Atsuko Tanaka is the most influential and internationally recognizable female member of the Gutai group in post-war Japan. The Gutai Art Association was founded in 1954 in Ashiya Japan, which Tanaka joined in 1955. She is best known for her Work (Bell) from 1955 and Electric Dress from 1956. Work (Bell) is an acoustic installation, which consists of twenty electric bells connected by forty meters of cords covering the entire exhibition space. When turned on, each bell rings sequentially with the closest one rings loudly and the farthest rings faintly. The visual arrangement of circles and lines is accompanied by the rippling effect of dwindling sound in this seminal experimentation. Furthermore, Tanaka’s bells are placed along the perimeter of the gallery walls, which echoes her interest in the transitions that take place at the boundaries. The work in the following year Electric Dress (Fig. 2) is at once a performance piece as well as a wearable sculpture made of painted light bulbs and neon tubes assembled together by electric wires. Applauding Tanaka as one of the artists “who makes forceful, individual statements,” critic Yoshiaki Tono speaks favorably of her work, “I acutely sensed an overheated obsession in Tanaka’s boisterous symphony of coloured light bulbs. She may rely heavily on her unusual character and direct emotion, but I found her far more favorable than an artist with a tidy disposition.” (Mizuho Kato and Ming Tiampo, Electrifying Art: Atsuko Tanaka, 1954-1968, New York, 2004, p. 55)
Tanaka is fascinated with technology and various artistic mediums and forms. Her signature vocabulary of circles and lines are generally recorded through her schematic drawings and paintings. Tiampo points out the special status Tanaka holds within the Gutai group, “(her) electrifying paintings challenged the more automatist gesturality that dominated post-war Japanese art.” (ibid. p. 64) Opting oil and acrylic for alternative materials such as vinyl, enamel paint, and resin, Tanaka is inherently interested in the physical capability of household materials. ’93A (Lot 34) is a visually striking yet balanced work. Seeking pure abstraction, Tanaka eschews any concrete titles that may allude to literal interpretation. Compared to her paintings from the 1960s and 70s which consist of more evenly distributed coloured circles and rampaging intricate lines, ’93A features a disproportionally large red-shelled blue circular shape impregnated with a myriad of smaller circles intersecting or overlapping with one another. Floating above a bundle of less colorful smaller circles, the large form is connected to a blue loop underneath. Overall, ’93A is a visual exemplary which represents Tanaka’s lifelong engagement with the notions of transitioning, boundaries, and space. Within the structure preset by the artist, repetition of symbols and motifs are arranged with fluidity and lyrical quality. Tanaka’s paintings share similar characteristics of abstraction and galvanizing colors with Sonia Delaunay’s Orphism works (Fig. 4). The formal beauty in Tanaka’s work resembles the geometric designs found in traditional Japanese kimono (Fig. 5). At the same time, ’93A pays homage to the founder of Gutai group, Yoshihara Jiro. One can find a hint of Jiro’s Zen-calligraphic one-stroke circle in the blue circle or the prominent red border of the large circle, with both forms simultaneously referring to the two phases of Gutai movement under the leadership of Jiro.