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Gutai @ San Francisco Art Institute

Saburo Murikami, Passing Through, 1955

In 1954 a salad oil magnate and self-educated painter/theorist named Jiro Yoshihara issued a challenge to Japanese artists. “Do what has never been done before!”  Making that declaration against the ruin that was Japan after WWII, he urged artists to commit to changing human culture, imploring them to unleash the human spirit through “the scream of matter itself.” Spiritual liberation pursued in such a manner, he believed, could deliver Japan from the circumstances that led to its undoing.

His view of art history was no less pointed. “Lock these corpses up in a graveyard.”  He exempted primitive art and what came after Impressionism because they “used matter – that is, paint – without distorting or killing it.”
Sixteen Osaka-area artists, hand-picked by Yoshihara, united under the banner of the Gutai Art Association to do just that.  Its activities, which he tightly controlled, were revolutionary — then and now.  Kazuo Shiraga, in a frontal attack on painting, used his feet to slather pigment across paper and canvas.  Shozo Shimamoto made pictures by hurling paint-filled bottles at canvases. Atsuko Tanaka famously donned the Electric Dress, a garment made of colored light bulbs, and performed a striptease (Stage Clothes, 1957) by peeling layers of clothing off her body as if it were an onion.  Others wrapped landscapes in fabric and collaborated on dadaist-influenced interactive performances, designed to engage audiences in what is today called social practice.  In 1960, at the dawn of the Space Age, members floated works of art into the sky from hot-air balloons.  And in 1970, in response to the challenges of a newly industrialized nation, they created mind-bending, proto-psychedelic installations that employed the latest advances in wiz-bang audio/visual technology.
Atsuko Tanaka, Electric Dress, 1956

When Yoshihara died in 1972 and the group disbanded, it had swelled to 58 artists spanning two generations.  Though it was scarcely known to the general public during its existence, its art-world cachet couldn’t have been greater.  The roster of American and European artists, critics and collectors who visited the group’s Osaka headquarters reads like a who’s who of postwar art.  It included: John Cage, Peggy Guggenheim, Yoko Ono, Jean Tinguely, Merce Cunningham, Sam Francis, Clement Greenberg, Willem De Kooning, critic Lawrence Alloway and MOMA curator William Lieberman to name but a few.  Crosspollination had indeed occurred, and before the ‘50s ended, Yoshihara’s dream of an international association of like-minded artists had been realized.  Yet it remained, for the most part, an underground phenomenon.  

What has propelled Gutai into public consciousness is a recent wave scholarship led by Ming Tiampo, art history professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.  Their research, which underpins the museum’s current retrospective (Gutai: Splendid Playground, through May 5), provides an unprecedented view into Gutai’s inner workings, philosophy, artworks and influence.  That influence radiated out to every art movement that followed: Happenings, Fluxus, performance, conceptual art, Minimalism, process art, land art and relational aesthetics.
For proof, take in Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response, a knock-out exhibition up through March 30 at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries.  Curated by John Held, Jr. and Andrew McClintock, the show, whose ungainly title comes from group’s first outdoor exhibit in 1955, offers a selection of rarely seen paintings, filmed performances, mail art and memorabilia.  All are superbly chosen and displayed, with representative works from the movement’s chief provocateurs.  Painting occupies most of the wall space, and good effect; but it’s video and archival film clips that bring us closest to the Gutai’s heart and soul.  Those displayed on computer monitors in the lobby show Shiraga’s
Kazuo Shiraga, Challenging Mud, 1955 
Challenging Mud and Saburo Murakami’s Passing Through reenacted at the exhibition’s opening.  The first features Jeremiah Jenkins as flag-draped WWF wrestler attacking a mud pile.  Writhing and thrashing, he transformed the wet dirt into a composition of sorts, while the crowd, whipped into a mock patriotic frenzy by an MC, chanted: “USA! USA!” The sandbox-sized frame in which the action took place, now occupies the center of the gallery, a mute testament to the artist’s struggle against an inert “opponent”.  Out on a terrace overlooking SFAI’s panoramic view of San Francisco Bay, Guy Overfelt, in Murakami’s role, drove a motorcycle through six panels of construction paper, leaving a kind of kinetic sculpture of paper scraps rustling in the breeze. Entertaining as these remakes are, they can't stand up to the originals.  The latter, viewable in shaky and dimly lit clips, offer a ringside seat at watershed moments when formal conventions of art making were being creatively and convincingly shattered. 
Kazuo Shiraga, Aya (B), 1954, oil on canvas

The most memorable show Gutai artists painting with a bicycle, an umbrella, a watering can, a toy car and other unconventional implements, surpassing in bodily engagement Jackson Pollock while and running on a parallel track with Yves Klein who made body prints called “anthropometries.”  In clips of the installations we see Gutai artists engaged in other boundary smashing activities: wrapping outdoor spaces in fabric and suspending inflatable puppets and tubes of colored water from trees, prefiguring land artists like Christo, Guiseppe Penone and Andy Goldsworthy.  Of the stage performances, those that lodge in memory are Akira Kanayama’s placement of a dirigible-like inflatable before a seemingly shocked crowd, and Shiraga’s Ultramodern Sanbaso in which he dons a cone-shaped hat and a suit with wing-like arms, reminiscent of the one Swiss Dada founder Hugo Ball wore at the Café Voltaire in 1916. Missing from this collection are clips from Expo ’70 which would have shown Gutai at its technologically most sophisticated.

