The movements that shaped Japanese post-war art 

The movements that shaped Japanese post-war art 

Know your Gutai from your Mono-ha — the artists who challenged art by throwing away their paintbrushes, embracing asphalt and even scrubbing the streets of Tokyo. Illustrated with works from our London sales of Japanese art in October 2016

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  • Genbi — the Contemporary Art Discussion Group

Founded in 1952, Genbi, or the Contemporary Art Discussion Group, provided a forum for Japanese artists working in a variety of media, joined by the desire to discuss ideas freely, regardless of their association with any particular school or movement.

This unconstrained approach made Genbi something of an anti-movement: begun by a group of artists including Jiro Yoshihara, who later established Gutai, its members experimented with new art forms, merging modern and traditional techniques with Eastern and Western influences.

Genbi participants included Waichi Tsutaka, an Osaka-born artist who otherwise avoided formal art groups. Although his practice immediately after the Second World War focused on ideas of ruin, from 1952 he became known for abstract compositions incorporating poised lines and bold colour.  

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  • Gutai

The Gutai Art Association was founded by the artist, critic and teacher Jiro Yoshihara in 1954, and became one of the most influential avant-garde art groups in post-war Japan. Initially comprising 16 members, by the time of Yoshihara’s death in 1972 it had expanded to 59 — its leader’s passing marking the group’s dissolution.

Yoshihara famously urged artists to ‘Do what has never been done before!’, radically expanding the definition of art in doing so. Gutai members created dresses from light bulbs, leapt through paper screens and painted with their feet — a very literal response to artist Shozo Shimamoto’s essay, Killing the Paintbrush

Shimamoto’s own methods for killing the paintbrush were somewhat different: in 1956, at the second Gutai Art Exhibition in Tokyo, he produced his first Bottle Crash, dramatically hurling bottles of coloured paint at a rock placed on a large canvas on the floor. Produced in 1991, this Bottle Crash was one of the largest ever to be offered at auction. 

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  • Kyushu-ha

Kyushu-ha can be considered one of the most radically innovative of all post-war Japanese groups yet, until recently, it has been largely overlooked. This is partially due to the rarity of Kyushu-ha work: of more than 1,000 pieces made in the group’s first four years, only 90 are believed to survive. 

This scarcity, however, very much reflects the group’s intentions. Founded on the island of Kyushu in 1957, Kyushu-ha opposed the creation of enduring works of art. Art, its members argued, could be made from everyday objects — from broken machinery to asphalt and worn tyres.

The group’s materials reflected an engagement with social context uncommon for the period: poverty in the mining and farming communities was a concern, as was the rapid modernisation of Tokyo. Painted using asphalt, Modern Symmetry is an extremely rare work from the group’s first year by Kyushu-ha artist Takami Sakurai. 

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  • Obsessional artists

Active during the 1960s, the Obsessional artists created works connected to fantasies of fragmentation and endless repetition. Artist Yayoi Kusama, for example, became preoccupied with dots, which are endlessly repeated across canvases, sculptures and, eventually, entire rooms. 

For artist Tomio Miki, it was the ear. Miki made his first ear sculpture in 1962, producing hundreds of ears of various sizes and arrangements from then on. Having received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Miki moved to New York in 1971. After be became addicted to drugs he virtually gave up his art, and died prematurely from a heart attack in 1978 when still in his early forties. 

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  • Neo-Dada Organizers

At the beginning of the 1960s, an unruly group of around 10 artists emerged in Tokyo, calling themselves the ‘Neo-Dada Organizers’. Gathering in the atelier of artist Masunobu Yoshimura, they wrote polemical tracts and took to the streets to carry out happenings that interrogated subjects including American values and capitalism.

A key member of the short-lived movement, Genpei Akasegawa, went on to join the comparatively organised Hi-Red Center in 1962, but continued to attract controversy. In 1964 authorities accused him of counterfeiting money — a response to a series that featured one-sided prints of thousand-yen notes, wrapped around everyday objects.

Akasegawa’s trials became infamous, featuring courtroom performances from Hi-Red Center addressing the question, ‘What is, or is not, art?’ Akasegawa was found guilty. In response to his sentence he produced a group of zero-yen notes on which was emblazoned the words, ‘THE REAL THING’

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  • Hi-Red Center

Active from 1963-4, the short-lived, radical collective Hi-Red Center became renowned for its ‘actions’ — a series of performances held in Tokyo’s public spaces that expressed anxiety about Japan’s rapid restructuring, and critiqued its post-war embrace of capitalism.

Founded by artists Jiro Takamatsu, Genpei Akasegawa and Natsuyuki Nakanishi, one of Hi-Red Center’s most famous acts was to scrub the streets of Tokyo during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games — an ironic response to government demands to clean up the city at a time when the whole world was looking.

A self proclaimed ‘anti-artist’, founding member Jiro Takamatsu produced an exceptionally large body of work, much of which is now in museum collections. Compound Painting No.388  was created as part of Takamatsu’s Compound series (1974-1977): two-dimensional depictions of ‘compound’ forms, later translated into three-dimensional pieces. 

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  • Fluxus

In its earliest stages Fluxus — founded in 1961 — was largely active in New York and West Germany, although it quickly came to encompass a number of prominent artists from Japan, including Yoko Ono, Takako Saito and Ay-O.

The movement sought to challenge ideas about what art was. Fluxus praised the process rather than the product, and, while it could not be claimed as purely ‘Japanese’ (being international in scope) the influence of Japanese movements including Gutai proved formative.

Ay-O — whose eccentric name is written with two obscure Chinese characters which translate as ‘cloud’ and ‘nausea’ — was born Takao Iijima in 1931. Known for his brightly coloured rainbow paintings, the artist is also the inventor of the ‘finger box’, encouraging spectators to insert a finger into a hole in the side of a box to make contact with a material concealed within. 

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  • Mono-ha

Beginning in 1968 and dissolving in the early 1970s, Mono-ha had a pivotal effect on Japanese contemporary art. Its members used raw, unworked materials including bare wood, stone and water, drawing out artistic expression by arranging them, often temporarily and with minimal manipulation, within an environment.

Central to Mono-ha thought was a desire to create a contemporary Asian art free from what the artists considered to be Japan’s unquestioning absorption of international modernism. In addition, they also rejected the use of Asian motifs (such as those derived from Buddhism or Zen), which could be considered derivative.

At the centre of the group were artist-philosopher Lee Ufan (b. 1936) and graduates of Tama Art University, including artist Nobuo Sekine. Executed in 1970, Sekine’s Phase of Nothingness  was exhibited at the 35th Venice Biennale and consisted of a large rock positioned atop a mirrored rectangular stand.