Yoshihara Jirō, 1967, Photo courtesy Tokyo Gallery + BTAP

Who Is Yoshihara Jirō?

This is a complex question that de­es a simple answer because this towering ­gure in postwar art had two distinct identities. One was a collective identity as the powerful leader of Gutai (short for Gutai Art Association), an innovative vanguard collective in Osaka, Japan, that made major contributions to global art history of the postwar decades over its eighteen-year history from 1954 to 1972. This “circle” of artists who gathered under him is a radical legacy he left. The other was an individual identity as a modernist painter who began his career by the late 1920s and quickly established himself as a promising artist in the veins of abstraction and Surrealism (Lot 20); having also productively contributed to Gutai’s activities as a member, he devised an enduring signature, Circle, in the mid-1960s. This second “circle,” which stands out as a singular achievement in postwar abstraction worldwide, is his second legacy. What further complicates the study of his pursuit of new art is the fact that what he did before 1954 fed into Gutai, and conversely what he did for Gutai fed into Circle. In other words, his two identities and thus two legacies were inseparably entwined.1

By now, Gutai has received much international attention, with its art-historical contributions being studied in detail. The same goes to such lead Gutai members as Shiraga Kazuo, Tanaka Atsuko, and Motonaga Sadamasa. It is high time that light is shed on their sensei (mentor) Yoshihara Jirō who made all about Gutai possible and left his individual marks as a painter. The presentation of Full Circle: Yoshihara Jirō Collection offers an excellent opportunity to launch an in-depth study of this deserving artist.

HK0653-essay-fig2Fig. 2
Cover of Gutai Pinacotheca No. 1, 15 March 1963, Osaka. A textured circular formation of stones recalls Yoshihara's 1955 painting with a white-on-white circle. Image courtesy of Art U

What Is Gutai?

The history of Gutai spans from 1954, when the group was founded in Ashiya, Yoshihara’s hometown west of Osaka, to 1972, when the group disbanded upon Yoshihara’s untimely death at 67. The group ’s evolution can be best understood in two phases. 2

In its Phase One, from 1954 to 1962, the group reveled in a burst of creativity, during which time they presciently devised a number of new art forms that would explode worldwide in the 1960s. They included performance art, installation art, technology art, sound art, interactive art, land art, light art, mail art, and conceptualism (although at the time, these labels did not exist). Gutai ’s experiment was conceived on the principle of e, or “picturing, ” that transcended the modernist stricture of canvas painting. The members then channeled their experimental picturing energy into canvas painting itself, as exempli­ed by, for example, Motonaga Sadamasa ’s poured painting and Tanaka Atsuko ’s colourful lines-and-circles series that ‑attened out her Electric Dress of 1956. They thus set the precedent for gestural abstraction in Japan, before the so-called “Informel Whirlwind ” struck the country in late 1956.

Into the 1960s, with a changing time, Gutai ’s Phase Two began in 1962, when the group ’s headquarters and galleries, Gutai Pinacotheca, was inaugurated in downtown Osaka (fig. 2). The infusion of younger talents ̶notably Horio Sadaharu, Imai Norio, Matsutani Takesada, Mukai Shūji, and Nasaka Yūko ̶revitalised the group ’s creative dynamics. Gutai ’s experimentalism and engagement with new material were updated, while the members endeavoured to re-humanise society against the dehumanisation being brought on by an increasingly commodi­ed information society.  Gutai ’s Phase Two peaked at its participation in Expo ’70, Asia ’s fi­rst world ’s fair.

