Helen A. Harrison
Geographically, Ashiya, Japan is a long way from East Hampton, New York — roughly 10,000 miles — but artistically those two towns are closer than you might imagine. The connection is the feeling of kinship with Jackson Pollock that was felt by members of the Gutai Art Association, established in Ashiya in 1954. In the words of its founder, Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai’s aim was to “pursue enthusiastically the possibilities of pure creativity.” The group’s name means “concreteness,” and its manifesto scorned traditional illusionistic art as fraudulent because the material it’s made of — paint, cloth, metal, stone — represents something other than itself. “Gutai Art does not alter matter,” Yoshihara declared, “Gutai Art imparts life to matter.” It’s easy to see why the group related to Pollock.
The fruits of this iconoclastic attitude are on full dress parade in Gutai: Splendid Playground, a truly marvelous exhibition on view through May 8 at the Guggenheim Museum. It’s billed as the first North American museum show devoted to Gutai, but strictly speaking that’s not true. It was actually inspired by a 2009 exhibition, Under Each Other’s Spell: Gutai and New York, at the Pollock-Krasner House. Organized by Ming Tiampo, co-curator of the Guggenheim show, Under Each Other’s Spell explored the direct connections between the Japanese and New York avant-gardes, especially the Gutai-Pollock link. It was narrowly focused and of course far smaller than the extravaganza that now occupies Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fifth Avenue landmark, but it set the stage, so to speak.
Theater is an appropriate metaphor for much of Gutai art, which often involved performance and audience participation. In many cases the action was as important as the product, which is one reason why artists like Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson and Allan Kaprow, father of the Happening, were Gutai fans. It’s fascinating to see examples, some of them re-created for this show, that prefigure process art, conceptual art, installations and New Realism in the US and Europe. Gutai artists painted with their feet, used a motorized toy car to draw, hurled jars of paint at canvas and exploded it from a cannon, and made sculptures of plastic sheeting filled with colored water, among other antics. Occasionally their work was downright dangerous, like Atsuko Tanaka’s so-called “electric dress,” a wearable sculpture made of light bulbs, and Saburo Murakami’s performance piece at the first Gutai exhibition in Tokyo, where he crashed through a series of paper screens and landed with a concussion.
Murakami’s literal breakthrough symbolizes the essence of their philosophy. As Yoshihara summarized it, “Gutai places an utmost premium on daring advance into the unknown world.” It’s clear why, in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II, such a challenge would appeal to creative thinkers. The old orthodoxies were crumbling as the whole society underwent radical transformation. In that atmosphere, vanguard artists had to look beyond their own culture for direction. Well aware of their Dada and Surrealist predecessors, as well as Abstract Expressionism’s postwar innovations, they reached out through their publication, Gutai, which they sent to interested parties abroad, including Pollock. The Pollock-Krasner House still has the copies he received in 1956, shortly before his death; one of them is in the Guggenheim show.
Gutai not only broke with conventional Japanese art, it also renounced the gravity of that heritage and opted for novelty and creative play. Judging by the evidence at the Guggenheim they had plenty of fun, but it was serious fun, not just amusement for its own sake. Gutai’s playfulness was an effort to engage people by intriguing them, drawing them in, getting them to let down their guard. It didn’t really work very well, at least not on a popular level. Much of the public remained skeptical, if not confused and even alienated by Gutai antics — all the more reason to cultivate an overseas audience that might be more familiar with, and receptive to, such methods. But Western critics didn’t get the joke, or appreciate the important cultural impetus behind it. Unable to see beyond its superficial resemblance to Dada, they largely dismissed Gutai art as derivative. Thanks to the Guggenheim’s long-overdue reappraisal, we can now appreciate the error of that judgment, as well as the full range of Gutai’s contribution to international modernism.