"Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" MC5, Detroit, 1968
The Guggenheim Museum's Gutai: Splendid Playground presents the work of Japan's most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Founded by the visionary artist Jirō Yoshihara in 1954, the Gutai group was legendary in its own time.Its young members explored new art forms, combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an "international common ground" of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities.
The Gutai Art Association (active 1954-72) originated in Ashiya, near Osaka, in western Japan. Spanning two generations, the group totaled fifty-nine Japanese artists over its eighteen-year history. The name "Gutai" literally means "concreteness" and captures the direct engagement with materials its members were experimenting with around the time of its founding in 1954. From its earliest festival-like events, Gutai artists sought to break down the barriers between art, the ordinary public, and everyday life. They continuously took on new artistic challenges using the body in direct action with materials, time and space, and nature and technology. Charting Gutai's creation of visual, conceptual, and theoretical terrains, this exhibition is organized throughout the museum in chronological and thematic sections: Play, Network, Concept, the Concrete, Performance Painting, and Environment Art.
Interestingly, it is this first concept, "play," that united their work to both the art and philosophy of the Western world where they were trying to make inroads via their programs and objects. Like Rousseau (France), Maria Montessori (Italy), or John Dewey (the United States), Gutai artists introduced children to the work at extremely young ages, in the context of free play, with sincere hopes that it might change and mold them. Even Foucault and Freire agreed in some measure to the validity of this approach, though in a more limited, academic way.
The outdoor exhibitions of 1955 and 1956 set the stage for the group's artistic strategies. Held in a pine grove park in Ashiya, these events brought art outside and released it from its confines, for example Sadamasa Motonaga's magisterial "Work (Water)" (1956/2011 [above]). The Guggenheim commissioned the artist to recreate this work for the rotunda, where he hangs common, polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly colored water between the rotunda levels, making giant brushstrokes out of catenaries in the open air that catch the sunlight.
Moving from what Yoshihara decried as "fraudulent appearances" to lived reality, Gutai artists invented ways to go beyond contemporary styles of abstract painting into concrete pictures, blurring representational significance by incorporating raw matter, as well as time and space, as the stuff of art. Atsuko Tanaka's "Work (Bell)" (1955/1993) reimagines an artwork 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 interests in schematic and technical representation, wiring systems, lights, and the human form reached a pinnacle in her best-known work, "Electric Dress" (1956 [right]). The artist wore this spectacular costume made of flashing incandescent light bulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue.
Like Art Informel and the New Realists, Gutai rejected psychic automatism for acts of corporeal materiality in the real world. Yoshihara's involvement with the revitalization of Japanese traditional arts, specifically Japanese calligraphy, also informed his idea of art making as an unmediated experiential encounter between artist, gesture, and material. Kazuo Shiraga's "Untitled" (1957), made by the artist painting on the floor with his bare feet, or Saburō Murakami’s "Passage" (1956), a performance of the artist flinging himself through taut paper screens, both demonstrate Gutai's call to release the "scream of matter itself. " Gutai artists extended their objectives to theater, music, and film. For example, the "Gutai Card Box" (1962/2013) transforms the act of viewing paintings into an interaction; at the Guggenheim, visitors can insert $1 into the box, purchasing a small, original piece of art from someone hidden inside the vending machine. The box has two-way mirrors, so the person in the box selecting which card to dispense can see the visitor, but the visitor cannot see the person in the box.
As the global pioneers of environmental art, Gutai's participatory environments take the form of organic or geometric abstract sculptures incorporating kinetic, light, and sound art, turning exhibition spaces into chaotic dens of screeching, pulsing, machine-like organisms. Minoru Yoshida's erotic machine-sculpture "Bisexual Flower" (1969) mines the psychedelic effects of this approach. With its garish Plexiglas, black lights, and visible, low-tech machinery, it is an update on Duchamp’s "Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" (1915-21), 1960s style. Gutai environments drew from contemporary architecture, technology, and urban design to promote a futuristic, space-age aesthetic. This can be seen in Senkichirō Nasaka's giant armature composed of aluminum plumbing pipes punctured with holes, broadcasting a music composition as it zigzags its way up the exhibition space. This site of creativity is what Shiraga called "a splendid playground" and what Yoshihara sought as a "free site that can contribute to the progress of humanity." - Bradley Rubenstein
The Solomon R. Guggenheim museum is at 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.