NEW YORK, LONDON AND HONG KONGIn postwar Japan, a group of fearlessly inventive artists burst onto the scene with groundbreaking performances, paintings and interactive environments. A recent museum show and several high-profile sales have brought renewed attention to Gutai’s singular achievements.

Murakami Saburō’s Passing Through, 1956, performed at the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition. © Murakami Makiki and the Former Members of Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka Univeristy.

In 1958, Japan’s Gutai group staged its first American exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. Critics panned the show. “In some ways these paintings are so imitative of the formless movements of living that they might be called rather dull representational works,” wrote Dore Ashton in the New York Times. Viewed as derivative of Abstract Expressionism, the works’ inventiveness was largely overlooked by Western audiences. “We didn’t have the critical language to accept art that looked cosmopolitan or international and that was made by and from and about its own political, cultural and intellectual context,” explains Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian art at the New York’s Guggenheim Museum. 

Fast-forward to 2013, when critics declared the movement powerfully ahead of its time and praise was lavished on the Guggenheim’s landmark Gutai: Splendid Playground, an exhibition curated by Munroe and art historian Ming Tiampo. Of a work by Motonaga Sadamasa, which featured sixteen plastic tubes filled with coloured water stretching across the museum’s rotunda, the New York Times critic Roberta Smith noted that it appeared “brand new” despite its conception in 1956 when Motonaga first displayed it outdoors. 

An exhibition view of Gutai Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim in 2013 featuring Motonaga Sadamasa’s work Water, 1956/2013. Photography by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Gutai’s alignment with the modern zeitgeist reveals an uncanny prescience from an art historical perspective, which Smith acknowledged: “They relocate some of the origins of participatory art, so much the rage today. Similarly, the show reveals little-known precedents for all kinds of seemingly Euro-American-centred developments, including Happenings, Minimalism, specific objects and various strains of land art, installation art, Conceptual Art and relational aesthetics.” 

The reconsideration of Gutai has reverberated not only in the critical sphere but in the market realm as well, with works by key artists appearing in major sales of contemporary art. “There’s been a reappraisal of the Gutai artists, and the Guggenheim show has probably been the main catalyst,” says Alex Branczik, a senior director and specialist in the Contemporary Art department at Sotheby’s London. Jonathan Wong, a senior specialist in the Contemporary Asian Art department at Sotheby’s Hong Kong also notes that the Guggenheim exhibition “raised the awareness of Gutai.” Wong adds that “Gutai artists have long been neglected or forgotten by both Western and Asian collectors.”

The group was formed against the backdrop of postwar reconstruction-era Japan. A society formerly dominated by military totalitarianism was giving way to an avant-garde devoted to freedom of expression. Founded in 1954 by the artist Yoshihara Jirō, Gutai created groundbreaking performances and painting, as well as interactive environments. Active until 1972, shortly after Yoshihara’s death, the collective originated in the town of Ashiya, near Osaka and spanned two generations of nearly 60 artists. 

Gutai founder Yoshihara Jirō in front of one of his Circle paintings in 1970. Courtesy Otsuji Seiko Collection, Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo.

The word gutai means “concreteness.” It was chosen by Yoshihara to signify the opposite of abstraction – or a rebellion against the modernist embrace of abstract painting. “It was considered that abstract thought had led to a kind of utopian idealisation, which led to progress, which led to war, which led to the Holocaust, which led to totalitarianism. So Gutai was a kind of violent and literal rejection of ideology,” Munroe explains. 

“Do what no one has done before!” – this declaration was Yoshihara’s charge to the Gutai artists. His decree led to unprecedented experimentation. Yet at the same time, Yoshihara regarded Jackson Pollock as the greatest living painter in the United States. “Yoshihara grasped the freedom of Pollock’s leap into the concrete, where ‘drops of paint are more beautiful than that which they present,’” writes Munroe in the Guggenheim show’s catalogue. Pollock’s drips and pours would be a point of departure in many ways for the Gutai artists, who, in turn, would create their own revolutionary art. 

Tanaka Atsuko wearing her Electric Dress at the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition in Tokyo in 1956. Courtesy Ashiya City Museum of Art & History.

