New MoMA show promises to put Tokyo, and Japan, on the world art map

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Local commentators have long bemoaned Japanese art historians’ apparent inability to contextualize their country’s artistic output within the global art-history narrative. Thank goodness for MoMA.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art will from Nov. 18 host a large exhibition devoted to the artistic ferment that occurred in Tokyo between 1955 and 1970. And, although the focus of the show sounds narrow, what seems likely to set it apart from anything seen in recent years in Japan will be a curatorial perspective that encompasses the world.

“Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” will bring together more than 300 works by painters such as Hiroshi Nakamura, conceptual artists such as Yoko Ono and Atsuko Tanaka, street-savvy photographers Daido Moriyama, Shomei Tomatsu and Eikoh Hosoe, the graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo, and Metabolist architects such as Kenzo Tange, Kisho Kurokawa and Arata Isozaki.

“I really wanted to focus on Tokyo as a city as it undergoes a transformation in the ’60s and ’70s and how it became an incubator for all the creative activities that were happening there,” explained exhibition curator Doryun Chong at a press conference held last week at the Tokyo office of The Japan Foundation, which is co-organizing the show.

Chong added that he hoped the show would help Japan’s “understudied” capital achieve recognition as “one of the great metropolises and cultural centers” — alongside New York, Paris, London and Berlin.

Still, the most refreshing part of Chong’s presentation was the way his descriptions of artworks were laced with references to the larger narrative of world art.

To wit, Taro Okamoto’s famed 1950 painting “Law of the Jungle” would be included because it symbolized the bridge from Japan’s postwar artists back through the prewar period to European Surrealism.

The experimental photography of Shozo Kitadai, a member of 1950s collective Jikken Kobo, would be included as it was an attempt to “deal with the legacies of the Bauhaus and Constructivism.”

And so on.

It seems likely that Japan’s homegrown historians would be more knowledgeable of their country’s art than outsiders such as Chong (one journalist pointed out that his presentation lacked major revelations), yet it’s also true that few homegrown experts would “deign” to describe such key Japanese artists in single-sentence allusions to international movements.

And yet, Chong’s approach is obviously the one favored by the esteemed MoMA, which is, after all, the institution where the art historian Alfred H. Barr, Jr. originally delineated the movements that constituted modern art. It would seem wise for Japan’s art historians to take note.

The key thesis of Chong’s exhibition will be that in postwar Tokyo there was a prevalence of artistic expression that involved the human body. That seems reasonable enough — given the fact that even domestic historians are wont to hold up the likes of Eikoh Hosoe’s intensely physical photographs of butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno and author Yukio Mishima as iconic images of the period. But where Chong’s approach differs is in the explanation.

Why did the body feature in art during this time? He only gave one clear answer: It was “part of the emergence of body and performance art across the world.”

“Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” will run at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from Nov.18-Feb. 25, 2013. For more information, visit www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1242.