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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Post-Traumatic Art 2: Gutai at the Guggenheim

-- By Tom Phillips

Post-World War Two Japanese art was on display recently at the Museum of Modern Art, and the show “Tokyo Avant-Garde 1955-1970” was harrowing to contemplate.   Nearly every piece was shadowed by the mushroom clouds that ended the war, and images of atrocities, monstrosities, decapitation, torture, destruction, helplessness and sudden death were everywhere.   Reviewing it I wrote “Japan is sick to this day from the effects of the bomb, and Japanese art reflects it.” 
But that’s not all that post-war Japanese art reflects.  Hundreds of miles from Tokyo, in a small village near Osaka, another school of art was springing up, a polar opposite to the themes of victimization and despair.   The Gutai movement was another response to ruin – a search for goodness, wholeness and even joy in the rubble.  The artists of this avant-garde collective found it in the “new life of matter” – or “the scream of matter” in the words of Gutai founder Yoshihara Jiro -- and also in the creative freedom of the artist, and in the freedom of people’s experience of art.    

Electric Dress (1956) by Atsuko Tanaka
By happy coincidence, the Tokyo Avant-Garde show at MOMA is followed up by a full-scale exhibit of Gutai works at the Guggenheim Museum.   “Gutai: Splendid Playground” fills Frank Lloyd Wright's uniquely playful space with playful, rebellious works of raw energy.   There isn’t a self-pitying note in the entire show.  Even 40 years after the Gutai movement dissolved in 1972, their work is daring and refreshing.   
Gutai means “concreteness,”   the thing itself rather than representation.   Jiro’s 1956 Gutai manifesto condemns the art of the past as nothing but hoaxes  – paint, cloth, clay and stone tricked out to look like something they are not.   Gutai art, he wrote, would not change the material but bring it to life.  “If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice.”