Gutaiby Benjamin Clifford
HAUSER & WIRTH | NOVEMBER 1 – DECEMBER 22, 2018
The selection of work by members of the Japanese art collective Gutai at Hauser & Wirth 69th Street aims to highlight the importance of painting to the group’s avant-garde practice. Active from 1954 to 1972, Gutai’s interest in this medium was idiosyncratic, and many of the works displayed here were not intended as self-sufficient pieces. Instead, they were intimately linked with public performances or other bodily actions. Gutai’s activities propose a distinctive model of performativity that is neither as ephemeral as Alan Kaprow’s Happenings, nor quite as firmly subordinated to a finished image as Jackson Pollock’s drip procedure. As a visitor ascends through the gallery’s three floors, more traditional painterly methods and materials fade away, while the body’s relationship to three-dimensional space comes explicitly to the fore.
The first floor of the exhibition is bookended by the work of two of Gutai’s founding members, Yoshihara Jiro, the group’s leader, and Shimamoto Shozo, who devised the name Gutai (it translates roughly to “embodiment” or “concreteness”). Yoshihara’s austere Untitled (1971)—a white circle posed on a black ground—doesn’t outright reveal its method of creation, but nonetheless testifies to the importance of process. Yoshihara painted circles until his death, in 1972, but claimed that the results would never satisfy him: it was the repetitive action itself that mattered. By contrast, the amorphous abstract forms of Shimamoto’s two contributions are created with encrusted and heavily worked accumulations of paint that directly emphasize the artist’s active engagement with his materials. Separating Yoshihara and Shimamoto’s works are five paintings by Tanaka Atsuko produced during both Gutai’s heyday in the 1950s and the decades that followed the group’s dissolution. Despite their chronological diversity, these vividly colored images all feature circular forms enmeshed in looping, but precisely applied, skeins of paint. Tanaka’s signature formal language was extrapolated from the lightbulbs and wires that make up her Electric Dress, a seminal piece of wearable sculpture she used for a 1956 performance.
Of particular interest on the second floor are five typically energetic paintings by Shiraga Kazuo, one of the best-known Gutai artists. Shiraga would lay large canvasses on the floor, suspend himself above them from a rope, and manipulate oil paint with his feet by moving across and through the painting. The horizontal orientation and distinctly gestural character of this practice has made Shiraga particularly susceptible to comparison with Pollock. Amelia Jones, for example, has described his methods as a re-gendering of Pollock, replacing the masculinist and ejaculatory drip with what amounts to dance, an activity conventionally coded as feminine.1 Although the comparison is instructive, it’s important to keep Gutai’s distinctive attitude towards performance and the art object in mind, and also consider the particularity of Shiraga’s direct bodily involvement in the process of painting. His work is more than a response to Pollock or a precedent for European and American performance art—too often this is how Gutai is presented to Western audiences.
The contents of the third-floor galleries suggest painting’s ability to address real space and the body in ways that are yet more expansive. Yamazaki Tsuruko contributes three works, all from 1956 and 1957, that combine gestural abstraction with reflective effects. One of these paintings is wrapped in plastic, while another features dye applied in irregular patterns to a tin sheet. In each of these, dynamic dripped marks interact unpredictably with the reflective surface of the image as a viewer moves past. Yamazaki’s third contribution, Work (1957), again uses reflective tin, but here color is provided only by a series of lights that project from below. The tin sheet has been punctured and wrinkled, so that the colored lights produce an extraordinary variety of forms, all of which shift and reconfigure themselves in response to the body’s circulation through the gallery.
Nearby are four works by Matustani Takesada, a second-generation member of Gutai, who joined the group in 1963. Matsutani’s practice differs from that of his colleagues in that he uses neutral tones and a repertoire of soft, rounded, organic forms. He also frequently employs vinyl adhesives, taking advantage of the fleshy texture of this material to evoke mysterious or unidentifiable bodily processes. In the most telling of his contributions, Plexiglas Box (1966), Matsutani has attached several pendulous vinyl forms to the inside surfaces of a transparent box. Again, this accumulation of flabby material carries distinct bodily associations while remaining fundamentally abstract. Unlike every other work in this exhibition, Plexiglas Box descends from the wall to participate fully in three-dimensional space. Rather than registering the impact of the body of the artist, or constructing a relationship with the viewer, the artwork becomes a substitute for the body, an object capable of activating real space that requires no human intervention.
- Jones, Amelia. Body Art/performing the Subject. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Benjamin Clifford is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.