93G is a distinguished piece from the final decade of Tanaka Atsuko’s iconic oeuvre of circle paintings – the last work to employ the distinctive composition of centrally positioned, completely overlapping concentric circles. Amongst the few works with a comparable composition, 93G possesses the most concentrated accumulation of precisely stacked discs and the densest thicket of winding coloured threads that cut circuitous, convoluted yet ostensibly organized routes across the canvas. In terms of composition, specifically the placement of the threads vis-a-vis the circle, the present work manifests as a sister work of sorts to Untitled, 1964 currently housed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The earlier painting features two sets of concentric circles that overlay slightly; if one were to imagine the two sets shifting towards each other so as to eventually completely overlap, one arrives at the present work – one single circle brimming with double the concentration and hence double the intensity of overlapping discs. The pencil sketch for the present work, Study for 93G, reveals the intricate complexity of the composition as well as Tanaka’s meticulous methods; now transformed onto canvas, the sheer intensity of colour and density of tightly packed circles hums with a palpable and almost visceral energy, “arousing in us a certain disquieting energy that tugs at our heart”, to quote the words of Tanaka scholar Kato Mizuho (Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954-2000, p. 23). Kato goes on to ask: “What is the fundamental basis of such energy?”
The answer to Kato’s question is Tanaka’s 1956 Electric Dress – the seminal performance that won Tanaka her indomitable position on the world stage and established her as one of the most important artists of the global post-war era. At the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition in Tokyo in October 1956, five years before American Minimalist Dan Flavin created his first fluorescent sculpture, Tanaka stunned audiences by appearing on stage in a high-voltage, coruscatingly resplendent dress comprised of two hundred bulbs and tubes that blinked and flashed in dazzling neon colours. Held together by a great mass of wires, the elaborate dress-contraption heaved with heat and energy, imprinting a blazing pattern of circles on audience’s retinas. Such a ground-breaking presentation – spanning performance art, body art, installation as well as a pioneering use of electricity within visual art – was wholly revolutionary at the time, establishing Tanaka’s reputation among the greatest artists of her generation and earning her a laudatory mention in French critic Michel Tapié’s landmark piece “A Mental Reckoning of My First Trip to Japan” in 1957: “I have a deep respect for the whole group [Gutai] as a group, but I would like to name four artists who should appear alongside the most established international figures: Shiraga Kazuo, Shimamoto Shōzō, Yoshihara Jirō, and Tanaka Atsuko” (Michel Tapié, “A Mental Reckoning of My First Trip to Japan”, 1957).
The pivotal Electric Dress performance catalysed Tanaka’s celebrated vocabulary of jostling coloured circles and lines on canvas – an extraordinary body of work the artist engaged in for over forty years. In these paintings, Tanaka’s aesthetic captures the dynamic phenomenon of her Electric Dress’s blinking lights and wires onto two-dimensional space. Very early on, the artist chose vinyl paint as her primary medium; unlike oil and acrylic, synthetic industrial-grade vinyl was more fluid and quick-drying, allowing Tanaka to achieve her desired free-flowing lines whilst maintaining a highly plastic finish. As a result, Tanaka’s works demonstrate not only brilliant colour but also layered three-dimensionality and compelling immediacy. Inviting associations as diverse as central nervous systems, computer circuits or concentrations of bio-cells, Tanaka’s circle paintings invoke analogies to mankind’s increasingly critical relationship with technology and development. By uniting art and technology, Tanaka responded theoretically and aesthetically to the brisk economic expansion and technological development experienced by Japan’s rapidly industrializing post-war urban life. Her pulsating circles and twisting lines embodied post-war Japan’s throbbing heartbeat and flashing neon aesthetic, at once celebrating and critically commenting on the all-encompassing sublimity of contemporaneity and interconnectivity. In Tanaka’s own words: “There’s been so much progress in medicine and science, with people even talking about flying to Mars, and I just want to create art that can coexist with these times” (cited in Atsuko Tanaka Exhibition Outreach Program Documents, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, 2003, p. 15).
The idiosyncratic and highly conceptual oeuvre of Tanaka is currently receiving surging critical and commercial interest. Apart from Electric Dress, other key works from the artist’s oeuvre shed light on the extraordinary conceptual rigor grounding her circle paintings. In Stage Clothes (1956), Tanaka unravelled layer upon layer of connected trains of fabric from her body in a twirling spiral movement; while in Round on Sand (1968), she performed an elaborate improvised dance along the length of a beach, engraving a vast array of interlocking circles and lines in the sand. Such performances assert important themes: first, that of change: Tanaka’s emphasis was not on the appearance of each individual costume or circle but on the single visual imprint of continuous change itself. Second, that of her body as a base: Tanaka inserted her own body into the very frame and index of her works and performances, using her body as site of “painting” and thus, as Ming Tiampo observes, “critically engaging with the myth of Pollock” (Atsuko Tanaka: Electrifying Art 1954-1968, p. 61). Third, that of creation of self and identity: Kato argues that, owing to clothes constituting “the surface that is at one with the body and directly related to the creation of self” (Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954-2000, p. 22), Tanaka’s performances raise issues of boundary, self-identity, and the individual’s processes of relations with the world.
As such, with Tanaka, the motif of the circle goes way beyond that of formal or geometric abstraction. While 93G in particular is formally reminiscent of the circle exercises of Kandinsky earlier in the century, Tanaka was less concerned with form and colour than with the conceptual, mathematical and even architectural possibilities offered by the shape of the circle. 93G is especially evocative of the diagrammatical plans and sketches behind what is arguably Tanaka’s most conceptually advanced work, the installation Work (Bell), from 1955. Work (Bell) featured a circuit of ringing bells installed within a room; upon activation by a viewer, a ringing chain effect would chime along the length of the exhibition room, diminishing in volume, before increasing on its way back – defining architectural space through sound just as a brushstroke defines a line on canvas. Exploring the interrelatedness between action and reaction, and between medium, method and executor, Work (Bell) was a ground-breaking work that spanned sound art, electricity, interactivity, installation, performance and sculpture; and it is this phenomenal legacy that 93G encapsulates. As early as the 1960s, Tanaka’s paintings were purchased by the likes of distinguished Western collectors such as Anthony Denney and Roland A. Gibson; as the decades progressed however, the visual potency of Tanaka’s circle aesthetic only continuously increased, and amongst the artist’s current top 10 auction records, 8 belong to paintings from the final two decades of her life. As an exemplary work from this era, 93G is riveting and wholly commanding in presence – a testament Tanaka’s extraordinary ability to go beyond a mere post-war sensibility and espouse an eternally contemporary aesthetic.