The Gutai response was to do away with traditional artist’s tools, most notably the paintbrush. In its place, the artists opted for increasingly audacious and liberating modes of self-expression, often involving their own bodies. For Shimamoto Shōzō that freedom meant throwing glass bottles filled with lacquer at a canvas. Yoshihara Michio painted with his bicycle, marking the canvas with his tire tracks. Perched on a ladder, Yoshida Toshio used a watering can to sprinkle paint over a canvas while Sumi Yasuo painted with a vibrating device, a paper umbrella and an abacus. Tanaka Atsuko, one of the few women in the group, became her own canvas when draped in her Electric Dress, a sculptural garment constructed of brightly coloured light bulbs, and Murakami Saburō took the “action” in action painting literally, forcing his way through a vertical stack of 21 paper screens. Perhaps most famously, Shiraga Kazuo painted with his feet while suspended from a rope. 

Shiraga painting in his signature method during the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition, 1965. Courtesy Otsuji Seiko Collection, Musashino Art University Museum & Library.

The exceptionally innovative Shiraga was one of the group’s most important painters. Born in Amagasaki, Japan in 1924 he studied traditional Japanese painting at the Kyoto City Specialist School of Arts. In 1952, he co-founded the Zero group, which merged in 1955 with the Gutai group. That same year, he performed Challenging Mud, in which he wrestled with a muddy mix of clay and concrete until he was physically spent. “I want to paint as though rushing around a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion,” Shiraga wrote that same year. In 1956, at the second Gutai exhibition, he introduced his foot paintings, having explored painting with his fingers and hands. “It was by removing himself from his training that he was able to fully express himself,” Tiampo told the Los Angeles Times last year. It was an approach to art making that he continued in his later decades.

A striking painting from this late period sold at Sotheby’s London in February for £1.3 million (US$2 million), just over its high estimate. Titled Kosha (opposite), meaning  “expert” or “ingenious” in Japanese, the 1992 painting features layers of yellow and black paint applied vigorously in Shiraga’s signature method. According to Branczik, this sale was the “first real test of bringing a later painting on to the market since interest has snowballed around the movement.”

Shiraga Kazuo’s Kosha, 1992, which recently sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale in London on 12 February for £1,258,500.

Another test will take place at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 April, when a Shiraga dating from 1960 – the prime Gutai era – will be offered with an estimate of HK$10 million to HK$20 million (US$1.3–2.6 million). That range is perhaps a conservative one considering that in November 2013, a 1961 work by Shiraga sold for $4 million at an auction in New York. That work, Keishizoku, a multi-hued canvas, remains the Gutai group’s top-selling work at auction and a record for the artist. 

Shiraga Kazuo, Chitaisei Honkōshin, 1960, which will be offered in the Modern and Contemporary Asian Art Evening sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 April.

Taken together, those results point to the growing appetite for both the artist’s most desirable Gutai-era works, as well as for his later material – often equally as powerful in execution. Of Shiraga’s collecting audience, Branczik notes, “There’s a particularly strong following on the west coast of the US, but increasingly we’re finding his pieces in the best collections of postwar art all over the world.” Indeed, in recent years, the works of other core members of the Gutai group – including Yoshihara, Shimamoto, Maekawa Tsuyoshi, Atsuko and Uemae Chiyu – have also spurred interest among collectors and curators. 

And many artists associated with Gutai continued making art after the group disbanded in 1972 following the death of founder Yoshihara. Another rationale for the dissolution centres on Expo ’70, Asia’s first world’s fair. “It was all-consuming for the group,” Munroe says. “It depleted their coffers and introduced tensions because of the amount of money that was available and the criticism they received from the Japanese art community for being co-opted by the government to promote a state effort that was completely antithetical to avant-gardism.” 

Were he alive today, Yoshihara would likely delight in the truly global reach of the Gutai artists – an ambition he carefully cultivated from the group’s earliest days with the creation of the Gutai journal. As Munroe asserts, “Yoshihara wanted Gutai to be a movement coming out of Japan in the postwar era that could regain a kind of cultural integrity and independence and future for Japan after the horrors of the war. He wanted parity with the West and the way to claim that parity was through international collaborations.” Over a half-century later, the world is finally catching on to Gutai’s place in an art history too often dominated by European and American artists.  

Bridget Moriarity, based in New York, writes on art and culture.

Shiraga’s Chitaisei Honkōshin, 1960 will be offered in the Modern and Contemporary Asian Art Evening sale in Hong Kong on 5 April.

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