HK0653-essay-fig3Fig. 3
(Left) cover of Gutai 1 (1955) — Yoshihara’s preface to Gutai 1 can be found on pages 4-5 of this catalogue, and (right) cover of Gutai 4 (1956) — shows an evocative detail of Shiraga Kazuo’s foot painting.
Image courtesy of a private Asian collection
HK0653-essay-fig4Fig. 4
Yoshihara Jirō painting, circa 1960. Image courtesy of a private Asian collection

Gutai as Yoshihara ’s Legacy

In this development, the signifi­cance of Yoshihara ’s role as Gutai ’s leader cannot be emphasised enough. He brought to the table many assets that the talented but inexperienced young members could possibly not. (Most of them were junior to him by 15 or more years. 3 ) It has been pointed out that Gutai ’s phenomenal experimentalism was fostered by a “playground ” 4 Yoshihara set up under his originality command (Never imitate others!) and it should be remembered that the members ’ innovations would not have been presented to the public, had they not been selected and approved by Yoshihara ’s discerning “eye. ”

Above all, Yoshihara was a profound thinker. Though recognised as a promising painter in the 1930s, he was ostracised for his abstraction and evacuated to the countryside for poor health during the war years. In the immediate postwar years, as he slowly recovered from the scarring experiences, he probed ways to create new art. For Gutai, he authored the “Gutai Art Manifesto ” in 1956, de­fining the terms of engagement with the spirit, the body, and matter in new art. 5 He also ampli­ed the originality command ̶which he had learned when young from the School of Paris painter Fujita Tsuguharu  ̶  after seeing Pollock ’s drip painting in 1951. What he learned from Pollock was that being new was just a starting point. Above all, one must discover a new method that suits his or her “individual quality” (shishitsu) ̶   an idea he would later share with Shiraga.6 Once this “discovery” is made, even if it may look like a “child’s play,” one must put it to test “persistently and profoundly.” 7 This became the foundation of his astute mentorship. One good example is his advice to the experiment-eager Shiraga against quitting his foot painting  ̶   the advice encouraging continuity that the young artist would later thank, as do we in enjoying his rich lifelong body of work.8

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Yoshihara Jirō with Yoshihara Michio, Tanaka Atsuko, Ichiyanagi Toshi, Peggy Guggenheim and Mayuzumi Toshirō at the Gutai Pinacotheca, 1962. Image courtesy of a private Asian collection

By far, the most forward-thinking contribution Yoshihara made with Gutai to postwar art history was his internationalism, as art historian Ming Tiampo has demonstrated.9 At a time when the art world was on the threshold of globalisation, working from the margin that is Asia, he aspired to create an “international common ground” 10 for new art. When he combined his internationalism with his operational ingenuity (through which he devised novel exhibition formats such as outdoor, onstage, and press presentations), a spectacular manifestation ensued: International Sky Festival of 1960. For a novel exhibition in the sky, Yoshihara capitalised on a network with Euro-American artists that was expanding thanks to his association with Michel Tapié. Gutai solicited them to participate through preparatory drawings that would be enlarged and executed by the members as banners hanging from advertisement balloons. A magni­ficent sight unfurled above the rooftop of the Takashimaya Department Store in Osaka was followed by the inauguration of Gutai Pinacotheca in 1962, which became a must-visit place for art-minded foreign visitors to Japan and put Osaka on the world map of art.(fig. 5 and 9) 11

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Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956, paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 by 450 by 3 cm. Installation view at Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya, 1956. Image courtesy of Osaka City Museum of Modern Art
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Yoshihara Jirō at the 10th Gutai Art Exhibition, image reproduced from Gutai 12, 1961.
Image courtesy of a private Asian collection

Circle as Yoshihara’s Legacy

As an individual practitioner of new art, Yoshihara was an inspired experimentalist who significantly contributed to Gutai’s innovations at every critical juncture of its history. In 1955, he created an improvisational painting smeared with white cement for 1st Gutai Art Exhibition (fig. 11), while contributing Gutai’s fi­rst Light Art to the outdoor summer exhibition (fig. 10). He followed up the latter with an interactive Please Draw Freely in its 1956 outdoor exhibition (fig. 6), and showed “nothingness” by dramatising an empty stage by lighting for its 1957 Gutai Art on the Stage. 12 In painting, too, he produced a series of strong examples of gestural abstraction, including a 1958 black-on-white piece that was shown at that year’s Gutai exhibition at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York and then at the Carnegie International, from which it was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Curiously, it was not until the mid-1960s that Yoshihara “discovered” what can be called his unique “method” that suited his “individual quality.” Works in the present collection indicate the artist explored a few different avenues before Circle. Linear elements that characterised his experiment in the early 1950s (Lot 16) continued in an ink-on-paper drawing of 1957 (Lot 8) consisting of neatly drawn straight brushmarks.

