The burst of energy that was Gutai, far from being an isolated Japanese phenomenon following World War II, was akin to Happenings in the U.S. and to Informel, CoBrA and other experimental movements in Europe. Gutai, like the others, involved time, action and performance as it sought a "new autonomous space" and redefined "picturing" as a whole body experience (in the artists' words). The freshness is multiplied when you consider the propriety of Japan's hierarchical traditional culture and the decades of oppressive militaristic government.
The Gutai group was organized near Osaka (Japan's foremost business center) in 1954 by a wealthy middle-aged businessman/painter named Yoshihara Jirō, whose own best work was his gestural series of smooth fluid circles derived from the Buddhist ensō. But he's most important as the enabler of younger artists, whom he exhorted to "do what no one has done before!" That might be common art-school wisdom today, but in Japan at the time the practice was to follow a master or develop a signature style and stick with it for the rest of your life. The first Gutai artists experimented with materials, staged interactive events in public places and produced a range of wild performances as well. They published a journal to reach their peers abroad and established an art center in Osaka.
Given this blast of innovation and individualistic engagement, it's sad that the Guggenheim's entirely justified and much-anticipated presentation of the whole 18-year range of Gutai work feels rather petrified. Part of the problem is that most early works were re-created in the '80s or later, and they have the cleaned-up, deadened quality of reproductions, while some of the most ragged, bristling, tactile vintage works, like Uemae Chiyū's matchsticks and sawdust on canvas, are shown behind glass. Ironically, the exhibition also suffers from too much space, so the 100 works on display don't play off each other with the amusing mayhem that's apparent in grainy films of the early events. The exhibition design contrasts sharply with that of MoMA's concurrent "Tokyo: 1955-1970" show, in which too much work is crammed into too little space and important artists are left out. As a documentary effort, the Gutai show, organized by Alexandra Munroe, the museum's senior curator of Asian art, and Ming Tiampo of Ottawa's Carleton University, is terrifically satisfying to anyone curious about Gutai because it's all there, including a substantial catalogue with some new interpretive angles and translations of original manifestoes and statements.
The Gutai spirit may be more apparent when the ramps are crowded with people (which was not the case at the preview). For example, the public can push a button to set off Tanaka Atsuko's bell "painting," which rings in a sequence along the ramp. Also visitors can move about in the giant fabric cube by Yamazaki Tsuruko while others outside see them as shadow play. The spirit certainly infuses the canvases Shiraga Kazuo painted with his feet (because he felt his hands were too well-trained) and the colorful tangles of paint on canvas that Kanayama Akira created by using remote-control toy cars loaded with pigment. This exuberant freedom of method makes Gutai important, especially since it predated Happenings and demolishes modernism's claim that everything started in the West, the curators argue. Late Gutai works by a second generation of artists move into cooler materials, including plastics, yielding innovations that seem more persuasive in the catalogue than the gallery. Social criticism and obsessive mark-making also emerge in this second generation.
Whatever its faults, the show is an accomplishment. Track the participation of Tanaka, who escaped her culture's gender limitations from the start. Her novel bell works, with their wiring sequences, led to ephemeral drawings (on sand, seen in a video) as well as large-scale paintings of circles and linear linkages; also note her plaintive early "calendar" paintings and use of raw cloth itself as painting. (Her landmark Electric Dress is a disappointment here—not even mounted on a mannequin to suggest its performance aspect.) Shimamoto Shōzō's explosive abstractions made by smashing glass bottles of pigment on or in front of the canvas are quintessential Gutai works. Look at the photo documentation of Murakami Saburō crashing through sequences of paper screens and think how extra-shocking that must have seemed in a country where houses had paper doors and windows. The exhibition conscientiously brings it all together and the catalogue enters it permanently into Western history, a monumental service.
Photo of Murakami Saburō's performance Passing Through, 1956, during the "2nd Gutai Art Exhibition," Ohara Kaikan, Tokyo; in "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Guggenheim.