CAA Interlude 2: Guggenheim Gutai

I’d say even among art people I know more than most (who aren’t Asian art specialists) about the postwar Japanese movement Gutai. A college art history professor included it as part of the narrative of “modernism and the neo-avant-gardes,” as the class was called; and last year I attended a symposium at Harvard that served as a workshop for the exhibition now on view at the Guggenheim, Gutai: Splendid Playground.

The opening reception of CAA was held at the Guggenheim and offered a preview of the show, but I opted out of this in favor of dinner with my family. I wasn’t sure I’d get another chance while I was there, and thought I would have to make a special trip back to the city before it closed, but I ended up with a friend in town on Saturday afternoon and enough time for us to go on an art adventure.

To quote the Guggenheim’s description, the members of the Gutai movement

explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an “international common ground” of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities.

The typical narrative has them inspired by the example of Jackson Pollock’s action painting, and while this may be true to a degree, scholars no longer want to give all the credit to western influence, citing the movement as growing out of/reacting against previous Japanese art and the postwar political climate. Nonetheless, a certain creative misreading of Pollock can be useful to explain their modus operandi, just as it can be used to explain Helen Frankenthaler’s stain technique or Allan Kaprow’s happenings.

Often more interested in chance processes and performative actions than final products, Gutai artists made paintings with their feet, remote-controlled cars, vibrators, glass bottles of paint thrown and smashed on the canvas. They made works of art by wrestling with mud and smashing through paper screens. Several of their key exhibitions took place outdoors or in other found spaces, where atmospheric and ephemeral artworks required the viewers’ participation to be activated.

Gutai 2nd Outdoor Exhibition, Ashiya Park (1956)

Gutai 2nd Outdoor Exhibition, Ashiya Park (1956)

Many of their artistic activities were somewhat violent in nature–several labels in the Guggenheim mention cuts, bruises and concussions sustained by the artists–thereby signaling a break with the past, one that so recently included two atomic bombs. But the movement maintained an overall playful tone, one that the Guggenheim generally conveys well, and not just with the exhibition title.

You enter the rotunda to a recreation of Motonaga Sadamasa’s Work (Water), 1956.* Made of polyethylene tubes filled with colored water, the original work was hung from trees in one of the first Gutai exhibitions, which took place outside. Though this same work hung in the rotunda does set the right tone for the show, I found myself wishing it was as enchanting as it must have been outside, with the sunlight gleaming through. Similarly with Yamazaki Tsuruko’s Work (Red Cube), 1956: stepping inside this red canvas cube with the sunlight lighting up the space and the top open to the sky must have been quite an experience; to do so in the gallery was a big shrug.

Motonaga Sadamasa, Work (Water), 1956, recreated for the Guggenheim

Motonaga Sadamasa, Work (Water), 1956, recreated for the Guggenheim

This ended up being a common theme, in which the museum-ification of the work got in the way of its original, participatory and playful intent. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell), 1955, is a network of bells installed throughout the gallery, designed to go off when the museum visitor chooses to press the button; but the museum had guards standing over the button, only allowing it to be pushed once every 40 minutes, so as not to irritate visitors. Gutai Card Box, “an interactive vending machine that dispenses original artworks in the form of hand-painted cards,” was originally created in 1962 and is reactivated here with artworks made by the surviving Gutai artists, and when those run out, by other contemporary artists. Unfortunately, it’s only in operation during specific hours on Mondays and Fridays. Yoshida Minoru’s Bisexual Flower, 1969, is I believe contained within a giant white inflatable environment; I can only guess, because visitors weren’t being let in to see it. (The review in the New York Times, by the way, mentions all these works without their museum-imposed interruptions. Clearly reviewers get the preferential experience.)

Of course it is challenging to represent in a museum context ephemeral works and performances that took place many years ago, and the museum does so to varying degrees of success. A long composite image of Murakami Saburo smashing through paper screens perfectly captures the movement and brings the action back to life, whereas Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud, 1955, represented in some smaller photos and one large one tucked away in an ill-traversed corner, remained static–a historical fragment rather than a present artwork.

