“[T]he Oriental is far ahead of us in the practice of abstraction in general, both in his philosophy and in the 'reading' of his art”. 1 - Michel Tapié
Japanese Gutai Art in the 1960s European Art Scene
Toshio Yoshida's Untitled (Lot 40), from 1960, is an important material for analysis of the 1960s art history. Its renowned provenance and its publishing and exhibition history document the course of cross-cultural interaction between the East Asia and Europe in the post-war period, and the acceptance of Japanese avant-garde artists in the 1960s European art scene.
Yoshida's Untitled was formerly collected by the tremendously influential European art critic, Michel Tapié. With an exceptionally discerning insight, Tapié was an early supporter of Art Informel in Europe and Abstract Expressionism in the USA, he held exhibitions for Georges Mathieu, Lucio Fontana, and Jackson Pollock. He was also the first Western critic to perform serious studies and critiques of the group of avant-garde Japanese artists in Gutai Art Association (Gutai). His intense interest in this group grew out of the “Gutai” journal publication that was mailed from Osaka, Japan. In 1957, Tapié personally visited Osaka to meet with Gutai artists and gain a deeper understanding of their creative concepts (Fig. 1); after his visit, he made plans with the Gutai founder Yoshihara Jiro for exchanges between Gutai and Western artists. In 1959, he arranged for works by Gutai artists to be shipped from Osaka for exhibition in Turin, Italy. Tapié devoted much effort to promoting diverse philosophies of art and aesthetics, for instance, he established the International Center for Aesthetic Research in 1960, where exhibitions were held for Western artists such as Fontana as well as Japanese Gutai artists. Tapié introduced Asian art to the European art world of his time, and advocated appreciation of art from different cultures.
Toshio Yoshida took part in the 1959 Tokyo show entitled “15 Vanguard Japanese Artists Selected by Michel Tapié”; he was also one of the seventeen Gutai artists chosen by Tapié for the Italian exhibition, “Continuité et avant-garde au Japon.” Yoshida's 1960 painting, Untitled, was one of the works shown in this important exhibition, and was also featured in the exhibition catalog. This same Untitled was also featured in the “Gutai 11” (Fig. 2) volume of the Gutai journal published on November 11, 1960, which was a special anthology, jointly edited by Tapié and Yoshihara Jiro, that covered the International Sky Festival and the 9th Gutai Art Exhibition.
As one of the founding members of the Gutai group, Yoshida actively participated in various exhibitions from its founding in 1954 to its dissolution in 1972. Nevertheless, Yoshida was also one of the six artists to which Yoshihara Jiro made reference in the “Gutai Manifesto” that the group announced in 1956.
Palpable Structure and Processes
Amorphous Materials Segmentation of Perpendicular Space
Analysis of Yoshida's creative work in the first decade (1954- 1964) shows three main focuses of the artist - amorphous materials, texture and structure; and process of creation. Ropes, burn marks, single block of oil paint, liquid pigments, cotton cloth, and foam were applied by Yoshida, these amorphous materials, given even the slightest artificial human intervention, undergo a change in state. This concept figured prominently in the 2nd Gutai “Art on the Stage” exhibition of 1958, where Yoshida and Kyoko Morita performed their “Ceremony of Cloth,” in which their human figures became enwrapped in long swathes of cloth, showing the change of shape of material (Fig. 3).
Yoshida's interest in texture and structure, was shown in “The Experimental Outdoor Modern Art Exhibition to Challenge the Burning Mid-summer Sun” at Ashiya park in 1955. As part of this exhibition, he embedded white wooden poles into the soil ground to form a straight line, and by painting the tops of those poles in different colors, divided the space into two (Fig. 4). The exploration of structure further developed the richness in exaggerated textures and complicated structures found in his works.