A big question overhanging all this felicitous activity is why the Gutai artists reacted so differently to the experience of war than their European their counterparts, the dadaists, the surrealists, and the German expressionists, who recoiled from WWI with grotesque imagery.  Shoichi Hirai, Curator of The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, in a recent lecture at SFAI, stated that Yoshihara, the leader, was nonpolitical. And for that, explains Held, “Gutai took a lot of heat from both Japanese critics and artists alike, especially around the time of Expo '70, when anti-Americanism over the extension of army bases on Japanese territory was being debated and decried by liberal and communist artists.” Pressure notwithstanding, Gutai artists continued to take "their lead from Yoshihara, who was “devoted to modern art" and to Japan taking its “rightful place within an international context.”
Shozo Shimamoto, Explosion, 1960
Like any radical group, Gutai was pulled in different directions.  On the one hand, it wanted revolution – a spiritual revolution — and on the other it wanted acceptance and recognition.  It received the latter in spades when the French critic and Art Informel promoter Michel Tapie, in 1958, brought Gutai into his international orbit, buying up paintings and placing Gutai artists into shows that forged an important and lasting link between American and European Modernism and the Asian avant-garde.   It also catalyzed, according to Held and other observers, a conservative move toward painting, which it previously rejected.  No matter. The paintings on view here are spectacular.
Among many eye-grabbing works Shiraga’s Aya (B), a palette knife painting from 1954, stands out.  It consists of moiré-like patterns stacked one atop the other in bleeding horizontal bands, prefiguring effects Gerhard Richter and Ed Moses would later achieve through mechanical methods.  A more typical Shiraga work is Chisonsei Isshika (1960). It looks like an animal carcass plucked from a slaughterhouse , which may not be far from the truth since the artist actually made a painting very much like this one on a boar's hide.  Shiraga’s Red (1999), the second largest painting in the exhibition, is displayed alone with the intent of showcasing the artist’s athletic virtuosity. That it falls somewhat short is hardly surprising — Shiraga was 75 when he made it.
Chiyu Uemae’s trio of paintings, made between 1950 and 1963, demonstrates the close relationship between Gutai and Art Informel, Europe’s answer to Abstract Expressionism. Their scabrous, heavily worked surfaces and their embedded shapes, suggestive of figures, echo in style and substance the assaults on the picture plane that were then being waged by Jean Fautrier, Georges Mathieu and Jean Dubuffet.  Two other paintings show similar Art Informel links.  Both are by Shimamoto.  One untitled work looks like a chunk of excavated earth; the other, Explosion (1960), features thin, bright converging lines that look as if they were extruded from a syringe.  They fly apart at the painting’s top left corner.
Chiyu Uemae, Untitled (all), 1959-63, oil on canvas
Atsuko Tanaka, creator of the famed Electric Dress, also made paintings, and they were just as riveting as her sculptures and installations.  The one seen here, 2001-F (2001), appears to be a constellation of vinyl circles affixed in the manner of applique, a reflection of the artist’s hyper-wired, networked orientation. This one, a kind of circuit board in primary colors, is eye-popping in its graphic intensity.
One of my concerns with this show was that it might lean too heavily on memorabilia and not enough on the things that matter.  That's not the case.  The memorabilia in the upstairs gallery is the perfect denouement to a near-perfect show. Floor space is occupied by vitrines containing rare books (e.g. Allan Kaprow’s seminal Assemblage, Environments & Happenings), magazines, posters and exhibition catalogs, as well as a table stocked with current catalogs and books that visitors are free to browse.  If you open only one, make it the catalog that accompanied Paul Schimmel’s final show at MOCA, Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void: 1949-62.  It’s a crash course in mid-century abstraction that cements the most concrete link made by the show — the one between Art Informel and Gutai.  
Directly behind, two shelves of mail art cover the back wall.  Gutai artists didn’t invent mail art – an American, Ray Johnson, did – but when Shimamoto encountered it through a Texan visiting Osaka, he became a participant.  Held, a mail art devotee, met Shimamoto in 1986, and later, under his guidance, toured Japan.  To commemorate their relationship, and to pay tribute one of Gutai’s founders, Held, for this show, issued a call for mail art submissions.  More than two hundred artists responded.  Visitors are free to open the envelopes and peruse the contents.  The quality, as you’d expect, varies, but the diversity and inventiveness of the submissions is head spinning. 
Atsuko Tanaka, 2001-F, 2001, acrylic on canvas
Interactive and informal — and capable of spanning space and time – mail art certainly met the boundary stretching criteria outlined by Yoshihara who, in his 1954 manifesto, wrote: “In Gutai art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance.
"Matter," he continued "never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates the matter.  When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out.”
This time capsule of an exhibit cries out to be seen, savored and discussed.  Its contents form the foundation on which much contemporary art rests.  As Held put it in a must-read San Francisco Arts Quarterly essay: Gutai is “probably the most interesting art movement you’ve never heard of.”
Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response through March 30 at San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries
Suburo Murakami (1925 – 1996), Passing Through, 1955, Performance view: 1st Gutai Art Exhibition, Ohara Kaikan, Tokyo, Image courtesy of Ashiya City Museum of Art & History, © Makiko Murakami and the former members of the Gutai Art Association.
Painting photos courtesy of SFAI and Joshua Band.

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