4.11 / Review

From New York and San Francisco: Gutai

By Terri Cohn March 12, 2013

Gutai: Splendid Playground
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
February 15–May 8, 2013


Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response
Walter and McBean Galleries
February 8–March 30, 2013


In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance. Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter. When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out. To make the fullest use of matter is to make use of the spirit.―Yoshihara Jiro, Gutai Art Manifesto, 1956

World War II had a profound global impact on the direction of art. Just as the destruction of Europe during World War I prompted the emergence of Dada, totalitarianism and the devastation of Europe during World War II was reflected in the genesis of such celebrated avant-garde movements as Art Informel, Art Brut, and Cobra. While Jackson Pollock’s performative approach to painting has also been linked to these tumultuous sociopolitical conditions, until recently there has been little acknowledgment of the remarkable work of the Japanese group Gutai. Initially formed in 1954 in Ashiya, Japan, under the direction of the artist and critic Yoshihara Jiro, Gutai—which means concreteness—emerged as a response to life in a repressive, despotic state in the throes of World War II. The group’s direct engagement with materials was a means to express individuality and spirit and to propel painting into a new realm.

It is significant that the group’s first exhibition, The First Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun (1955)—a set of radical experiments in painting, performance, and installation—was held outdoors in Ashiya Park, where artists could break the boundaries of the picture plane and more readily engage audiences. For Challenging Mud (1955), Shiraga Kazuo dove into a pile of mud, rocks, and clay to “paint” with his body; the resulting mass was his final artwork. Yamazaki Tsuruko’s installation Red (1955), a large scarlet cube that hung a few feet off the ground, invited viewers to bend down and enter the hollow structure. During the First Gutai Art Exhibition, held the same year at Ohara Hall, Tokyo, Murakami Saburo leaped through a series of three paper screens six times for At One Moment Opening Six Holes (1955) (part of his Paper Breaking series), and Tanaka Atsuko infused the performance space with the sound of bells that clanged when visitors pressed a button marked “please push this button.”

These artworks and many others constitute exhibitions currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and at the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute; both make a case for the prescient nature and historical significance of the work created by members of the Gutai Art Association. Gutai: Splendid Playground, at the Guggenheim Museum, is a comprehensive retrospective of the collective’s work and the first of its kind in North America. It includes more than 140 works by twenty-five artists. Motonaga Sadamasa's Work (Water) (1956/2011), visible upon entering the museum, provides immediate insight into Gutai’s innovative and playful approach to performance and installation. First created for the Outdoor exhibition, Montonaga’s transparent polyethylene web is re-created in the Guggenheim with plastic tubes that hold jewel-toned, elliptical-shaped pools of water in their centers, impressively stretched across the expanse of the museum’s rotunda.

Gutai: SFAI


Installation view, Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco, February 8–March 30, 2013. Courtesy of the San Francisco Art Institute.

Gutai: Splendid Playground

Motonaga Sadamasa. Work (Water), 1956/2011; installation view, Gutai: Splendid Playground, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 15–May 8, 2013. Photo: David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Complementing this installation is Yoshihara Jiro’s Please Draw Freely (1956/2013), a large panel installed on the rotunda floor that visitors can draw on. These works feel fresh, reflecting current artistic tendencies, and set the tone for an exhibition that explores Gutai’s concern with the experiential.

The show’s six thematic areas—play, concept, nature, the concrete, performance painting, and environment—provide a strong organizing rubric, enabling viewers to understand the historical context for Gutai. This far-reaching exhibition also showcases the second generation of Gutai artists, who explored new directions, experimenting with space and technology. Some highlights include Nasaka Senkichiro’s massive crenellated steel pipe and sound installation and Yoshida Minoru’s mechanized sculptural Bisexual Flower (1969).

One of the great strengths of Gutai: Splendid Playground is its combination of original works paired with photo and video documentation. In addition to Shiraga’s and Murakami’s works and Tanaka’s Work (Bell) (1955), which constantly reverberates throughout the museum, one of the most striking pieces on display is Kanayama Akira’s Work (1960). Part of his Machine Drawings series (begun in 1957), this piece features a mechanical remote-control car, intended as a critique of automatism and self-expression. Shimamoto Shozo’s Work (1962), for which the artist hurled glass bottles filled with paint against a canvas laid on the ground, and Shiraga’s Untitled (1957), a canvas that the artist painted with his feet, make process—and by extension time and space—visible. These works also elucidate the concept of “performance painting,” a classification that is less comprehensible with Tanaka’s Electric Dress (1956/1986), a full body costume of blinking colored lights that Gutai artists considered to use time and space, rather than paint, as its medium.

Significant to this action-based approach to painting was Gutai’s perception that the canvas had become a contested arena internationally. In Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response at the Walter and McBean Galleries, painting dominates the main gallery space, along with significant photo documentation of the first phase of Gutai, which ended in 1961. The show’s focus on painting—a circumstance predicated on the availability of works—makes it difficult for the uninitiated to understand the broader contexts of Gutai. Further complicating the exhibition is the curatorial assertion that the group concentrated on painting after their 1957 meeting with the French art critic Michel Tapié, a proponent of Art Informel who introduced Gutai to Europe, while the Guggenheim scholarship suggests that the 1957–65 collaborations with Tapié led the international community to misinterpret Gutai as a painting movement, because paintings were easier for him to transport to shows overseas.

Despite this oversight, the exhibition at the Walter and McBean is balanced by a strong selection of films that capture the flavor of Gutai’s interactive exhibitions and commitment to the stage and work to counter the popular opinion that Tapié shifted Gutai toward painting. Moreover, the gallery’s reenactments of Shiraga’s Challenging Mud and Murakami’s Paper Breaking performances fulfill a significant educational purpose for an art school. Also included are facsimile copies of the fourteen issues of Gutai magazine, a poster of Shimamoto Shozo—who was editor of the first magazine and is credited with having given the group its name—and an international Mail Art exhibition. The contributions by more than one hundred artists from thirty countries serve to create a larger perspective on and an unintentional tribute to Shimamoto, who passed away two weeks prior to the opening of the Walter and McBean show. Shimamoto’s art, ranging from his early paintings with slashed surfaces to his later works created by firing bottles of paint with a canon, epitomizes Gutai’s focus on the creation that results from destruction, a significant theme in the history of postwar art, and his artistic belief that “paint can never be set free unless the paintbrush is broken and thrown away” exemplifies the group’s desire to embody the exchange between material and inner spirit.1


Gutai: Splendid Playground is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York, through May 8, 2013.


Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary is on view at the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute through March 30, 2013.



1. Cassavia, Cayllan and Charbonneau, Caitlin. The Spirit of Gutai. 2013, FUSE, http://www.allentownfuse.org/gutai.html.

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