LOLLIPOP Gutai Influences
What is Lollipop?
A group of 25 artists will travel from Osaka, Japan, to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to take part in Lollipop, Gutai Influences, organized by FUSE Art Infrastructure. From Feb. 10 through Mar. 2 these artists, led by internationally renowned Miyuki Nishizawa, will create work in-studio in Allentown, hold workshops at area colleges and universities, present work at private galleries and hold public performances and exhibitions.
The Gutai artists are visiting the east coast to view the Splendid Playground exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, a first ever, comprehensive large- scale exhibition that explores the Gutai movement of Japan as one of the most important international avant-garde movements of the 1950s and ‘60s: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/upcoming/gutai-splendid-playground
Miyuki Nishizawa, who is leading the group in Allentown, is a student of the Gutai movement co-founder, Shozo Shimamoto, whose work is prominently displayed in the Guggenheim retrospective.
Below is an essay sent that Fuse Art Infrastructure hasbeen given permission to post in an effort to share with you more information on Gutai. Our deepest gratitude to Caylian Cassavia and Caitlin Charbonneau, authors of the following essay.
THE SPIRIT OF GUTAI
By Cayllan Cassavia and Caitlin Charbonneau
Crashing through paper, wearing costumes made of electric lightbulbs, painting with explosives, by smashing glass bottles, or by using feet on a canvas: these are just a few instances of the extraordinary spirit of the Gutai Art Association. Under the guidance of Yoshihara Jirō, an avant-garde artist active since before the war, the group was established in 1954 in the small Japanese city of Ashiya, between Kobe and Osaka. The group began with seventeen members, many of whom were active in the artist’s association Genbi, and in 1955, the group was joined by four members of Zero-Kai: Kanayama Akira, Murakami Saburō, Shiraga Kazuo and Tanaka Atsuko. Another twenty-five artists joined after 1961, bringing the total number of members over its eighteen-year span to fifty-nine.
Gutai history can be divided into two eras, 1954-61, and 1962-72. During the first phase, Gutai focused on breaking free of traditionally held ideas of art and subjectivity, experimenting with new modes of expanding painting. During the second phase, Gutai established a larger international presence through the creation of the Gutai Pinacotheca, and their artistic perspective also shifted gears in response to the human and material impact of Japan’s rapid technological progress.
Gutai emerged at a time when Japanese artists were striving to redefine what it meant to be an artist after living in a repressive, totalitarian state before and during the war. The name Gutai, meaning “concreteness” or “embodiment,” exemplified the group’s desire to create works that were a direct interaction between the artist and concrete materials. Their works, made in response to Yoshihara’s exhortation to “create what has never existed before,” signified the importance of individuality, emotion and spirit as direct responses to materials. They rejected the traditional notion of painting as understood in the context of art history, and painted using non-traditional methods and materials.
In its first phase, Gutai work focused on the notion of self-expression through the artists’ medium of choice, with a conscious decision not to let one’s own spirit overpower the material. Notably, the Gutai pioneered experimental methods of artistic creation such as painting with feet (Shiraga Kazuo), breaking through paper panels (Murakami Saburō), using toy cars to apply paint to canvas (Akira Kanayama), throwing glass bottles of paint at the canvas (Shimamoto Shōzō), and composing “paintings” constructed entirely of blinking light bulbs, or pieces of fabric (Tanaka Atsuko).
Performance, installation and interactivity were also key elements throughout Gutai. They took thousands of photographs of their experimental exhibitions, and published them in their journals (which spanned more a dozen issues over a decade) and which were sent to artists and critics around the world. These included events such as “The Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun” (held in Ashiya in 1955) and “Gutai Art on the Stage” (held in Osaka and Tokyo in 1957 and 1958). These exhibitions challenged the notion that art must be shown in a gallery setting, and directly addressed audiences, encouraging participation. For example, Shimamoto Shōzō’s work Please Walk on Here (1956) invited the audience to walk along an uneven catwalk of wooden planks on springs. The “Gutai Art on the Stage” exhibitions from 1957 and 1958 were the site of Gutai’s most celebrated experiments—performances that sought to expand the boundaries of painting beyond paint on canvas to include time and space.