I remember Caroline Jones, an art history professor at MIT, lamenting at the symposium that the exhibition couldn’t give her Tanaka Atsuko in her electric dress; true, but to see it in person even on a mannequin, in color and periodically lit up rather than in a black and white photo, was well worth it.

Tanaka Atsuko wearing Electric Dress (1956) at 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition

Tanaka Atsuko wearing Electric Dress (1956) at 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition

Tanaka Atsuko, Electric Dress, 1956 (refabricated 1986)

Tanaka Atsuko, Electric Dress, 1956 (refabricated 1986)









So too were the paintings, which were quite stunning to behold. Though at times the product mattered little in comparison to the process, at others the artists were extremely interested in materiality, “the scream of matter itself” (the word Gutai means “concreteness”). The unusual production methods and materials show in the works’ presentation–juxtaposed areas of gloss and matte, fragments of glass, torn supports–enlivening the medium in ways that contemporary painters should take note of. The processes too were, when possible, represented with videos, on small monitors on the floor that pleasantly did not distract from the paintings themselves, for once more mesmerizing than the moving image.

Shiraga Kazuo, Wild Boar Hunting II, 1963. Oil, boar hide, and spent bullets on wood panel,

Shiraga Kazuo, Wild Boar Hunting II, 1963. Oil, boar hide, and spent bullets on wood panel.

A note on the wall texts: there’s always a struggle in museums, particularly when showing work that requires a lot of background in order for someone not versed in modern and contemporary art to understand, between making texts overly didactic or patronizing, or obscure and art historical/jargon-y. The Guggenheim did an excellent job explaining the concepts in a straightforward, understandable manner–accessible but not dumbed down.

Another note: that the website for this exhibition is very poorly designed and difficult to navigate; this compared especially to MoMA’s exhibition websites (like that for Inventing Abstraction), which are always stellar (despite how confusing their homepage is). Ann Temkin, a curator at MoMA, was speaking on a panel at CAA about curatorial work and how it’s changed. She mentioned the interesting fact that MoMA gets 3 million visitors at the museum each year, and 21 million on their website. As such, she said the website can’t just be the “5%” of the workload that gets done after the exhibition and catalogue are taken care of. Unfortunately, that is the way my museum has been operating. Though we are lucky to be at college with an IT department that can do web development for us, they’re swamped and so are we, and “after the fact” is usually the way exhibition websites get treated, if at all. We certainly can’t continue on like that, and we’re trying to work on it, among a million other things.

*I have done names as the Guggenheim did them: in the Japanese style, with the family name first.

Next up (hopefully by late Saturday or Sunday), Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan Library…

CAA Interlude 1: MoMA Abstraction

There are SO MANY amazing shows in New York right now; it was stressful trying to fit in the conference, my family and friends, and just the tip of the iceberg of the amazing art on view, but I managed to squeeze in my top priorities. Since it was a block from the conference hotel, I started at MoMA, with the show Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.

Going into a much-discussed, much-reviewed show, one generally has an impression going in, a consensus that has been established: the one I’d heard about this show was quite simply that there are many beautiful things to see. That was true, but of course there was more to it than that.

It began with a giant chart, a reworking of the famous flow chart made by the first MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the cover of a book on Cubism and Abstract Art, diagramming the relationships and influences between various avant-grade movements. The revised chart did away with the ossification of clearly defined movements, focusing instead on the myriad connections woven throughout an international network of artists, as well as writers and composers.


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The exhibition then uses these regionalisms as an organizing principle (though the transnational dialogue is never lost), divvying the artwork into niches by country, showing the distinctive styles in each and demonstrating that abstraction emerged simultaneously in multiple locations, like synchronous scientific discoveries. This international approach gives weight to players who have been previously marginalized by the canon, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Britain.

