About us
The Gutai Group Collage

The Gutai Group

Started: 1954

Ended: 1972

The Gutai Group Timeline


"We have decided to pursue enthusiastically the possibilities of pure creativity. We believe that by merging human qualities and material properties, we can concretely comprehend abstract space."
Jirõ Yoshihara, 'The Gutai Art Manifesto'
"Gutai Art does not alter matter. Gutai Art imparts life to matter. Gutai Art does not distort matter."
Jirõ Yoshihara, 'The Gutai Art Manifesto'
"As totalitarianism fails in politics, in culture, too, anything inconveniently totalitarian should disappear."
Kazuo Shiraga, 'The Establishment of the Individual'
"We are following the path that will lead to an international common ground where the arts of the east and the west influence each other. And this is the natural course of the history of art."
Jirõ Yoshihara

"Discarding the frame, getting off the walls, shifting from immobile time to lived time, we aspire to create a new painting."

Saburo Murakami


This Japanese movement represented a radical and energetic approach to artmaking that encompassed performance, painting, installation, and theatrical events, taking advantage of the freedoms available in their newly democratic homeland. They sought and achieved an extraordinary level of international recognition, collaborated with and strongly influenced conceptual and performance artists that came after them, and are now considered to mark one of the most important moments in post-war Japanese culture.

Key Ideas

Individualism was a central concern for Gutai artists. During the Second World War, Japan's totalitarian regime had promoted the notion of a national body and stifled any hints of individual expression. Members of the group unashamedly rebelled against this attitude in their writings and artworks, encouraging the public, children, and other artists to "do what no one has done before!"
The word 'gutai' translates as 'concreteness', and it articulates one of the Gutai group's most distinctive traits - their desire to physically engage with an extraordinary range of materials. The name also anticipated their investigations into the reciprocal connection between matter (paint, chemicals, tar, mud, water) and physical action (breaking, exploding, tearing, dripping). They wanted to create a new kind of art that explored the relationship between the human spirit and material, works that luxuriated in "the scream of matter."
Gutai artists were exceptional international networkers who used the media to spread their ideas across the globe. They also collaborated with other artists' groups in Europe and America, including Allan Kaprow's Happenings, the Art Informel group, and the Dutch Nul collective. This drive was not only essential to the movement's long term success, but it also represented their rejection of Japanese isolation during World War II and their desire to be a part of a new, liberal-minded Japan.
Gutai firmly believed in concept over form, thoroughly rejecting representative art. They wanted to move away from the art object towards the invisible world of ideas, and to leave plenty of room for viewers to come up with potential meanings on their own. Two Gutai practices that articulated these ideas were the pared-down, interactive works of Atsuko Tanaka and Saburõ Murakami's pieces that aimed to separate art from content with a strong dose of wit.

Most Important Art

The Gutai Group Famous Art

Challenge To The Mud (1955)

Artist: Kazuo Shiraga
Kazuo Shiraga's seminal 'performance painting' featured the artist flinging himself, half naked, into a pile of clay, where he writhed and slipped around in the material while sculpting shapes from it - thus creating a picture using his whole body. Challenge To The Mud explored the place where physical action (represented by Shiraga wrestling in the clay) and 'matter' (the clay itself) collide. The pile of mud was left in situ after the performance for the show's duration, and presented as an artwork in its own right. Shiraga initially conceived the work as an expanded painting, and it predated his related 'rope hanging' performances in which he created exuberant canvases by dipping his feet in paint while suspended above or walking directly on them.
Read More ...

The Gutai Group Artworks in Focus:


Japan in the 1950s was in a process of renewal after being ravaged by the Second World War, and diplomatic relations with the West - especially America after its occupation of the country came to an end in 1952 - were rapidly becoming reestablished. This new internationalism had a strong impact on Japan's cultural scene, and it was against this backdrop of young democracy and a growing belief in individual freedom that Jirõ Yoshihara was inspired to found the Gutai Art Association in the affluent town of Ashiya, near Osaka in Japan, in 1954.

A generation older than most of the collective's other future members, Yoshihara was the son of a wealthy merchant, able to thoroughly finance many of Gutai's activities. He had been a reasonably successful painter and teacher for over twenty years before seeking artistic revolution. He led the group until his death in 1972.

The first to join the Yoshihara's movement were young artists, either former students of Yoshihara's or others whom he met at one of the numerous cultural events that had taken place in the Ashiya area during the postwar years.

