Guggenheim, New York

Gutai: Japanese Art in New York

Grace Piney

The Guggenheim New York presents an exhibition of postwar avant-garde Japanese art.


The Guggenheim Museum in New York presents Gutai: Splendid Playground, an exhibition that showcases the creative spectrum of Japan’s avant-garde art of the postwar era, represented by the work of the legendary Gutai Art Association. Yoshihara Jiro founded the group in 1954, and it included what were (then) young artists exploring new art forms, installations, paintings and interactive environments.

Their work could be labeled as abstract, concrete art, although it also falls under the canon of conceptual art. The Guggenheim recognizes Gutai as “avant-garde”, but if we read one of its authors, we will realize that when they speak of “avant-garde art”, they do not not refer to the movements of early 20th century, European or American: “what I consider avant-garde is the participation of the common people in the production of a work of art” [Shimamoto Shozo].

Installation. Gutai: Splendid Playground, Guggenheim Museum New York.

The 59 artists who formed Gutai forged an ethos of creative freedom against the backdrop of wartime totalitarianism. Membership in this collective was determined entirely by its “leader”, Yoshihara Jiro. The Guggenheim website offers access to the Gutai art manifesto and the complete list of its members.

The exhibit begins with Yoshihara Jiro’s invitation to create a collective drawing: Please Draw Freely (1956 / 2013), establishing from the onset the interactive nature of the experiences conceived by Gutai. The exhibition is arranged in chronological and thematic order: Play, Network, Concept, the Concrete, Performance Painting, and Environmental Art.

The Guggenheim commissioned Motonaga Sadamasa, one of the artists that represent the Group, to recreate the piece Work (Water), [1956 / 2011]. In it he hangs common, polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly-colored water, making giant brushstrokes out of catenaries in the open air that catch the sunlight.

1. SHIRAGA KAZUO. Work II, 1958.
3. MOTONAGA SADAMASA. Work (Water), 1956.

Gutai artists also practiced contemporary styles of abstract painting with specific images to “erase” the meaning of ‘representation’. The Guggenheim presents one of the artists in these terms: “Work (Bell), by Tanaka Atsuko, [1955/1993]: re-imagines painting as an acoustic composition of living sound through a sequential ringing of electric alarm bells wired along the entire expanse of Rotunda Level 2. Her interest in schematic and technical representation, wiring systems, lights, and the human form, reached the pinnacle in her best-known work, Electric Dress (1956). The artist wore a spectacular costume made of flashing incandescent light bulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue for her performance during Gutai Art on the Stage (1957).” A documentary film of the performance is part of the Guggenheim exhibit.

Other artists included in the exhibition are: Shiraga Kazuo, Untitled (1957); Murakami Saburo, Passage (1956); Minoru Yoshida, Bisexual Flower (1969) and Nasaka Senkichirō.


© | 2019