The Gutai group, which led the post-war contemporary art scene in Japan, was neglected for four decades until the Guggenheim mounted a comprehensive exhibition of its work in 2012. Since that show, the group has undergone an international renaissance with important gallery exhibitions, acquisitions in private collections such as the Vervoordt Foundation and major works appearing in our Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong on 30 May.
After the Second World War, Japan was an inward-looking nation contemplating its own cultural void. A combination of the remnants of autocracy and wartime militaristic disciplines fostered an atmosphere of alienation, exacerbated by the traumatic psychological effect of the first atomic bomb. It was against this backdrop that the Gutai Art Association (Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai) was formed in 1955. Around 20 young artists were led by Jiro Yoshihara, an eccentric food oils millionaire and artist whose motto was ‘never imitate others’: make something that has never existed before.
The ideology of the original Gutai group was that members followed their own individual paths, generating the impulsive energy of children as they did so. This is less surprising when you consider that many of the original artists had initially earned their livings as elementary and kindergarten art teachers.
Left: Shuji Mukai (b. 1940), Work, 1963. Mixed media on canvas. 92 x 70.5 cm. (36 1/2 x 27 3/4 in.). Estimate HK$1,600,000-2,000,000 ($205,100-256,400). Right: Tsuyoshi Maekawa (b. 1936), Work (Shirono Kasanari) A11. 1961. Oil on canvas. 225.8 x 181.5 cm. (88 7/8 x 71 1/2 in.) Estimate HK$1,500,000-2,500,000 ($192,300-320,500). Main image at top: Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008), Keicho 19 (Osaka Winter Campaign), 1968. Oil on canvas. 173.5 x 366 cm. (68 1/4 x 144 1/8 in.) Estimate HK$10,000,000-18,000,000 ($1,282,100-2,307,700). All the works featured on this page are offered in our Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 30 May in Hong Kong
In this first phase of the movement, Kazuo Shiraga was probably the most important artist working in the group. It is important to realise that works like Work II were produced by performance painting, created in front of an audience, with the artist suspended above the canvas, dragging his feet through masses of paint. Shiraga chose this method because he thought his feet were less trained than his hands and would therefore lead to more spontaneous results. While Shiraga was wallowing in mud and pain, another artist, Saburo Murakami, leapt through expanses of paper, while Atsuko Tanaka used bells and light bulbs in her theatrical performances.
Yves Klein spent two years in Japan from 1952 to 1954 and his subsequent work reveals the influence of the Gutai group, though he consistently denied it. This influence is particularly evident in Klein's Anthropometry series in which nude women rolled around in paint, and he might well have been influenced by Shiraga’s foot painting.
Yoshihara himself was a considerable artist and a keen disciple of post-war western avant-garde movements, notably Abstract Expressionism. He wrote to Jackson Pollock at the end of the latter’s life, about what he perceived to be the coincidences of Pollock’s and Gutai’s work, but did not receive an answer.
Left: Tsuyoshi Maekawa (b. 1936), Work 130931, 1963. Mixed media and oil on canvas. 162.5 x 131.5 cm. (64 x 51 3/4 in.) Estimate HK$2,000,000-3,000,000 ($256,400-384,600). Right: Atsuko Tanaka (1932-2005), Work, 1975. Enamel on canvas. 128.8 x 96.7 cm. (50 3/4 x 38 1/8 in.) Atsuko Tanaka © 2015 Ryoji Ito. Estimate HK$1,500,000-2,000,000 ($192,300-256,400)
In the late 1950s, Yoshihara moved the group towards Art Informel, the movement championed by the French critic Michel Tapié, who also championed Gutai, and travelled to Japan to meet Yoshihara. In the second phase of the group's activities, which lasted from 1962 to 1972, the number of artists rose to 50 and the Gutai pinacotheca was founded, which became a destination for John Cage and Lawrence Alloway, the British-born art critic and curator of the Guggenheim at the time.
From performance painting, the group moved on to experiment with various forms of multimedia art, including an art vending machine installed in an Osaka department store. It also experimented with both industrial and natural ‘found materials’, such as electric lights, cellophane, smoke, water and concrete sound.
The crowning achievement of the Gutai group, however, was to be anointed representatives of Japan’s mainstream at Expo ‘70, where they choreographed a performance art ceremony featuring men levitating on huge balloons and a fire truck which blew bubbles. But the Expo also marked the beginning of the end for the group; many of the major figures quit, and some of the younger artists in the group also became disillusioned. The movement eventually petered out in 1972 when Yoshihara died.
Left: Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008), Hokei, 1992. Oil on canvas. 161.7 x 128.2 cm. (63 5/8 x 50 1/2 in.) Estimate in HK$10,000,000-15,000,000 ($1,282,100-1,923,100). Right: Chiyu Uemae (b. 1920), Untitled, 1964. Oil on canvas. 182 x 92 cm. (71 5/8 x 36 1/4 in.) Estimate HK$1,500,000-2,000,000 ($192,300-256,400)
The Gutai group was a forgotten influence in the development of post-war contemporary art for the next four decades. Its members produced daring works that formed skeins between art, body, space and time, producing a lasting legacy of aesthetic experimentation in the process. They influenced western critics and this cross-fertilisation was fruitful. Gutai in its first phase anticipated Abstract Expressionism, Arte Povera and Fluxus, and in its second phase anticipated conceptual art, most notably the artists of the Zero movement, an international network of European artists who shared the same aspirations to transform and redefine art.
Main image at top: Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008), Keicho 19 (Osaka Winter Campaign), 1968. Oil on canvas. 173.5 x 366 cm. (68 1/4 x 144 1/8 in.) Estimate HK$10,000,000-18,000,000 ($1,282,100-2,307,700)
Words by Meredith Etherington-Smith