In addition to these intellectual revelations were a great many visual ones. Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when I glanced behind me, only to see in the next gallery a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s famous Monument to the Third International (complete with moving parts!), heretofore only known to me (and most others) through historic photographs.

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I’m a huge fan of the work of Piet Mondrian; the series of works used to represent his progression into abstraction and his mature style were not so inspiring, but a model of a stage set that he created for a friend’s never-produced play actually got my heart racing.

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One of the most visually stunning paintings was by Giacometti, known mostly for his sculpture. It was made up of clusters of thick flowery globs of paint and gold, the colors of a spring dress.


There were a great many other visual surprises I noted, but I won’t go on listing them here. Included were other arts similarly engaged in an increasing interest in “abstraction,” whatever that meant for their discipline: dance, music (though I wish this had been more audible), film.

The only thing that confused me was where/when the exhibition ended, and why. When is abstraction “done” being “invented”? This show may only be about abstraction’s advent, but the story goes on, through Jackson Pollock’s drips right up to minimalism’s cubes and beyond into conceptualism. Of course the show most focus in, but at a certain point the visitor is just deposited out of the exhibition, without a sense of a conclusion. What’s special about the year 1925? We don’t find out.

Next up, the post-war Japanese movement Gutai, at the Guggenheim…


This past week I attended my first College Art Association (CAA) conference, the largest professional gathering of artists and art historians IN THE WORLD ::echo::

Friends and coworkers told me how great it was–how engaging the panels are, how great a chance it is to reunite with everyone you know. So, of course, I found it disappointing.

Firstly, it is so huge, (and this particular hotel, the Hilton on 53rd St. and 6th Ave. in NYC, is set up in such a way) that you are not guaranteed to run into everyone you know. There are people I know were there who I would not have seen if we had not set up a specific meeting, especially if we were unlikely to be interested in the same panels. I can only guess that people I hoped to see but didn’t may very well have been there, and that next time I will have to reach out to them in advance. (Nonetheless, I did have some great grad school reunions, and connected with fellow undergrad alums in the field who I hadn’t known before.)

Nor did I find it as intellectually-stimulating as I had hoped, particularly as I have been craving the kind of mental challenge I experienced in grad school. The panels I ended up attending fell generally into two camps:

1) the practical/museological, focused on either academic art museums or curatorial careers

2) the art historical/scholarly – and for these I mostly went to panels about photography, as I am organizing a show on surrealist photography but have little background in it

Panels in the first category were generally productive, even if a lot of the ideas were ones I was already familiar with. One panel provided excellent examples and ideas for ways to promote cross-discipline cooperation with the college museum, whereas another stuck to a broader discussion of the academic art museum, in which the conclusions seemed quite self-evident–a proverbial preaching to the choir.

Panels in the latter category, however, could be a bit of a drag. As I told one (rather rude) woman at a bar who asked why I would study boring (!!!) art and art history: “art and art history are interesting; art historians are boring.” To be more accruate, I should have said that they can be boring, but that would not have been as snappy a response.

One panel on photography jammed six–six!!!–presenters into one hour-and-a-half session, demonstrating how art historians have no conception of reality when it comes to human attention span. Initially I found these talks interesting, but by the last presenter I was ready to bolt, which then tainted my reception, and ruined my retention, of even the earlier presentations.

Some speakers take their full twenty minutes to explain a point that could be summed up and easily understood in one sentence. Others take meandering strolls through many theoretical frameworks and disparate examples (from daguerrotypes to Blade Runner–in one talk), leaving the listener perhaps intrigued, potentially confused, and likely ignorant of what the point was in the first place.

There were of course exceptions. I believe the single best talk I went to was by Caitlin Condell, curatorial assistant at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. It was focused but intriguing, exactly as a good presentation should be. Zeroing in on Man Ray’s Compass, an object consisting of a gun hanging from a magnet, and its presentation in three photographs over the course of a few years, Condell explored the tension between the object and the photograph of the object as artwork, the lost history of this particular artifact, and a reconsideration of Man Ray’s relationship to photography.

