Summary of The Gutai Group
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 & Accomplishments
- 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.
Artworks and Artists of The Gutai Group
Challenge To The Mud
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.
Laceration of Paper
Saburõ Murakami's Laceration of Paper involved the artist hurling himself through a series of enormous kraft paper screens. The tautly stretched paper produced loud, explosive sounds as Murakami punched his way through each sheet as quickly as possible, releasing and reveling in its material properties. This piece embodies the Gutai artists' desire to go far beyond the limits of the canvas to produce encounters between the human spirit and the substance of matter itself. Murakami restaged Laceration of Paper several times with the last performance in 1994, two years before his death.
Please Draw Freely
In Please Draw Freely, Gutai founder Jirõ Yoshihara invited visitors to the Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition to create a collective artwork on a large, blank board. A sign by the work encouraged the public to express themselves without inhibition, and markers and pens were provided. The exhibition took place in the main park in the Japanese city of Ashiya, and was conceived as a totally democratic art event that would appeal to a general audience. With Please Draw Freely, Yoshihara wanted to reject passive spectatorship and quiet contemplation of artworks, and instead invite people of all ages to engage with art directly and experience being part of the creative process themselves - to make spectators into producers.
Electric Dress was a magnificent costume made from flashing, incandescent light bulbs painted vibrant red, green, yellow, and blue. Atsuko Tanaka was inspired by the new, neon-filled Japanese cityscapes of the 1950s, and she was one of the first Gutai artists whose practice merged contemporary technology and art. The piece was designed to be worn for performance, and was capable of giving small electric shocks to its wearer - allowing them an unmediated encounter with the material properties of the light bulbs. It was shown together with Tanaka's drawings reminiscent of wiring diagrams, and it aimed to create an e (expanded picture) rather than a kaiga (traditional painting) of moving form and color - an artwork whose goal was "the expulsion of the frame."
This is one of a series of Akira Kanayama's works in which he used tubes of paint or felt-tip pens affixed to a remote-controlled toy car to create his own brand of action painting - a direct homage to the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, particularly Jackson Pollock's drip technique. The resulting piece has a strong, frenetic rhythm and deliberate yet loose mark-making that seem remarkably reminiscent of works Pollock had been producing less than a decade earlier. Kanayama, however, was actually offering a playful critique of Pollock by producing such intentionally similar works by mechanical means, thus rejecting the psychological and personal factors that Pollock had emphasized. Kanayama used the simple title Work for the painting, as did many other Gutai artists, a sign of their complete rejection of representational art and their refusal to tell the viewer what to think.
Synthetic paint on vinyl - made by dripping paint from an automated electric toy-car device
Incorporating glowing plexiglass, ultraviolet tubes, electric motors, water, and deafening whirring sounds, Minoru Yoshido's room-sized kinetic sculpture is erotic and incredibly joyful. Shown in a darkened space, the piece glows psychedelically; with its curved plastic 'limbs' scooping, dipping, and bobbing rhythmically, the work resembles a crazed chemistry experiment involving futuristic plants. A central theme in Yoshido's practice was a fascination with modern technology's potential for both progress and danger - perfectly illustrated by the visionary and ominous Bisexual Flower. The sculpture was first shown as part of the Gutai section of Expo '70, a world fair held in Osaka in 1970 in which the group showed a vast number of new, technologically-themed works. It particularly stood out as one of the few exhibits to radically reflect on the cultural and environmental costs of technological advancements.
Shimamoto began Holes in either 1949 or 1950. It was made using layers of glued newspaper, brown paper, and paint pierced forcefully in several places - a technique the artist hit upon by accident when he discovered that the makeshift, homemade newspaper canvases he was using as an economical version of the real thing pierced easily when still wet. The resulting painting is both beautiful with its delicate, traditionally Japanese hues, yet harsh with Shimamoto's defacing of the image's surface. This work is one of a series that anticipated the later slashed canvases of spatialist and arte povera artist Lucio Fontana.
This collaborative installation was produced for Expo '70, the first Asian world fair. It was made from a 150-meter-long metal pipe that provided a frame for works by other Gutai artists along its whole length, with a sound piece by Michio Yoshihara also playing through the structure. This monumental work changed the entire exhibition space into a total art environment and articulated the movement's ongoing interest in collaboration as a practice. Gutai's inclusion in the fair was a sign that they had achieved serious recognition as the leading artistic movement of 20th century Japan.
Aluminium pipe and recorded sound - Expo 1970
This is one of Yoshihara's iconic Circle series, which he started in 1965 and continued to add to until his death seven years later. Painted on a flat, black background, the white circle looks as if it has been painted in one huge stroke. Yoshihara's persistent concern with the circle as a motif stemmed from an interest in the calligraphy of Nantenbo - an early-20th-century monk who created multiple ensos, or 'one stroke circles'. At the same time, Yoshihara was becoming more involved with the avant-garde calligraphy magazine Bokubi, which influenced him to use the technique in his own paintings. The circle series is also an exploration of gesture that moved away from the expressive, painterly style of his earlier works. Though it appears splashy and spontaneous, Circle was actually built up slowly and deliberately in successive layers of oil paint.
Beginnings of The Gutai Group
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.
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 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.
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.
The Gutai Group: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
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 - After The Gutai Group
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.
Useful Resources on The Gutai Group
- Gutai: Splendid PlaygroundOur PickBy Alexandra Munroe, Ming Tiampo, Yoshihara Jiro, Gutai
- Gutai: Decentering ModernismBy 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