On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT JAPANESE PRIVATE COLLECTION


signed 'Atsuko Tanaka', titled ''84A' (on the reverse)
vinyl paint on canvas
218.5 x 291.5 cm. (86 x 114 3/4 in.)
Executed in 1984
Private Collection, Japan
Ashiya, Museum of Art & History; Shizuoka, Prefectural Museum of Art, Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic 1954-2000, Japan, 2001 (illustrated in black and white, plate 196, p. 182).
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Lot Essay


Founded by Jiro Yoshihara in 1954, the Gutai Art Association was arguably the most influential avant-garde art group established in postwar Japan. Its stated goal was 'to breathe life into matter by means of concrete forms, to acknowledge the freedom of the human spirit.’ Noted French art
critic Michel Tapié, after an introduction by Hisao Domoto, became so fascinated with Gutai art that he took a trip to Japan in 1957 with the express
purpose of meeting Gutai adherents. Tapié brought together ‘Art Informel’, popular in Europe at the time, and Gutai art, and travelled extensively
around the world, including the U.S., to promote these two schools of art that had upended the art scenes of Europe and Asia. Abstract Expressionism and Happening Art were all the rage at the time in the United States, and postwar art movements throughout the world resonated with and influenced each other. They all shared one commonality, which was replacing overly formalized art with a greater freedom of expression that would break down the limits of the compositional space.

Atsuko Tanaka established herself as a force to be reckoned with in this unique artistic climate. She joined the Gutai group in 1955, and continued to expand her artistic frontiers over the next 60-plus years, becoming one of the most iconic pioneers of the Gutai movement in its early phase.
After the group disbanded, she became the first Gutai artist to hold a solo exhibition overseas, as well as the Gutai member with the most retrospectives held for her by museums throughout the world, including in the USA, Austria, the UK, and Spain. Some Tanaka pieces are now housed in the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Atsuko Tanaka created this large-scale work, ‘84A (Lot 40), in 1984, at the age of 52. That year marked the 20th anniversary of her participation in the Guggenheim International Award Exhibition with her colleague, Jiro Yoshihara. Tanaka by that time was already a well-known name in the
international art scene, and ‘84A is one of the most outstanding and prized pieces from her mature period. According to published documents, ‘84A was the second largest painting Tanaka produced in the 1980s. Her artistic journey originally began with several installations: Stage Clothes, Electric Dress, and Work (Bell); she later derived a number of paintings from Electric Dress, and its light bulbs and tangled electrical wires became the hallmark of her artistic career. Famed American artist James Turrell also often employed light bulbs and space as his subjects, producing enchanting and abstract space-scapes with installation art and light projections.

In her treatment of space, Tanaka used kaleidoscopic circles and lines to transcend our conventional interpretation of two-dimensional painting spaces. She forewent the traditional use of positive and negative space or distances and sizes, thus blocking the viewer’s ability to differentiate the front to back placements of circles and lines. Unlike some abstract expressionists such as Frank Stella, who portrayed spatial perspectives with reason and logic, Tanaka did not portray objects as a means of highlighting some theme or subject. Rather, for her, every circle was the pathway to another circle, and every electrical wire opened up another frontier, in a completely unpredictable process and trajectory. Rather than calling this 'order within chaos,' it might be safer to say that order was not Tanaka’s primary concern. This free and whimsical path, this semi-controlled, semi-improvisational approach, led Tanaka’s art in a more meaningful direction. This was how Tanaka described her pilgrimage:

‘Whether I search for that direction while I’m thinking it through or painting, what I have to do is find out how my painting will express a point of view, and this is not something I can understand before I start


The Gutai school of art aimed to ‘create things that are never seen before,’ whilst focusing on exploring the relationship between the body and matter. They believed that by fusing human qualities with the properties of objects, one could concretely comprehend abstract space. ‘84A utilizes a horizontally conceived composition that dazzling colours; all the circles of different sizes seem to morph into flashy coloured bulbs and neon lights, interacting with this labyrinth of wires to generate an intense visual effect. Tanaka hardly ever placed her canvases upright when working, regardless of their size. This prevented the paint from dripping off the canvas, and she valued her body's physical contact with the canvas and
the continuing creative exploration of her own limits. She juxtaposed circles of all sizes on the canvas to create the impression of distances, and added complex, ravelled wires of varied widths over the circles to create intricate structures. Viewers can no longer distinguish the beginning and the end, in what becomes a brave manifesto full of life's energies.

Atsuko Tanaka and many fellow Gutai members were mentored by Jiro Yoshihara, and were fearless in exploring innovative and interactive methods of creativity. They even encouraged their audience to interact with them, for example by letting children paint to their heart’s content in Ashiya Park. Tanaka enjoyed children’s paintings and their worldview, and said that ‘parents should not subject children to adult’s notions of art and beauty.’ She admired the simplicity and sincerity in children’s art. The free, uninhibited lines in ‘84A are evocative of artist Joan Miró and his skilful and smart handling of lines, such as his use of hard black lines to enliven a composition and create his own mythical cosmos. Miró put aside the thinking and reason prevalent in the adult world to highlight a childlike kind of pictorial delight. Such free-and-easy, fanciful portrayals are also seen in works by Karel Appel – a representative artist of the CoBrA movement– and their bright and spontaneous palettes. Yet even though Miró and Appel styled their works with an abstract approach, traces of representational aspects remain in the few recognizable silhouettes they always manage to leave in their work. Tanaka, however, adopted a more purely abstract and conceptual method, which was extremely forward-thinking and avant-garde in light of the social climate of the 1950s primary medium for her two-dimensional works in 1957. She felt that vinyl paint, unlike traditional oil and acrylic paint, was more pliant in expressing unified, smooth-flowing compositions and lines, and it inspired her to explore new mediums and painting implements to honour the Gutai spirit of innovation. Synthetic polymer was mostly an industrial-grade material, more fluid than traditional oils, and able to withstand the artist’s gestural effects and the force of her application. Tanaka could allow her creativity to run free, while maintaining the physical qualities of the paint, achieving a perfect equilibrium between ‘materials,’ ‘life,’ and ‘physical qualities.’

Tanaka was fascinated with technologies, unconventional mediums and forms. Her signature circles and lines have become her trademark symbols, frequently also seen in her simple sketches and paintings, and they hold a significance similar to that of polka dots and pumpkins in Yayoi Kusama’s artistic vision and universe. When creating two-dimensional paintings, Tanaka also considered the varied possibilities of electrical circuitry. To her, the creative process was about more than painting: It was a journal of her life, a chronicle of her logic and thought processes, and a testament to her commitment to ceaseless development, overcoming challenges, and embracing breakthroughs.

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