Generally though, I did not find the intellectual stimulation I was craving–at the panels anyway. I have been finding it in the books I’ve been reading and the exhibitions I attended while there (MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction, Guggenheim’s Splendid Playground  on the Japanese post-war movement Gutai, and Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan Library). Stay tuned this week for reviews on all of the above!

What I Saw at Portland First Friday, February Edition

1) Dorothy Schwartz at the Maine Jewish Museum, which I mentioned in my last post. A printmaker who studied under Leonard Baskin at Smith College (my alma mater), Deedee, as she’s known to most, uses a variety of printmaking techniques but is known best for her woodcuts. Though mostly work made since 2000, the show included a print and its woodblock from her college days, distinctly displaying the influence of her mentor. The most prominent series reused the same set of 4 smaller and 3 larger woodblocks, recombined in different iterations. The artist told us these were blown up details from a Baskin print (his last woodcut, I believe), and that she produced them for a memorial show just after his death. This is not to say this is exclusively what her work is. She uses a variety of other, sometimes experimental/multimedia/collage techniques. Another series I liked were prints that paid homage to self-portraits by historic women artists.

Deedee Schwartz










2) At the Rose Contemporary, “This Flat Earth,” a series of drawings and prints by both Maine and Madrid artists – the exhibition showed there before it showed here. Some pieces were charming, clever, and well made. Others looked a little dinky – especially as they weren’t framed.

3) At the Maine College of Art (MECA), several student installations. Of note was a little group show called The Other Side of Shade, “an interpretation and reflection of the issues of race, oppression, and power in America.” The work in this show had some interest, but it seemed like it could have been conceptually stronger. There has been much art and art theory made on this topic in the last 30 years; it’s as if the artists hadn’t really studied that history, as if they were the first to treat the topic. For example, one installation using painted Mammy figurines recalled Fred Wilson, but was not as conceptually rigorous. Had they looked to their precedents, the work could have been better developed and more thought-provoking.

4) At June Fiztpatrick, some MECA staff art – nice, but not much of note. My favorite was an artist who incorporated nails and ball bearings into small panels using layers of encaustic as an ethereal binder.

5) At Space Gallery, two things:

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A) Mike Kolster: itiswhatitis. Mike is a photo professor at Bowdoin and a close colleague; he’s been kind enough to host me for two studio visits, including one demonstrating his process. He uses a 19th-century wet-plate process called ambrotype, which produces a glass plate negative that, when put against a black background, reveals the positive image. In summers he turns his camera to landscape, but his winter work is more conceptual. This show consisted of two series interspersed with each other: one, images of plastic ribbon superimposed on each other; the other, colloquial sayings whose words have been broken up to make them appear abstract at first:
The phrases themselves are more sophisticated equivalents of er’s, um’s, and like’s–space fillers that don’t really mean anything at all. With the ribbons- the yellow things that come wrapped around boxes of paper – both seem to be examples of everyday detritus, the leftovers that sprinkle, and ultimately make up, our entire lives.

B) The best idea for an art fundraiser I’ve ever seen, and one I’d ultimately like to reuse if I had the chance:


Watching the artists at work, and comparing it to what they’d already produced, was great fun. I was of course also excited about the prospect of taking home an original piece of art for such a price; but money is a funny thing. Even though it was so cheap and there were things I liked, I couldn’t bring myself to part with the dough (I’m not that flush, you see) for anything I wasn’t completely in love with. Oh well.

6) At the Meg Perry Center for Peace and Justice, “Sensory Circus,” focusing on art that you could touch, hear, smell and taste, in addition to see. Cool idea; the works themselves were a bit sloppily executed. The small room was packed, which made maneuvering and experiencing the art difficult. In addition, it wasn’t really my scene. To be blunt about it, the place was full of hippies.