From the Archives: Japan’s Gutai Group

Art in America, November–December 1968.


Where does play end and art begin? The interest in such questions, largely fostered by the 2013 exhibition “Gutai: Splendid Playground” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, has now prompted a resurgent fascination with the work of this high-energy postwar Japanese group, manifest most recently in “Between Action and the Unknown: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga,” on view through July 19 at the Dallas Museum of Art, and “Kazuo and Fujiko Shiraga,” which will run Apr. 30–June 20 at Fergus McCaffrey in New York.

In A.i.A.’s November/December 1968 issue, former Japan Times critic Martin Cohen, writing just 14 years after the movement’s launch, offered a penetrating assessment, both collective and individual, of the avant-garde “antics” of such “madcap” artists as founder Jiro Yoshihara and cohorts Atsuko Tanaka, Akira Kaneda, Sadamasa Motonaga and others. —Eds.


These men anticipated most of the far-out artistic activities of the sixties. Now that the far-out is in all over the world, will Gutai’s high-jinks seem low-yield?

What happens after the happening? Where do the participants doff mask and costume and assume normalcy as most people know it? What happens to art’s enfants terribles when they get older? Some take up chess, some continue as before and thus complacently cease real growth, and some mellow, like the late Leonardo Foujita, who had painted his penis decades before comparable undertakings in the moral turbulence of the 1960s.

It is well over ten years since Gutai members occupied a pine grove near the Ashiya River, not far from Osaka, there to drape the ground and trees with a three-hundred-meter roll of white vinyl stamped with outsize footprints, frame a narrow portion of sky and make it and the passing clouds the artist’s work, fire paint from a homemade cannon onto a ten-meter-square vinyl sheet, and suspend lond tubes of translucent vinyl, holding colored water, from tree to tree. Nothing outstanding today – but Gutai was doing it over a decade ago.

In 1956-57 (and at regular intervals later), Gutai presented stage shows, using structure and music in creating works, carefully voided of literary content, for the stage. The productions were planned and directed by Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai’s mentor, and featured acts which included Atsuko Tanaka’s appearance in a garment which as far as anyone could see consisted only of a jumble of fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs draped over her body, Akira Kaneda’s inflation of a giant vinyl balloon which soon filled the entire stage, and Sadamasa Motonaga’s inflation of a long plastic phallus which, led by a wire, rose past the proscenium and to the ceiling, puffing red smoke.

Gutai did not then and does not now look upon such antics as being consciously attempted happenings, but they are certainly among the interesting and important early attempts in postwar Japan to shake free of the traditional restrictions that paintings be rectilinear and utilize oil-based pigments and that sculpture be seen and not heard.

This sort of madcap activity drew attention from, as they say in the Far East, the eight directions but especially, at first, from the West, in the form of reportage by Life and, more important, the “discovery” of Gutai by Michel Tapié, who found a strong commonality between Gutai members’ work and that of his “informelle” clique. Tapié wrote an enthusiasti “Homage à Gutai” as an introduction to the catalogue for Gutai’s “L’Aventure Informelle” exhibition in 1957.

Perhaps because the Japanese have been inordinately sensitive to foreigners’ opinions about Japan, especially since Lafcadio Hearn, Gutai group shows in various Japanese cities became more common after Tapié’s endorsement. Outside Japan, in 1958, Gutai works were shown at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. In 1958, 1959 and 1960, Gutai artists showed their works in Turin (“Art Nuova” exhibition), Lissone (“Premio Lissone”) and in Paris at the same time, Gutai was introducing foreign artists to Japan; in the “L’Aventure Informelle” show, among the artists were Burri, Capogrossi, David Smith, Dubuffet, de Kooning, Fontana, Gottlieb, Hoffmann, Kline, Mathieu (who visited Japan with Tapié), Motherwell and Pollock (who had been very interested in Gutai’s activities).

But it wasn’t until 1962 that Gutai had a real headquarters from which to assail tradition, and it was Tapié who gave the musée-manifeste its name: Pinacotheca. In the heart of Osaka, and in the shade of new office buildings, the Pinacotheca is a thoroughly Japanese-appearing building, now out of place amid the frenetic highway and high-rise construction. A rice granary when first built some eighty years ago, the Pinacotheca, if considered to be a museum of modern art, is the only one in Osaka. Gutai members have one-man and group shows there, and foreign artists—Sam Francis being the most recent—also occasionally appear. In a city which, in the name of modernization for Expo 70, has sacrificed some good traditions like the “oyster boats”—fresh-oyster restaurants moored in Osaka’s canals—the antiquated Pinacotheca remains, now a tradition in itself, as combined museum, gallery and clubhouse for a remarkable band of madcap artists.

Gutai’s origin, according to Osaka industrialist Kunijiro Tamaki, a collector of Gutai members’ works, was a matter of natural coalescence, or even spontaneous generation. A number of artists with similar ideas found themselves in one place, Osaka, at one time, 1952; and under the leadership of Jiro Yoshihara the group has continued ever since. Yoshihara himself is generally taciturn and persistently modest when speaking about his connection with Gutai, partly because of his desire to keep his artistic activities distinctly separated from his business activities. There are no secrets; the Pinacotheca is across a narrow street from his Yoshihara Oil Mill, but stockholders might not take well to his association with avant-garde artists. It is also no secret that it has been the oil mill which has allowed him to be Gutai’s patron, by enabling him to provide the Pinacotheca and to defray costs of the annual Tokyo exhibition. Yoshihara is no dictator, but his opinion of members’ work carries the weight of a Supreme Court justice.