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Scenes from the 10th Gutai Art Exhibition, image reproduced from Gutai 12, 1961.
Image courtesy of a private Asian collection

Around 1960, Yoshihara more frequently employed calligraphic mark-making in tiny strokes in a drawing (Lot 15) as well as canvas paintings. A large canvas (Lot 21) reveals his typical style at the time with semi-random layering of colours in tight motion, in contrast to sweeping gestures preferred by Shiraga, Motonaga, and Shimamoto Shōzō, among others. Also in marked contrast with his earlier gestural style, he emphasised texture over gesture here (fig. 4). Scratchy layers of black and white demonstrate his dense engagement with the materiality of oil paint. Yet, if his 1955 concrete painting “reveals the scream of matter itself” as he wrote in “Gutai Art Manifesto,” oil paint herein rather quietly murmurs or groans. This impression is brightened up by accents of allover rhythmic mark-making in ochre. The subdued yet no less forceful canvas signals an important transition in his artistic development.

The breakthrough began to emerge in the early 1960s, as he gradually made a move toward Circle. The circle motif appeared earlier in his life in a few manners. From his childhood, he held a distinct memory of drawing many concentric circles on a newly plastered wall.13 In 1952, he came to know of the calligraphy by Nantenb ō, an early 20th century Zen monk, which included ensō, or “one-stroke circles. ” 14 In 1955, he made two prescient works. One is a single white oval on a black wood support in a Zen calligraphic style.15 The other is a built-up canvas that bears in essence a white-on-white circle.16 It is puzzling that he had not immediately worked on the idea of ensō, which would have been perfect to incorporate into his interest with gestural abstraction. However, despite his initial enthusiasm with Nantenbō and his close association with the Kyoto-based group of vanguard calligraphers, Bokujin-kai (meaning “Ink People Society ”) in the early 1950s, he by 1955 concluded that calligraphy was not an ideal medium for avant-garde experimentation because it was inevitably limited by the need to write characters.17 He might have thought that if he were to pursue the circle, his circle would have to go beyond both the Zen ensō and the mathematician ’s circle  ̶  two states of the eternal and universal form, one being irrational and the other rational.

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Yoshihara Jirō and Isamu Noguchi, circa 1964, Yoshihara's Untitled (1962), which marked the turning point toward the Circle series, is visible behind him. Image courtesy of a private Asian collection

The ­first circle that indicates Yosihara ’s move toward Circle was Untitled of 1962 (fig. 9), which was used for the newly inaugurated Gutai Pinacotheca ’s logo. The white-on-black circle may appear calligraphic at fi­rst glance. However, placed on a large canvas, it was made by no splashy instantaneous gesture; the painter slowly built the whole pictorial plane with the heavy materiality of oil paint, from which the white form vividly breaks out.

From this auspicious start, his exploration continued, “persistently and profoundly,” taking various appearances of circle, some more calligraphic, some more hard-edged. A broad range of expression he achieved with the circle motif is noteworthy. An unusual foray into dish-painting (Lots 11 – 14) demonstrates how playful Yoshihara could be. We see a comparable levity in a modest red-on-white circle (Lot 1) or an off-centered blue-on-white circle (Lot 2).

