Tanaka Atsuko was a member of the acclaimed Gutai group of experimental and performance artists based in Japan in the mid-1950s. In her 1955 piece Work (Bell) (Fig. 1), Tanaka created an acoustic installation comprised of twenty electric alarm bells that stretched across a 40 meter exhibition space. Attendees were invited to push a button that would activate a sequence of ringing along the network of bells, first moving away from, and then back towards the viewer. Fellow members of the Gutai collective described her installation as a composition of “living sound.”
Her work entitled Electric dress (Fig. 2) of 1956 has become one of the best-known pieces associated with the innovative movement. Tanaka appeared at several Gutai events draped in electric light bulbs painted in primary colors that flashed on and off as she walked. Risking electrocution, she made a feminist statement regarding the restrictive nature of women's fashion, while perhaps also speaking to the existential nature of the human being which varies with the lights being turned on or off.
The work presented here, 77R-'84, (Lot 39) appears to be a continuation of the bells or bulbs and connective wires featured in Tanaka’s earlier works. Large round forms built from concentric circles of paint loom behind a web of brightly colored lines and smaller nuclei. Despite being limited to two dimensions, the composition crackles with energy like a network of neurons in the brain, sending electrical impulses from one end to the other in an instant.
The execution of lines is crucial in this work, as they connect circles to one another, as if building a relationship between forms and colours. More importantly, it resonates with the idea behind Tanaka's early installations, with hundreds of nuclei (be it bulbs or bells) connecting one another to present a larger force. This is perhaps a reflection of the impact of the technological advancements in the Japanese metropolis during the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Dotonbori district of Osaka - a vibrant and bustling city where Tanaka was from. (Fig. 3)
Tanaka often chose to use household vinyl or enamel paint, rather than the more conventional oil or acrylic traditionally used by artists. In this work as well as others, she took advantage of the slick, lubricous qualities of the paint, creating an even and homogenous form that is adhered to the surface of the canvas. The glossiness of the paint renders a shimmering sheen, reflecting light as it hits the surface of the work. Layers of enamel or vinyl paint overlap one another, combining movement, rhythm and colour, with the tangle of lines and circles appearing to press toward to the front of the canvas.
Gutai artists have never believed in the limitation of two-dimensional arrangement, choosing to emphasize the textural quality of the material in use to therefore interpret the relationship between materials. Tanaka is certainly no exception as she brings forth the intrinsic characteristics of the very material by imparting meaning into material substances and coaxing out beauty from what is otherwise mundane.