November 2nd, 2012

Gutai: The Spirit of an Era
The National Art Center, Tokyo
July 4 – September 10, 2012

Gutai Poster

Exhibition Poster

The title of the show, sounding like vague hyperbole, is surprisingly accurate. There is a great overall sense of an intense dialogue, and embodiment, by this group of Japanese artists beginning in the early fifties with what was going on the rest of the art world of the time, the era, and further, having the same kind of resonance and lasting affects as the other builders and shapers of this same world. They were speaking much the same language with the same urgency and force. I expected more of a Japanese version of something. But saw an incarnation. They tried just about everything, maybe everything they could think of to push, stretch, do, and undo their work. But, particularly in the early years, with such a tremendous energy. It’s the emotional force much more than any of the experiments in form that is most striking and wonderful. So it is spirit in that sense too, not just of the time, but providing an animating force.

Probably the venue itself, on purpose or unwittingly, contributed its part to the intensity. It was so quiet and reverent in the galleries that you couldn’t help but look at the explosions exhibited by the work with awe and envy. Just as when you are stuck sitting on a hard chair before a hard desk and a hard task, you can look out the window and the vision of a man getting out of a car looks like the freest and sweetest expression of joy. There was an abundance of guards and silence but very few fellow viewers. And since we had two small children, we were under great scrutiny. When I took out a mechanical pencil in order to write something down, I was immediately asked by a quickly approaching guard to use instead the conventional wooden pencil he offered to me.

Work '65

Saburo Murakami re-created an earlier work/performance “passage” which functioned as an entrance to the exhibition. Two large sheets of heavy brown paper painted gold which he had walked through swinging his fists. The evidence of his smashing through was left to hang and surround the passageway to the exhibition space. A provocative and enticing opening that in retrospect accentuated some of the contrasts of the experience inside. We had gone from a large open atrium, gingerly through this blasted passageway and into the dark cool and confined rooms of the exhibition space. This environment and attitude was such a contrast to the art itself that it constituted an event of its own.

Once inside, we immediately felt the energy of the work, felt something turn on even before the lights of Atsuko Tanaka’s electric dress actually clicked into life and began their blinking. Overwrought and clunky as well as bright and ethereal. As if light were an earthy thing. It’s a contrast that felt humanizing. The perfect and precise, the mechanical, had been left to stand, but had been altered by a human hand. This is particularly the case for some of Tanaka’s paintings of this period. Bright orange and blue dots arranged in a regular grid pattern altered, invaded, by a noodling mess (Work 1958, Lacquer on canvas; Painting 1960, Synthetic resin on canvas). Not just the result of a event, but the premise and the story of the struggle. The order as well as the changing of the order.


With the work of Minoru Onoda, the dots themselves take on a new life (Work 64-C 1964, Oil, glue, resin on plywood.) Expanding and undulating and forming hills. They become excessive and unruly simply in their number. Much like some of the dot paintings of Yayoi Kusama – certainly one of the heirs and ambassadors of, if not the Gutai movement itself, its energy and attitude and a number of its methods.

Yayoi Kusama has continued even now to explore the power that can be generated by the buildup of many small things. The mass of things making a new whole. Western artists, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Chuck Close, in a similar way, or creating a similar effect, have often used scale to change our emotional perspective and give an object a new kind of power. But mass and accumulation, using an everyday object or shape and pushing it by repetition beyond its normal bounds is a kindred exercise. It’s a different kind of strength, a different show of strength, but can elicit a similar awareness of power. One hundred and eight medium sized square white pillows arranged in a row pressing upon one another in a long line that stretches the length of the gallery is one of these works. It is perhaps not particularly representative of Keiko Moniuchi’s work. And not obviously representative of Gutai where the tone seems more often raw and explosive. But it is an evident undercurrent or leitmotif. Even that Gutai was a movement, that it was a group, as much as it was individuals contains this sentiment and shouldn’t be overlooked. Not only because this is a Japanese movement and these are Japanese artists, who share a consciousness of many parts working as a whole, but because so many endeavors like this are shared projects, are moments in a dialogue. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is a constant tension between the shared work, the commitment to the conversation and the individual’s desire to share his or her particular expression. Most of the works in this exhibition contained an awareness and an embodiment of this tension.

Bisexual Flower

We went into a room through a curtain and found three dimly lit machines sitting in the dark. Like some forgotten science museum display that maybe explained something about jelly fish or lily pads and pond life. The kids wanted to get out of there, saying it was scary and meaning that mostly it was boring. But one of these things slowly launched into its noisy cycle a little awkwardly but with a good deal of charm. So we stood around and watched the performance. First of one and eventually the next and the next. Like Tanaka’s Electric Dress, these were both clunky and ethereal. But the mechanical was imbued with a shaky plodding joy. These works of Yoshida Minoru were from the end of the sixties and so were later, getting toward the end of the movement. They had a different kind of force – lighter, playful. And strangely, despite their excitement and noise, they were some of the loneliest pieces in the show. As if they had fallen out of dialogue with the rest of the work, with the other artists in the group. They expressed a kind of individuality that the earlier Gutai works never seemed to do. A sense of someone going off and tinkering on their own. The performance was in the machines themselves which really don’t need an audience. The earlier Gutai work had a strong sense of an audience. Performance was a large component of the group and this comes through not just in the showiness but in the immediacy of the early work. It was an intense dialogue, perhaps mainly within the group, but made public as much as possible, and with a particular awareness of a public. This later work by Minoru seemed to have an abstract and distant audience. It felt too prepared and so had less to tell us than the earlier work which was more particular, more personal despite, or because of, its group genesis.

So, in the end, the movement may have achieved some of the individuality it sought at the beginning. But I’m not sure it preserved the independent thinking. It was the group, contrary to what we might assume for artists in the West, that provided an occasion and impetus for the kind of thinking that goes against the expectations of the culture at large, creating new possibilities. A smaller group think to counter the larger group think. The movement became a kind of individual within the culture at large. It was the group that wielded and voiced the power of the individual.


Umbrellas outside National Art Center, Tokyo

Williams Trent