A pioneer in modern painting in Japan forty years ago, Yoshihara has abandoned action painting in recent years for Zen-like black and white circles and lines. Asked to define the requirements for membership in the Gutai group, Yoshihara said they have always been that the artist should not imitate anyone but express his own self, that he be involved in a pursuit of creativity and that he make what did not exist before. In practice, applicants and members alike must live in the Kansai area, which includes Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and other cities; a member who moves to Tokyo or elsewhere outside Kansai becomes inactive. Membership has been kept stable at about thirty for several years.

But just how good is Gutai today? The question requires one answer for the group, one answer for individual members. As a group Gutai shows more stability and internal harmony than one might expect, considering the great disparity in methods, materials and basic attitudes shown by members. But critics, including the outsider who knows Gutai best, Yoshiaki Inui, curator-in-chief of Kyoto’s National Museum of Modern Art, feel that Gutai could be—has been—far better than it now is, even though a number of members can be singled out as doing exciting work. Exhibitions continue almost all year round at the Pinacotheca, and once a year the group comes up to the capital for a big and generally quite good, if eclectic, show. But the daring has grown dim. True, there is no need for Gutai to present what may be called or compared to happenings, or works for the stage; they have done this long ago, and are not apt to repeat themselves. Thus, since the “International Sky Festival” in 1960, when Gutai members and friends overseas had their works hung from balloons over an Osaka department store, no really big project has been attempted. Gutai still has itws own momentum and generates its own energy, but as a group it has become relatively tame. The Pinacotheca today is not only a gallery; it is also, as noted earlier, a clubhouse—and therein is one problem for Gutai.

But if the group has become weak, some individuals have become strong. None, it would seem, live on income from art alone, but then again Gutai is quite uncommercial. The Pinacotheca does not have anyone specifically charged with selling. Largely for this reason, members’ output is low, but there are other reasons, perhaps peculiar to Japan. When his one-man show at the Pinacotheca ended last June, painter Sadaharu Horio was willing to sell his ambitiously scaled works for the cost of materials. Otherwise, he said, he would burn them, because he had now room to keep them. Tokyo gallery owner Paul Watanabe, aghast not only at Gutai members’ low productivity but also at the prospect of needless destruction of the paintings, secured half a dozen and promptly when about selling them. Although some Gutai members have had one-man shows in the Tokyo Gallery in recent years, this is about the sum of their representation in Tokyo. In the case of Kazuo Shiraga, longtime Gutai member, he produces very little, he says, because of current directions in art. “My paintings are hot,” Shiraga says, “and these are cool times.” Shiraga paints with his feet, swinging over the canvas by a rope, to produce action painting packed with power and speed. He will also use a board to spread paint, once twisted his entire body in mud—total involvement!—and, even if his work is not well suited to this particular time, he is one of Gutai’s best.

Horio, twenty-nine, works in mixed media, likes to accordion-pleat strips and pieces of canvas and attach them to ordinary canvas, or give a canvas a navel-like dimple, or tie cloth to a wooden framework, add plaster, white paint and daubs of color to the rags to produce a Gutai-like playfulness. Slender Kumiko Imanaka, a housewife now, was an early op-art sculptor, fabricating vortices of sinuous plastic strips which, because of their two-ply, two-color construction, provided a color-in-motion appearance when one moved in front of them. The idea was commercialized for use in lighting fixtures, and she is now interested in working in a different vein.

Shuji Mukai made a mark for himself by making marks—mostly Xs, pluses, minuses, circles and others signs—not only on canvas and plastic, but all over his clothing and even a junked automobile. Mukai says he has just burned all the works that he had because he now considers them to be worthless. He is at present thinking in terms of electric circuits, flashers, light bulbs. For last summer’s miniature exhibition at the Pinacotheca, he sauntered in with a small white attaché case, ten-watt bulbs in rows covering one side. The attaché case, plugged in, became a signboard, flashing over and over a set sequence of—signs. He had not, after all, cut every link to his past work. But Mukai’s approach from now on, he said, would be different. Today, artists have to use other people’s specialized skills, and, he continued, “I’ve found a tremendous brain”—someone who will build what Mukai wants.

Toshio Yoshida (no relation to Minoru Yoshida) similarly has his bubble machines made to order by a plastics firm. Although he has succeeded in selling several large machines—which produce random sculptures, their forms determined by air currents, the extent that people take a swipe at the bubbles and other factors—he realizes that although the idea and its results are original, they are limited and limiting. He expects to try something else, probably sculpture, before long.

But two other Gutai artists, Minoru Yoshida and George Kikunami, steadfastly stick to the idea that the artist is the one who should make his works. Kikunami, who makes both immobile and moving optical sculpture, painstakingly cuts collars from mirrorlike Tetoron film, a plastic, and mounts them on fine nylon threads, or directly to a board. His moving works, which utilize two or more rotating screens and interior lighting, are hypnotic. Yoshida still creates his characteristic curvilinear, hard-edge paintings, but prefers moving mixtures of plastics and flashing colored lights, as raucous as Kikunami’s works are serene. Wearing round, blue glasses and sporting a spike of a beard, Yoshida looks like the man who made his works, and also lives the way one would expect, requiring taped rock or sitar music, volume up, when he works.