Local Influences

A number of small artistic groups and societies in the Ashiya region contributed to Gutai's success, supplying many of its members as well as its key ideas.

Founded in 1952 and consisting of about fifteen members - including future Gutai luminaries Tanaka Atsuko and Saburõ Murakami - The Zero-Kai (Zero Society) was the best-known of these. The deeply conceptual and radical group, focused on the idea that "every work of art begins from nothing", was extraordinarily experimental, counting sound, chance, and time among their materials. When they became part of Gutai in 1955, they encouraged the rest of the movement to redefine and expand their notion of what art could be.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The Gutai Group Overview Continues

The Ashiya City Exhibition also became a rich source of new Gutai members, notably Toshio Yoshida and Shuji Mukai. Co-founded by Yoshihara, the Exhibition was a juried salon show that had been extremely conservative before the war, but that had become a hive of artistic innovation in the Ashiya region since the end of the war.

Another group noted for its contribution to the movement's evolution was Genbi, a multi-disciplinary society also co-founded by Yoshihara with Kan Muramatsu, an art journalist. The group was primarily concerned with ways of bringing traditional Japanese art forms up to date and how to make the country's art scene more internationally relevant - themes that would repeatedly recur in Gutai. Thirteen future Gutai members were Genbi recruits.

International Influences

Gutai artists were strongly influenced by European and American artists of the day, particularly Jackson Pollock and the European Art Informel movement. Many early Gutai directly responded to Pollock's rejection of representation and the unadulterated energy of his drip paintings, including Kazuo Shiraga who made energetic foot paintings and Shozo Shimamoto, known for his explosions of paint onto canvas using a handmade cannon. Jirõ Yoshihara praised Pollock in his Gutai Manifesto of 1956, describing how his work "reveals the scream of matter itself, cries of the paint and enamel."

Gutai's founder also used his 1956 manifesto to herald his enthusiasm for the Art Informel movement: "Their art is free from conventional formalism, demanding something fresh and newborn." While Pollock never responded to Yoshihara's attempt to make contact with him shortly before his death in 1956, Michel Tapie - the French critic who coined the term Art Informel to describe European postwar painting that violently renounced traditional ideas of composition and order - received his attentions with much more interest, and their relationship became longstanding.

The First Gutai Art Exhibition

Sixteen artists took part in the group's first exhibition in Ohara Hall, Tokyo in October 1955. The show, which was unfavorably received in the Tokyo art world, included a number of artworks which have since become some of their best known works, including Kazuo Shiraga's Challenge To The Mud, Saburõ Murakami's Work (Six Holes), and Atsuko Tanaka's interactive sound piece Work (Bell). Their actions that used the body as a medium were especially groundbreaking, predating the comparable American Happenings and European Actionist movements by several years.

Concepts and Styles

Kaiga and E

Even in their most outlandish moments, Gutai artists always maintained a formal and theoretical connection to painting, unlike other performance art movements of the 1950s and 1960s such as Allan Kaprow's Happenings, which advocated abandoning painting completely. In a time before performance art, interactive art, or conceptual art as it is understood today, Gutai artists had to invent their own vocabulary to explain their works. They summed up their artistic aims in a single word - "e", which loosely translates as 'picture' or 'picturing', using it to refer to their entire range of activities that aimed for "the expulsion of the frame", from painting and installation to performance and sound pieces. This broad understanding stood in direct contrast to kaiga - the Japanese word traditionally used to refer to conventional painting - whose history Gutai wanted to acknowledge while also going beyond it.

E had many articulations. Kazuo Shiraga painted with his feet; Akira Kanayama painted with a remote control car; and Yasuo Sumi painted with an abacus. Even looser expressions of e included Shiraga's Ultramodern Sanbaso, which he performed in a red outfit with sweeping sleeves, creating an e of a long and meandering red line; and Atsuko Tanaka's Electric Dress, which produced an e of bright color and rapid, moving light.


Printed publications were a vital part of Gutai's output. They contributed to the group's wider efforts to create and maintain an international network of similar-minded artists, and were also designed to engage audiences within and outside the art world.