In 1957, French critic Michel Tapié came to Japan to meet Gutai, after having received copies of the Gutai journal. Tapié, an advocate of Art Informel in Paris, was impressed by Gutai’s artistic diversity and ability to remain tied as a group of artists with the common goal of maintaining originality. Through Tapié, Gutai gained prominence on an international scale and began focusing more exclusively on painting, which was easier to transport for the overseas exhibitions that Tapié organized. During the 1950s and 60s, Gutai artists often created large, powerful abstractions that included painting with their feet and pouring or firing paints at a canvas; this period contained a multiplicity of artistic narratives.
The group consolidated their international presence in 1962, with the establishment of the Gutai Pinacotheca, which served as a base for their artistic exchanges with artists and critics from around the world. This new confidence on the international stage mirrored Japan’s emergence as an economic and technological force, which served as the context for the group’s second phase. During Gutai’s second phase, the group looked to modern technologies for inspiration and materials, assessing the human impact of progress. A highly significant exhibition of the group’s work took place during this period, at Expo ’70 in Osaka. One of the largest and best-attended expositions in history, this event provided a platform for Gutai to showcase their work on stage to thousands of people from all over the world. This exhibition cemented the group’s historical importance in the history of the Japanese avant-garde before its end in 1972, shortly following the death of Yoshihara.
Gutai is an outstanding and prescient group in the history of postwar art. They aimed to explore the issues surrounding conventional notions of painting and opened it up to include a temporal element, the use of space, sound and light, in addition to unusual materials. Gutai found beauty in the destruction of materials and reconstructed the traditional framework for producing art; their pioneering nature and unprecedented experiments are what make Gutai one of the most important postwar art movements.
Shimamoto Shōzō (1928-2013)
Instrumental to the experimental spirit of Gutai was notable early member Shōzō Shimamoto, who not only helped Yoshihara form the group but also coined the term “Gutai”. Shimamoto’s work within the group focused mainly on themes of self-expression, and the creation that results from destruction. Shimamoto sought to liberate painting from the paintbrush, saying “the paint can never be set free unless the paintbrush is broken and thrown away. It is only once the paintbrush has been discarded that paint can be revived.” Like all members of the Gutai, he transgressed the ideals of representational art, and sought new ways to express himself. However, what set him apart from the rest of the group was his fascination with the idea of destruction and erasure. Shimamoto challenged the boundaries of drawing, by creating his own canvas out of newspaper, and was delightfully surprised when accidentally tearing through the page with his pencil. This chance encounter embodies the exchange between inner spirit and material that Gutai was trying to produce.
In 1976, Shimamoto became leading member of the artist collective AU (Artist’s Union/Art Unidentified). As the group’s most prominent artist and director, Shimamoto left an indelible mark on this exciting group. The artists in this exhibition are all members of AU.
Shimamoto Shōzō, "The Idea of Executing the Paintbrush," in Gutai 6 (1958): 18-19.
Katō, Mizuho. "The Outdoor Exhibitions: The Fertile Soil of Tabula Rasa." In Gutai: Painting with Time and Space, 163-173. Cinisello Balsamo: SilvanaEditoriale, 2012.
Maerkle, Andrew. Review: Gutai: The Spirit of an Era. September 27, 2012. http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/gutai-the-spiritof-an-era/ (accessed January 26, 2013).
Munroe, Alexandra. "To Challenge the Midsummer Sun: The Gutai Group." In Scream Against the Sky: Japanese Art After 1945, edited by Alexandra Munroe, 83-124. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.
Shimamoto Shōzō. "The Idea of Executing the Paintbrush." In Gutai 6. 1958.
Tiampo, Ming. Gutai: Decentering Modernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.