty patterns into his “SEP.” These expressions of anxiety quickly escalated and Yves Klein set to work with a giant blow torch for his “Peinture feu sans titre.”

The attack on painting was violent. Where Lucio Fontana would knife into his series of monochrome paintings called “Spatial Concept,” Willem de Kooning would slash his canvases with aggressive brush-strokes. Shinohara Ushio tacked a canvas to a wall, donned boxing gloves he then dipped in paint, and proceeded to belt the hell out of it. “Boxing Painting” was the dramatic confrontation with the canvas. Shimamoto Shozo thought it sufficient to spread his canvas on the ground and throw paint at its center for his “1961-1,” but Shiraga Kazuo went a step further and painted large abstract works with his feet. Yves Klein covered naked models in paint for his “Anthropometry” series and had them imprint their body shapes on canvases set on the floor.

Painting was taking place in a raw state, opening up to hitherto unthought-of possibilities for creation.

All this was serious stuff. The body and its movements were intensely intimate with the canvas and painting materials, and this stemmed from a sincere desire for authenticity. Painting had taken quite a battering, and a new target was in order: It was the body. This new attack was no less violent.

Ana Mendieta’s “Untitled (Rape Scene)” photographically documents a performance she staged for some guests she had invited back to her home. When the guests arrived, they found the artist naked from the waist down, bent down over a table with her hands tied down and blood spattered all about. Vito Acconci’s “Trade Mark” shows the artist biting his leg and with a closeup of the resulting toothy scar. Marina Abramovic’s short video “Thomas Lips” has the artist carving a star design into the flesh around her navel. The star pattern emerges from the surfacing blood.

With painting in tatters and the body incapacitated, art started to lighten up somewhat. It did so through performances and humor and sometimes with jokes that weren’t all that funny. Performance art took off in the late ’60s in American art, but it began earlier in Japan with the Gutai group. Murakami Saburo, in his “Entrance” performances, simply glued paper to wooden frames, positioned these over the doorways to galleries and burst through the paper to the applause of gallery-goers.

Trivial ideas assumed monumental significance. Robert Smithson tipped a barrel of glue down a muddy slope. “Glue Pour” is the series of photographs that records the sludgy descent. Nomura Hitoshi photographed and timed blocks of dry ice disappearing.

Nor did Andy Warhol think that art had to be all that serious or high-minded. Superficially, his “Piss Painting” (1978), looks like an Abstract Expressionist work. And apparently that really is his urine up there on the wall. So you might find yourself backing up a bit from his “Cum Painting” (1978). Art could be juvenile as well as serious.

Marks or traces left behind by dismayingly ordinary objects became fascinating for some artists. Mel Bochner decided to measure the shadow of an A-frame ladder illuminated on a gallery wall. Actually, he had museum curators doing it, as the artwork itself is just a set of instructions that gallery officials follow to bring the work into being. Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage recorded the passage of a single tire tread in black paint as it rolled over strips of paper. Tanaka Atsuko in “Round on Sand” scratched circular patterns into the beach at the tide line.

This exhibition is concerned with a particular strand of art that began mid-century with action painting. Some artists interpreted that kind of painting in a radical and sometimes destructive way, and this spilled over into ideas about the “body,” which became a central focus for another trend in postwar art. After getting masochistic, there didn’t seem much else to do to the body anymore, so the mentality shifted to conceptual art, and to increasingly elastic art forms, definitions and meanings, which are well represented as the exhibition’s thematic undercurrents.

This show is divided into eight themes, but two would have been sufficient: “Intensity” and “Banality” in equal parts.

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