In 1965, he found an ultimate method for his Circle: a thick band of circle demarcated by two occasionally and slightly bumpy circumferences, inside and outside. Shifting from oil to acrylic paint, he capitalised on its ‑at nature, carefully layering color to create a hard-edged form that he had worked out through making studies in crisp line-drawing. Yet, his layering was never mechanical, or his shape never predetermined. As he placed paint brush by brush, he adjusted the perimeters so as to equalise the ­figure-ground tension.18 Subtly pulsating circumferences are likewise visible in two small white-on-black works from 1971 (Lot 4). This deliberate maneuver resulted in a form neither East nor West, sublimating the calligraphic gesture that he so admired in Pollock and Nantenbō and the minimalism that brought out the best of his formalism. Its exquisite mix of organic and geometric characters recalls Ellsworth Kelly’s austere yet enchanting flower drawings.

In his “Gutai Art Manifesto,” he declared “In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance.” In the mode of gestural abstraction in the 1950s, this handshake was mediated by the body that catalysed action and afforded freedom. In Circle, the body and gesture were reduced to an almost imperceptible degree (although we can still see his brushstrokes up close on his large canvases). What catalyzed his act of painting was the morphology of circle, which unexpectedly gave him in­finite yet challenging freedom to explore, as he explained in his 1967 statement.

Recently, I drew mostly circles. [. . .] Yet, I have to confess: I am often compelled to reckon my utter inability to draw even one circle in a satisfactory manner. If one cannot draw one perfect line, then one must begin with it. Therein lies an in¬nite possibility left unknown, lurking from a bottomless pit.19

With Circle, he fi­nally found his unique “method” suitable for his “individual quality,” coming full circle in his expression and attaining a “new sense of spirituality.” 20 In addition to Circle, Yoshihara subsequently explored partial Chinese characters and other forms in the last years of his life (Lots 7 and 17).

In 1959, Yoshihara wrote, “Gutai art does not practice Orientalism.” 21 Certainly, Circle was no Orientalist project. His initial interest may have been part Japanese (oriental), but the end result was authentic, transcending the facile dichotomy of East vs. West. In a broader context, his probe away from gestural abstraction paralleled the contemporary global tendency toward minimalism and hard-edged abstraction. In this respect, Circle embodies the state of “international contemporaneity” 22 that characterized 1960s art. Yoshihara led Gutai into internationalism and made a statement through Circle concerning what should constitute “international art.” These are the meaning of Yoshihara Jirō’s two legacies that put him in a rightful place in world art history.

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Light Art, Yoshihara Jirō, installation view at Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun, Japan, 1955 Image reproduced from Gutai 3 (1955). Image courtesy of a private Asian collection
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Yoshihara Jirō, Work A, 1955, cement on panel, 91.5 by 61 cm. Image courtesy of Osaka City Museum of Modern Art


Biography Reiko Tomii

Based in New York, Dr. Reiko Tomii is an independent art historian who investigates post- 1945 Japanese art in global and local contexts. She is a co-founder of PoNJA-GenKon (www. ponja-genkon.net). Her next major publication is Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan, forthcoming form MIT Press in Spring 2016.



All translations from Japanese sources are by the author.

1.       Key literature on Yoshihara’s life and art are: Botsugo 20 nen Yoshihara Jirō ten/ Jirō Yoshihara [commemorating the 20th anniversary of his death], exh. cat. (Ashiya: Ashiya City Museum of Art & History, 1992), and Yoshihara Jirō ten/Jirō Yoshihara: A Centenary Retrospective, exh. cat. (Tokyo: Asahi Newspaper, 2005).

2.       Recent literature on Gutai include Ming Tiampo, Gutai: Decentering Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe, Gutai: Splendid Playground, exh. cat. (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2012). The following description of Gutai in two phases is based on Splendid Playground .

3.       The average age difference from the primary Phase One members, such as Motonaga, Shiraga, and Tanaka, was 20. Imai Norio, the youngest member who joined Gutai as a high-school student in Phase Two, was junior to the leader by 41.

4.       Shiraga Kazuo, “The Establishment of the Individual ” (1955), in Tiampo and Munroe, Gutai: Splendid Playground, 279.

