The creative spectrum of Japan's most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Comprising approximately 145 works by 25 artists and spanning two generations of Gutai artists, the exhibition also includes documentary films of the group's historic outdoor show and stage events and offers a focus on their eponymous journal as a platform for international artistic exchange.
co-curated by Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor of Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Assistance was provided by Asian Art Curatorial Fellow Lyn Hsieh.
Gutai: Splendid Playground presents the creative spectrum of Japan’s most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Founded by the visionary artist Yoshihara Jirō in 1954, the Gutai group was legendary in its own time. Its young members explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an “international common ground” of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities. Against the backdrop of wartime totalitarianism, Gutai forged an ethics of creative freedom, breaking through myriad boundaries to create some of the most exuberant works and events in the history of Japanese and international avant-garde art. Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely (1956/2013), a collective drawing on a freestanding signboard reconceived for the Guggenheim’s rotunda and created by visitors, invites adults and children to collaborate, think, and imagine for themselves.
The Gutai Art Association (active 1954–72) originated in the cosmopolitan town of Ashiya, near Osaka, in western Japan. Spanning two generations, the group totaled 59 Japanese artists over its 18-year history. The name “Gutai” literally means “concreteness” and captures the direct engagement with materials its members were experimenting with around the time of its founding in 1954. From its earliest festival-like events, Gutai artists sought to break down the barriers between art, the ordinary public, and everyday life, and continuously took on new artistic challenges using the body in direct action with materials, time and space, and nature and technology. Charting Gutai’s creation of visual, conceptual, and theoretical terrains, this exhibition is organized throughout the museum in chronological and thematic sections: Play, Network, Concept, the Concrete, Performance Painting, and Environment Art.
The outdoor exhibitions of 1955 and 1956 literally set the stage for the group’s artistic strategies. Held in a pine grove park in Ashiya, these events brought art outside and released it from its confines, like Motonaga Sadamasa’s magisterial Work (Water). The Guggenheim commissioned the artist to recreate this work for the rotunda, where he hangs common, polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly-colored water between the rotunda levels, making giant brushstrokes out of catenaries in the open air that catch the sunlight (Work [Water], 1956/2011).
Moving from what Yoshihara decried as “fraudulent . . . appearances” to lived reality, Gutai artists invented ways to go beyond contemporary styles of abstract painting into concrete pictures, blurring representational significance by incorporating raw matter, as well as time and space, as the stuff of art. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell) (1955/1993), reimagines painting as an acoustic composition of living sound through a sequential ringing of electric alarm bells wired along the entire expanse of Rotunda Level 2. Her interests in schematic and technical representation, wiring systems, lights, and the human form reached a pinnacle in her best-known work, Electric Dress (1956). The artist wore this spectacular costume made of flashing incandescent light bulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue for her performance during Gutai Art on the Stage (1957), whose documentary film is projected on Rotunda Level 5.
Like Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, Gutai rejected psychic automatism for acts of corporeal materiality in the real world. Yoshihara’s involvement with the revitalization of Japanese traditional arts, specifically Japanese calligraphy, also informed his idea of art making as an unmediated experiential encounter between artist, gesture, and material. Shiraga Kazuo’s Untitled (1957), made by the artist painting on the floor with his bare feet, or Murakami Saburō’s Passage (1956), a performance painting made by the artist flinging himself through taut paper screens, both demonstrate Gutai’s call to release the “scream of matter itself.” In the context of live events, Gutai artists extended their objectives to theater, music, and film. The Gutai Card Box (1962) transformed the act of viewing paintings into an interaction, with the viewer purchasing a work from the artist hidden inside a vending machine.
As the global pioneers of environmental art, Gutai’s participatory environments take the form of organic or geometric abstract sculptures incorporating kinetic, light, and sound art, turning exhibition spaces into chaotic dens of screeching, pulsing, machine-like organisms. Yoshida Minoru’s erotic machine-sculpture Bisexual Flower (1969) mines the psychedelic effects of this approach. Gutai environments drew from contemporary architecture, technology, and urban design to promote a futuristic, space-age aesthetic. This can be seen in Nasaka Senkichirō’s giant armature composed of aluminum plumbing pipes punctured with holes, broadcasting a music composition as it zigzags its way up the exhibition space. This site of creativity is what Shiraga called “a splendid playground” and what Yoshihara sought as a “free site that can contribute to the progress of humanity.”
— Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor, Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
From February 15 to May 8, 2013, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will present Gutai: Splendid Playground, a retrospective of the Gutai Art Association (1954–72), the radically inventive and influential Japanese art collective whose innovative and playful approaches to installation and performance yielded one of the most important international avant-garde movements to emerge after World War II. Based on fifteen years of research, Gutai: Splendid Playground provides a critical examination of both iconic and lesser-known examples of the collective's dynamic output over its two-decade history and explores the full spectrum of Gutai’s creative production: painting, performance, installation art, sound art, experimental film, kinetic art, light art, and environment art. Gutai: Splendid Playground is the first North American museum exhibition devoted to the Gutai group and offers a comprehensive interpretation of the convention-defying movement.
