signed 'Atsuko Tanaka', titled ''86B' (on the reverse)
vinyl paint on canvas
145.5 x 112 cm. (57 1/4 x 44 1/8 in.)
Executed in 1986
Mulier Mulier Gallery, Belgium
Private Collection, Europe
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 204, p. 182).
Nagoya, Japan, Takagi Gallery, Atsuko Tanaka Exhibition, 6-20 September 1986.

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

Lot Essay

'(Tanaka's Electric Clothes is) the richest object in terms of metaphorical content among those produced by Gutai artists.' - Paul Schimmel

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.' Atsuko Tanaka 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.

Tanaka's 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.

'86B (Lot 589) is a mature example of Tanaka's oeuvre in respect of colour, composition and spacial arrangement. Vertical composition is adopted, creating a layout which is dense above and light-weighted below: the upper part is abundantly filled with colourful small circles, while the lower part is dotted with a few larger circles ranging from vivid red to deep red, leaving some areas in between bare. This stark contrast in colour and spatial arrangement suggests infinite possibilities to the viewer.

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.

Tanaka's iconic works feature intricate lines tangling together like electric wires, the overall effect is often captivating, '86B is another example of such. The wires penetrate the whole canvas, leading the viewers' visual direction all along. Notably Tanaka applied bold black lines across the canvas, from left to right, up to down, even in untraceable directions, allowing them to pass freely between the circles. The use of free-flowing lines is reminiscent of the approach to lines adopted by renowned CoBrA artist Karel Appel, in which firm black contour lines are applied to achieve a child-like, jubilant image. The liberated tripping lines in '86B are both spontaneous and yet seemingly out of control, revealing a sense of pure joy in the course of her artistic creation. While Appel creates abstract paintings, there are still traces of figurative objects in his works. Tanaka on the other hand, has taken a purely abstract and more conceptual approach, therefore considered utmost avant-garde and audacious in the 1950s.

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. Tanaka began using vinyl paint as the 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.'

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