Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim

I spent five days last week in New York City and, like most of my trips to the Big Apple, it was a bit of a whirlwind. I didn’t get half of what I planned to see and do, but I did manage to squeeze in a couple of hours at the Guggenheim before I left for the airport.

Image: Stage of the Art

I was content just to get to explore Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnificent building but the opportunity to see the new Gutai exhibit really made my trip. The Gutai Art Association was founded by Yoshihara Jirō in Ashiya, Japan in 1954; for 18 years its 59 members created some of the most influential avant-garde works of the postwar era.

Kazuo Shiraga, Wild Boar Hunting II (1963); Image: Guggenheim Museum

“Gutai” means “concreteness,” and the group’s name reflects its collective interest in explorations of materiality, in a manner similar to the contemporary western Abstract Expressionists. Kazuo Shiraga’s “Performance Paintings” illustrate this practice. The artist abandoned the brush and used his feet to smear crimson, blood-like paint on a bullet-ridden boar hide canvas, evoking the very slaughter of the animal though thick impasto.

Atsuko Tanaka, Electric Dress (1986); Image: Jamie Ratliff

Performance came into play in many of the Gutai Art Association’s pieces. Included in the Guggenheim exhibit is Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress, an electrical costume meant to be worn in performance. When lit, it evokes the neon streets of postwar Japan and echoes the interest that several Gutai artists had in the intersection of art and technology. I was disappointed that the Electric Dress was not plugged in, as I have seen at other shows, and there wasn’t a video of her performances as there were for other works on display.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely (1956); Image: Guggenheim Museum

Gutai artists were interested in breaking down the barriers that kept art-making and display within the walls of studios and museums, which lead to numerous outdoor performances and installations, but they were also interested in involving their audience in their work. One such ground-breaking piece was Yoshihara Jirō’s Please Draw Freely, which invited visitors to Ashiya Park to participate in the painting’s creation and critiqued the Japanese government’s strict control on artistic expression of the time. This installation also captured Gutai’s interest in play and the untapped creativity of children.

Please Draw Freely (2013); Image: Guggenheim Museum via Facebook

One of my favourite features of the Guggenheim’s exhibit is the interactive elements. Please Draw Freely (2013) has been installed in the lobby, inviting its audience to contribute to the drawing just as visitors to Ashiya Park did in 1956; while it isn’t the defiant act it was 57 years ago in Japan, it brings a sense of fun and involvement that few contemporary exhibits include.

Image: Guggenheim Museum

On Saturday, February 16, children had an opportunity to work with Gutai artists and imitate their painting techniques. And weekday visitors can buy a postcard from the Gutai Art Box, a recreation of a 1962 installation. I only wish this was operational when I visited!

Motonaga Sadamasa, Work (Water) (2013);
Image: Guggenheim Museum via Facebook

With over 100 works displayed along the spiraling corridors of the Guggenheim, interspersed with videos, photos of installations, and displays of the Gutai Manifesto and the group’s print projects, this exhibit is the largest and most comprehensive showing of Gutai work in North America. For those with an interest in the avant-garde, and specifically contemporary Japanese art, this is not to be missed.

Gutai: Splendid Playground is on display at the Guggenheim NYC until May 8, 2013.

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