Comprising approximately 145 works by 25 artists and spanning two generations of Gutai artists, Gutai: Spendid Playground is organized into six chronological and thematic sections presented along the Guggenheim ramps:
Play: An Uninhibited Act
Concept: Can a Piece of Cloth Be a Work of Art?
Network: To Introduce Our Works to the World
The Concrete: The Scream of Matter Itself
Performance Painting: Pictures with Time and Space
Environment: Gutai Art for the Space Age
The exhibition also includes documentary films of the group’s historic outdoor exhibitions and stage events and offers a focus on their eponymous journal as a platform for international artistic exchange. A centerpiece of Gutai: Splendid Playground is a site-specific commission of Work (Water) (1956/2011) by the late Motonaga Sadamasa. Prior to his death in 2011, Motonaga reimagined his iconic early Gutai outdoor installation, made of plastic tubes filled with colored water, for the Guggenheim rotunda.
Gutai: Splendid Playground is supported in part by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Additional funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Japan Foundation, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), the W.L.S. Spencer Foundation, Tokio Marine Holdings, the United States–Japan Foundation, and the Dedalus Foundation, Inc.
The Leadership Committee for Gutai: Splendid Playground is gratefully acknowledged for its support: Hauser & Wirth, Yoko Ono Lennon, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann, Cindy and Howard Rachofsky, Tina Kim and Jae Woong Chung, Marianne Boesky Gallery, Richard Roth, and those who wish to remain anonymous.
Shimamoto Shōzō making a painting by hurling glass bottles of paint against a canvas at the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition, Ohara Kaikan, Tokyo, ca. October 11–17, 1956. © Shimamoto Shōzō and the former members of the Gutai Art Association, courtesy Museum of Osaka University
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 316-page catalogue with essays by Alexandra Munroe and Ming Tiampo and texts by Pedro Erber, Hirai Shoichi, Kato Mizuho, Judith Rodenbeck, Reiko Tomii, and Midori Yoshimoto. The book is designed by Miko McGinty, Inc.
Education and Public Programs
For complete information about the range of public programs presented in conjunction with Gutai: Splendid Playground, please visit guggenheim.org/publicprograms. Highlights include:
Mar 1, 2 pm: led by exhibition co-curator Alexandra Munroe
Mar 15, 2 pm: led by exhibition co-curator Ming Tiampo
Apr 19, 2 pm: led by curatorial fellow Lyn Hsieh
March 8, 2 pm: led by conservator Corey D’Augustine
SANBASO, divine dance
Mansai Nomura + Hiroshi Sugimoto
Thurs, Mar 28, 2 and 8 pm
Fri, Mar 29, 8 pm
Renowned Kyogen actor Mansai Nomura performs Japan’s oldest celebratory dance on a stage designed by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto in the museum’s iconic rotunda. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Gutai: Splendid Playground, Sanbaso is a tribute to the performance Ultramodern Sanbaso (1957) by Shiraga Kazuo, one of the leading figures of Japan’s avant-garde Gutai movement. Co-presented with Japan Society.
$50, $45 Guggenheim and Japan Society members, $25 students for seated tickets. $30, $25 Guggenheim and Japan Society members, $15 students for standing tickets.
Concrete Escort I, II, III, IV
Fris, Mar 22 and Apr 26, 6 pm and 8 pm
New York-based Japanese performance artist Ei Arakawa invites painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers, and archivists to form a temporal group addressing Gutai today. Resulting in a performative exhibition tour of Gutai: Splendid Playground where the audience will be escorted and repositioned, emphasis will be on the power dynamic within Gutai, women and men, singularity and plurality, and performance and painting. Tasked to communicate the diversity of Gutai activities, each tour takes a different route through the exhibition.
$20, $15 members, $10 students for 6 pm performances. $25, $20 members for 8 pm performances, which includes a reception.
Gutai as Science Fiction
Tues, Mar 12, 4 pm
Bringing together scholars from diverse fields and experts in art and technology, this program, presented in conjunction with Gutai: Splendid Playground, will present new research on Gutai’s second phase (1962–72) in an international context. Speakers and panelists include exhibition organizers Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe, independent scholar Reiko Tomii, artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, artist Otto Piene, and Artforum editor Michelle Kuo.
Image: Shimamoto Shōzō making a painting by hurling glass bottles of paint against a canvas at the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition, Ohara Kaikan, Tokyo, ca. October 11–17, 1956. © Shimamoto Shōzō and the former members of the Gutai Art Association, courtesy Museum of Osaka University
Keri Murawski, Senior Publicist Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 212 4233840 firstname.lastname@example.org
Press Preview: Thursday, February 14, 10 am–1 pm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street) New York, NY
Sun–Wed, 10 am–5:45 pm; Fri, 10 am–5:45 pm; Sat, 10 am–7:45 pm; closed Thurs. On Saturdays, beginning at 5:45 pm, the museum hosts Pay What You Wish.
Adults $22, students/seniors (65+) $18, members and children under 12 free.