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)
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
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, 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.
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…