The Gutai Journal was set up in 1954, a year before the movement's first group exhibition. It was heavily inspired by the Surrealist magazine Minotaure and featured photographs of Gutai artworks and shows, articles by members of the group, and images of works by their international contemporaries. The journal was incredibly pioneering in its design and layout, and became a kind of exhibition space in its own right, with contributions that included concrete poetry, graphic cutouts, and limited edition multiples by Gutai members. It was also translated into English and French and distributed to influential artists and critics internationally.

Kirin was a children's art and poetry magazine that aimed to free art education from the tight constrictions that had been imposed on it by Japan's military regime. Many Gutai artists taught art to children alongside their practices, and wanted to use art education as a way to encourage children to think for themselves and give them the freedom to create as individuals through play in the same way artists in the group did. Members of Gutai wrote around sixty articles for Kirin between 1954 and 1962.


Gutai was one of the first modern movements to make works that actively involved the spectator, anticipating the more famous, technology-based interactive art from the 1960s onwards. The group's desire to involve the public - young and old - in the creation of their artworks, or to encourage interaction with them, had its root in their emphasis on individual expression, democracy, and freedom. Well-known examples include Atsuko Tanaka's Work (Bell) (1955), in which viewers were invited to press a switch, setting off a series of ringing sounds around the gallery in an experiment in 'living sound' that interrupted other visitors' quiet contemplation of the rest of the pieces in the exhibition; Gutai Card Box (1962), a vending machine that dispensed original, postcard-sized Gutai artworks to the public; and many of the large sculptures in the Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition of 1956 that invited visitors to touch, enter, walk round, and thoroughly reflect on the pieces in the same way the artists had in their production.

Later Developments

The movement disbanded after Yoshihara's sudden death in 1972. Many Gutai artists, feeling that they were now part of the establishment they had originally been so eager to rebel against, founded new movements and made fresh works that ensured their continuing cultural relevance. Shozo Shimamoto, for example, created a new collective known as the Artists' Union, while a 1979 exhibition called Jirõ Yoshihara and Today's Aspects of Gutai showed almost entirely new painting, performance, and conceptual works by former members.

Gutai is now acknowledged as one of the most influential movements in art, and has had an enormous impact on contemporary practice both in Japan and around the world. Its impact on more famous, 20th century performance art movements such as Happenings, Fluxus, and Viennese Actionism, as well as on the conceptual art of the 1970s, is now widely recognized. Kaprow in particular cited the group as a direct influence, sharing their desire to push beyond the action painting of Pollock into more experimental territory.

The group's political engagement, their liberal attitudes to art education, and above all their promotion of pure, unbridled creative freedom for all are issues that continue to be relevant as are their concept of e to liberate painting from its historical constraints, their groundbreaking performances, and their democratic ideas about how art should be made and shown. Relational art and the engaged performance practices of Tino Sehgal or Rirkrit Tiravanija, for example, all owe a clear debt to Gutai.

Reflecting this continued artistic importance, there has been a resurgence of interest in the movement at important international institutions in the last few years, with a survey show at the Guggenheim in New York in 2013, a retrospective room at the 2009 Venice Biennale, and several high profile publications by contemporary art historians.

If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
[Accessed ]

By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

Useful Resources on The Gutai Group





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Gutai: Splendid Playground Recomended resource

By Alexandra Munroe, Ming Tiampo, Yoshihara Jiro, Gutai

Gutai: Decentering Modernism

By Ming Tiampo

Between Action and the Unknown: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga (Dallas Museum of Art Publications)

By Gabriel Ritter, Koichi Kawasaki, Namiko Kunimoto

From Postwar to Postmodern, Art in Japan, 1945 1989: Primary Documents (MoMa Primary Documents)

By Doryun Chong, Michio Hayashi, Fumihiko Sumitomo, Kenji Kajiya

A Visual Essay on Gutai at 32 East 69th Street



The Tate

Gutai: Splendid Playground Recomended resource

Video and overview of the Guggenheim’s retrospective on Gutai

The Story of Gutai


More Interesting Websites about The Gutai Group
The Seriousness of Fun in Postwar Japan Recomended resource

By Roberta Smith
New York Times
February 14, 2013

Gutai: the First Happenings Were Japanese

By John Perreault
March 5, 2013

The Alchemical Art Innovators of Postwar Japan

By Ellen Pearlman
March 18, 2013

Gutai : the Spirit of an Era Recomended resource

By Andrew Maerkle
September 27, 2012

Did we succeed in explaining the art to you?
If Yes, please tell others about us: