5.3.13 — Late to the Party?
It could have left a stale, tepid rehash of Abstract Expressionist New York. (Remember the scathing tone with which critics once pronounced Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler “second generation”?) It could have meant a subtle revisioning of western art through eastern eyes, much as the Guggenheim in 2009 pronounced a view in the opposite direction “The Third Mind.” It could have imbued abstraction’s splashes, drips, and tears with echoes of devastation and rebuilding.
Now the Guggenheim finds all three, but something else as well. The Gutai Art Association, founded in a town near Osaka in 1954, had the advantage of its distance from both Tokyo and the west. It could start relatively fresh—fresh enough to see one change after another in western art and to relish the turmoil. Its collective activities parallel not just painting, but Fluxus, Black Mountain, Yves Klein, and the happenings of the 1960s still to come.
In this mad scramble of places, times, and movements, one spends most of the show in the 1950s while “Somebody to Love” plays from across the ramp. Gutai came late, but it partied like there was no tomorrow.
To be sure, the group started with Jackson Pollock. Its publication featured Pollock’s spread in Life magazine, and it invited Life to come document it as well. When the founder, Yoshihara Jirō, set out a chalkboard with the invitation to “draw freely,” he was collectivizing Abstract Expressionism. And visitors have responded by spilling color onto the wooden frame and support. Jirō bows to tradition, too, as with a calligraphic black painting broken by a white impasto circle. It is hard not also to think of destruction after a bomb.
Gutai’s manifestos, though, have almost no trace of deference, tradition, or darkness. They speak to “today’s consciousness” and “a new autonomous space for pure creativity.” Some projects reached out to children. “Gutai: Splendid Playground,” through May 8, invites one to step inside Yamazaki Tsuruko’s red vinyl cube from its outdoor exhibition of 1955. It uses video to track the making of art right down to The Drama of Man and Matter in 1970. One can hardly complain if the museum’s crowds and their cell phones ruin the contemplative and collective spirit.
Maybe one has to ruin the spirit in order to appreciate it. The installation runs chronologically, while each floor has a nominal theme such as “play” and “performance.” Yet something serious underlies the glib optimism and helps connect the movement’s competing versions of eastern and western art. Its name means concreteness, and it spoke from the beginning of not separating spirit and matter. Where conceptual art often leaves a physical or documentary record, it can make a point instead of its own vanishing, like the invitation from Yoko Ono to cut away her dress. Although Mukai Shūji burned all his work in 1961, Shiraga Kazuo’s mud wrestling left a work of art.
So did Yoshida Toshio’s burns in a panel, Tanak Atsuko’s sand drawing, Montonaga Sadamasa’s nails coming out of a pillar, Shiraga Fukiko’s bullet holes, Uemae Chiyū’s glue and sawdust, Shimamoto Shōzō’s hurled bottles of paint, or Murikami Saburō’s passing right through the canvas—and the leftover unsettles the closure of a performance just as deconstruction would predict. The colors and compositions can seem as heavy as any second generation’s, much like Tachisme in France and Arte Povera in Italy—but then the first does derive from a word for stain, and the latter tore apart the work of art.
By the end, the movement left more shiny objects and bright lights, looking quainter and quainter on successive visits, but it partied hardest long before psychedelia. The Guggenheim gives more weight than expected to the performance, while Hauser & Wirth recently, through last October 27, gave more weight to polished works of art. That makes sense, given the priorities of museum revisionism and gallery sales, but one needs them both. For Gutai, the spirit requires a concrete remainder.
Note: I have added this as a postscript to a longer recent review of “Tokyo: A New Avant-Garde” at the Museum of Modern Art, to fill out my latest upload. That show had room for Gutai, the subject an an earlier museum retrospective and review, and this fills out the picture.
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