5.       Yoshihara Jir ō, “Gutai Art Manifesto, ” trans. Reiko Tomii, in Tiampo and Munroe, Gutai: Splendid Playground, 18–19.

6.       For Shiraga’s notion of shishitsu, see “The Establishment of the Individual” (1955).

7.       Yoshihara Jirō, “Chūshō kaiga no yohaku”/“Blank of Abstract Painting,” Bokubi, no. 21 (February 1953): 13. On Yoshihara and Pollock, see Reiko Tomii, “Gutai's Phase Zero: Reading Yoshihara Jirō on Pollock against Takiguchi Shūzō,” in Tilting the World: Histories of Modern and Contemporary Asian Art, a symposium organized by the University of Sydney and the Art Gallery of NSW, honoring Professor John Clark, in November 2013.

8.       For Yoshihara’s observation of Shiraga’s pursuit, see Reiko Tomii, “Originality and Continuity,” in Kazuo Shiraga, exh. cat. (New York: Mnuchin Gallery, 2015), 8.

9.       One of the basic tenets of Tiampo’s theses in Decentering Modernism is that internationalism, or “transnationalism” in the current art-historical terminology, propelled Gutai’s decentering effort.

10.   Yoshihara Jirō, “A Statement by Jirō Yoshihara: Leader of the Gutai,” Martha Jackson Gallery press release, September 17, 1958, Archives of the New Gallery, Bennington College, Bennington, VT; quoted from Tiampo, Decentering Modernism, 2.

11.   These two international enterprises indicate how judiciously Yoshihara invested his ­nancial resources and his art-world standings into Gutai’s activities, although he was in principle strict with money vis-à-vis the members who were expected to contribute fair share of exhibition and other expenses.

12.   Yoshihara Jirō, “Futatsu no kūkan” [Two spaces], in Gutai 7; reprinted in Gutai shiryōshū: Dokyumento Gutai, 1954–1972/Document Gutai (Ashiya: Ashiya City Museum of Art & History, 1993), 299

13.   Yoshihara Jirō, “Waga kokoro no jijoden ” [Autobiography of my soul], six weekly installments, Kobe shinbun, June 4– July 9, 1967; reprinted in Botsugo 20 nen Yoshihara Jirō ten, 196.

14.   For Yoshihara and calligraphy, see Osaki Shin ’ichir ō, “Yoshihara Jirō to sho ” [Yosihara Jirō and calligraphy], in Botsugo 20 nen Yoshihara Jirō ten, 179–84.

15.   For its reproduction, see figure 6 in Botsugo 20 nen Yoshihara Jirō ten, 120.

16.   See plate 145 in Botsugo 20 nen Yoshihara Jirō ten, 137. This work, Work B, was previously dated to around 1961. However, based on a newly discovered documentary photograph in Yoshida Toshio ’s album, Kawasaki Kōichi proposed to re-date it to 1955 (e-mail to the author, July 5, 2015).

17.   Yoshihara Jirō, “’Hin ’ no sho to beru ” [A calligraphy of Poverty [by Inoue Yu-ichi] and Bell [by Tanaka Atsuko], unpublished text (ca. 1955); reprinted in Botsugo 20 nen Yoshihara Jirō ten, 202–3.

18.   An observation by the critic Inui Yoshiaki (1973) in Osaki, 183.

19.   Yoshihara Jirō, “Koten no tame no bunshō” [A text for a solo exhibition], in Yoshihara Jirō, exh. cat. (Tokyo: Tokyo Gallery, 1967); reprinted in Botsugo 20 nen Yoshihara Jirō ten, 205.

20.   Osaki, 183.

21.   Yoshihara Jirō, “Sur l’art Gutai,” Notizie 8 (April 1959): 10; quoted in Tiampo, Decentering Modernism, 141.

22.   For “international contemporaneity,” see Reiko Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (Cambridge: MIT Press, forthcoming in 2016).