Yoshida believed that art is about process and beyond the end product, which established as performance elements in his art creation. In 1956, for the 2nd Gutai Exhibition, Yoshida stood on a ladder and used a water sprinkler to spray pigments on a canvas laid out flat on the floor. The 1960 Untitled presented here was produced in the same semi-automated performance process. The pigments in this work are layered and built up the dense and irregular form so that each work has its own unique surface that appears as a palpable structure rather than a mere surface. The work displays complex textures, and while its rough, uneven surface was formed by artificial, semi-automated methods, it nevertheless resembles natural texture of stone; the surface mottling and the veins left by drip marks have congealed and remain as part of the work. In his early works, Yoshida preferred earth tones, close to the colours of mud or clay, as his base colours; red, green and yellow were used but later sporadically covered by creamy white, dark mossy green, and black.
Through his work in 1960, Yoshida advocated that art as a creative journey or process, rather than as a deliverable or end product. He was the pioneer of action painting who defied the traditional techniques, echoing Achille Bonito Oliva’s proposition that ‘art is no longer a goal but a means’. 2 Yoshida’s concept shared Process Art movement in the United States in the late 1960s. From the 1970s, Richard Serra (B. 1939) uses paint-stick, heating it to a viscous and sometimes fluid state. He slowly builds up complicated texture (Fig. 5). Executed in 1960 that is 10 years before Serra, Untitled carries the avant-garde insights of Yoshida who strive to explore new methods and the limits of the medium, as well as engage the viewer's phenomenological experience of the work. As concluded by Clement Greenberg on modern art, “the inherent aesthetic qualities of painting grew directly out of the materials and processes of painting itself.”' 3
The Traditional Japanese Aesthetics of Wabi-Sabi and “Truth of Material”
The beauty of Toshio Yoshida's 1960 Untitled and the aesthetics of the traditional Japanese wabi-sabi ideal share many values in common. Wabi and sabi were originally two separate concepts, but later joined to represent a kind of natural beauty associated with tranquility, simplicity, austerity, and purity. Wabi once referred to a spiritual condition that is unconcerned with material wants, but around the 15th century in Japan, it came to represent a completely new concept: the idea of plain and imperfect beauty. Sabi represented the natural conception of the passing of light and shadow, and a state of beauty found in incomplete or fragmentary things, or in objects that bear the marks of the lapse of time. Nothing remains forever in its most flourishing state, but instead, everything begins anew after the end of a cycle. If we recognize this one specific kind of fresh and resplendent beauty, we should also be able to understand the existence of another kind of beauty, which is calmer and more faded beauty. Metals that rust and rocks on which moss sprouts all exemplify this sabi. This traditional Japanese concept of wabi-sabi finds correlates in the requirement of simplicity advocated by Zhuangzi, in the arte povera, the concept of “impoverished art” in Italy in the 1960s, as well as in the phrase "Everything has its beauty" coined by American pop art icon Andy Warhol — even though wabi-sabi has been rooted in the cultural outlook of Asian people several centuries earlier. Toshio Yoshida's work displays the most natural beauty, the beauty of the materials themselves, without seeking any other kind of additional ornamentation. It reflects the Clement Greenberg’s philosophy that emphasizes “truth to material” and “the creative process”.
Yoshio Toshida's proposal of a circular, semi-automated drip installation for “NUL 1965 Exhibition” at the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam illustrates how his concept being pushed to the extreme. For this installation, two pigment containers were attached to an inverted V-shaped structure, which moved in the wind to produce a circular pattern of drips. Yoshida had abandoned the notion of creating directly with his two hands, thus reducing the degree of the artist's intervention and enabling painting from distance. This bears some similarity to the conceptual art that began to form in the West in the 1960s, and was anticipated in Sol LeWitt's 1967 comment about Conceptual Art, that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art”. It also incited Yoshida's use of foam in 1964 as the medium for his forms and creations, leading to the famous soap foam sculpture, “Tower of Bubble”, crossing the boundaries between chemistry and art.
1 Michel Tapié and Haga Tore, Continuité et avant-garde au Japon, International Center of Aesthetic Research and Edizioni d'Arte Fratelli Pozzo, Turin, Italy, unpaged.
2 Bonito Oliva, Achille, Shimamoto Shozo, Samurai, acrobata dello sguardo 1950-2008 (exh. cat.), Genova: Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, organized by ABC-ARTE, Milan: Skira, 2008, P.26.
3 Jeffrey Wechsler, ‘From Asian Traditions to Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970’, Asian Traditions/Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1997, p. 78.