Letter from TOKYOby Terry R. Myers
Atsuko Tanaka The Art of Connecting
TANAKA: MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART TOKYO
FEBRUARY 4 – MAY 6, 2012
Jackson Pollock A Centennial Retrospective
POLLOCK, THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, TOKYO
FEBRUARY 10 – MAY 6, 2012
While writing a previous “Letter from Tokyo” (see the April 2010 Rail), the absurdity of traveling so far to end up focusing on a Gerhard Richter exhibition was not lost on me. As I mentioned in that text, I hadn’t planned to select his show, but the extreme change of scenery (despite having already visited the city a few times) enabled me to see his work differently than I had in the past. My new perspective was temporary; at his Tate Modern survey last fall I thought Richter’s work returned to its well-established place of reluctant authority, but I digress.
During my most recent six-week trip to Japan, with my sense of distance and displacement quickly reestablished (and immediately intensified by the ongoing movement of the ground itself—despite 18 years in Los Angeles I realize now that I’m an earthquake amateur), I was struck by the serendipity of concurrent retrospectives of the, yes, groundbreaking work of Atsuko Tanaka and Jackson Pollock, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MoT) and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, respectively. I was very much looking forward to both of these major exhibitions, Tanaka’s in particular, as I have been intrigued by her work ever since key examples were included in Paul Schimmel’s 1998 mega-survey Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979 at MOCA in Los Angeles. And even though I also had been struck by a 2004 survey of Tanaka’s early work at the Grey Art Gallery in New York, I was hoping that a more expansive presentation of her work in Japan would provide a deeper experience. I was right.
On the flip side, could the first Pollock exhibition in Japan, retrospective or otherwise, do more than skim the surface given that none of his major paintings were included? Maybe. The show did provide a newsworthy opportunity to witness “Mural on Indian Red Ground” (1950), in its first outing since the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art acquired it in 1976. Would I overcompensate for the unique status of a quarantined Pollock as it was returned with fanfare to the international stage in unfamiliar territory? Not being an expert on Pollock’s work, and on record as a De Kooning man (see my review of his recent MoMA retrospective in the October 2011 Rail), I anticipated few surprises that would significantly change my viewpoint about the breadth of his work. But I was wrong.
In the end, both exhibitions reinforced for me the particular value of critically and subjectively taking art on while away from one’s usual routine. The best exhibitions—when displayed in specific situations that are open rather than didactic—demonstrate that the relationship between being right and being wrong in one’s expectations is an intrinsic part of any meaningful evaluation of the work itself. Moreover, the contradictions underlying this relationship of judgment are what keep me from assuming that a familiar situation is required in order to allow one to go deeper or have a more authentic experience, a challenge that reinforces the fact that the most provocative painting also does this within its own parameters, no matter where it happens to be on view.
Nevertheless it is worth noting that the Tanaka exhibition was in fact returning “home” after being on view at the Ikon Gallery in the United Kingdom and the Espai d’Art Contemporani de Castelló (EACC) in Spain. The artist’s most internationally well-known work, “Electric Dress” (1956; reconstructed in 1986), was, of course, included. First shown in the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition in Tokyo in October 1956 (Gutai was the name of a group of emerging artists that she joined in 1955 after having attended the meetings of an earlier group called Zero Society for a couple of years), the piece is a cascade of light bulbs and tubes, most of which are covered with bright red, blue, yellow, or green vinyl paint that, when plugged in and worn in certain performances, becomes, as she put it “an electric dress, which blinks like fireworks.” “Electric Dress” has stood as the body of her work, even as it has become much more like a sculpture (unmoving, on a pedestal, and blinking only intermittently) than the painting it somehow is. If “Electric Dress” is a painting-as-body (bringing to mind Lee Bontecou’s contemporaneous work), then “Work (Bell)” (1955; reconstructed in 2000) could very well be a painting-as-nervous-system, even if it is comprised of 20 bells wired to ring one at a time in sequence on the floor around the perimeter of a space. In this exhibition, it claimed a substantial amount of territory, starting in the room that contained “Electric Dress” and continuing into the next, much larger gallery that contained an impressive selection of some of Tanaka’s subsequent paintings on canvas. I jumped when another visitor pressed the button to activate this piece, but what I thought was a disruption of the visual soon became weirdly visual itself, as my eye followed the sound from bell to bell and then jumped from their round shapes to the colorful circles carefully distributed throughout her paintings, forms that she would continue to make for 50 additional years. I got it. Transposing the colors of the lights and the required circuits, along with the wiring of the lights and the bells onto the mutable space of the so-called picture plane, Tanaka cleverly fused her progressive take on the circuitry of the body with the associative capabilities of the formal structures of painting itself, bringing her point back home by regularly naming the work “Work.”
I have no doubt that the intensity of my upending experience of the Tanaka show kept me well out of my comfort zone when I traveled across Tokyo a few days later for my first viewing of the Pollock retrospective. After a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts presentation of the absolute best of Tanaka, could this modest survey of Pollock be anything but disappointing, or worse yet, misleading in comparison to the 1998-99 MoMA retrospective? I had neither of these reactions; instead I found the exhibition to be disarming, even charming, as more modest or idiosyncratic moments of Pollock’s output were able to stand on their own apart from the major, well-known paintings. For example, a colorful mosaic, “Untitled” (c. 1938–41), changed my view of a painting from the same period, “Untitled (Head with Polygons)” , by suggesting a structural connection between the physical construction of the mosaic and the merging of Picassoid bodily forms with unabashed linear geometry. (This painting is owned by the museum, and many of the works in the show, not surprisingly, were from Japanese collections.) Moving from room to room I found repeated opportunities to focus more than usual on small paintings, drawings from his sketchbooks, and prints—so much so that when I did reach the painting borrowed from Iran, it hit me more like it was “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30),” completed the same year. By shrinking Pollock slightly, at the very least I was able to see his work in relation to how it must have appeared to the Gutai group from afar. An essay in the catalogue by Tetsuya Oshima documents the group’s attempts to contact Pollock directly, creating for me a “what if?” fantasy, and reminding me that art must get out of its comfort zone at least as much as I do.
4-1-1 Miyoshi // Koto-ku, Tokyo, Japan
3-1 Kitanomaru-koen // Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan
ContributorTerry R. Myers
TERRY MYERS is a Professor and Chair of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art of Chicago.