On ViewSmithsonian National Museum of Asian Art
March 25–September 10, 2023
Ay-Ō’s Happy Rainbow Hell is the first American museum show for the ninety-two year old, Tokyo-based Fluxus artist who ceased art-making in 2017, though he is a veteran of tributes in his native Japan. Centering around eighty rainbow serigraphs the museum has acquired, this treasure trove creates an ideal port of entry for a presentation by Assistant Curator of Japanese Art, Kit Brooks, to the little-explored, contemporary yet timeless Ay-Ō Flux-story. He created rainbows as sensory immersion, not as images, but a process in service to images. Accompanied by an informative catalogue, this show will benefit future exhibitions of Ay-Ō’s full oeuvre.
Perhaps the “Rainbow Artist” was trained to be a dutiful art soldier through his early membership in various Japanese post-WWII artistic groups, like Creative Aesthetic Education, Small Collectors Society, Society for Selling Quality Pictures at Low Cost, and especially, the Demokrato Artists Association. Participation in these societies prepared him for the Fluxus collective when he emigrated to Manhattan in 1958, but did they also prepare Ay-Ō, (born Takao Iijima) to fulfill a destiny, despite reluctant importunity?
A 1970 essay for the magazine Mizu-e, which was also reproduced in his Nashville Skyline (1971) print portfolio (represented here with two examples and inspired by Bob Dylan’s album of the same name), was titled “At Any Rate, Let’s Throw the Serious Into the Gutter,” which became his credo and a rebuttal to the art world proclaiming the joy that folk art delivers. In the essay, Ay-Ō acknowledged rainbows brought “happiness and hope” to everyday people, and this natural spirit of playful exploration and optimism pervades his every work. But how did an inclination to engulf everyone else in light, somehow engulf him in a self-described “Rainbow Hell” (niji no jigoku)? He referred to this “duty given to me by nature,” at only the midway point through his life.
Using the sweetness of deep color saturation as camouflage to obscure the depth of his media and subject matter, he persisted like a dedicated, surrendering Buddha to a fleeting spot of colored light dancing on a wall in 1962. Ay-Ō noticed a patch of spectral radiance bouncing off the reflective surface of an aluminum sheet he was carrying (a shiny part of Hydra (1962), one of his room-sized installations) pulling his attention to unexpected dimensions that seemed adjacent to the “penetrating” Fluxus haptic objects he had always been known for: “Finger Boxes,” containing mystery textures his audiences encountered by inserting fingers through portals in wooden or plastic cubes, without being able to see what was inside.
This sudden glimpse of photons on a wall transformed his expression from the embrace of darkness and invisibility of the “Finger Box” works into their opposite—the full spectrum of visible light combining to define contours within his images: pictures made with, not of, rainbows.
All these years later, making it look easy, he has simplified his process to bands of color—from red to yellow and back to dark burgundy—that he refined over the years with his silkscreen printers to define the complex shapes present in any image, sans outlines. His methods are now so standardized that the computer scientists of Artechouse, known for their immersive digital art experiences, were able to simulate his style with an interactive video screen (Rainbow Vapor Trails, 2023) that in this exhibition creates the same effect in real time as viewers pass by.
Decades ago, with a Fluxus twist, he advanced from paintings (alas, only one example is included in the present show) to “instruction” pieces—scores for works requiring completion by others, particularly his two lifelong screen printers, Okabe Tokuzō, who died in 2006 and Sukeda Kenryō, contributor of an essay to the masterfully printed exhibition catalogue. In their hands, Ay-Ō’s scrupulous (tortured?) numbered sketches became striations of rich oil pigment in editions of 95 or 100, 200 or 120, sometimes contained in red or purple cases, and housed in velvet to continue his touch explorations, or in wooden boxes carrying premeditated scents.
Ay-Ō’s subject matter seems carefully chosen: from flowers to a yawning cat to two birds sharing a wing, from the Concorde or Wright Brothers airplane to a swimmer performing the butterfly stroke. Japanese-related content ranges from the Japanese emperor and his wife, titled Imperial Portraits for My Father (1989) to famous Sumo wrestlers with their faces obscured to a rendition of “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” the famous series of prints by the Japanese master Hokusai. Like the latter, many of the pieces featured are take-offs on artists from other eras: Michelangelo’s David (1501–04), a folksy portrait of Dr. Philemon Tracy by an unknown artist (ca. 1790), Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom (1834), the sumo wrestlers rendered by Utagawa Kunisada in the mid-nineteenth century, Fernand Léger’s Woman with a Cat (1921), and The Rape (1934) by Magritte are all subject to Ay-Ō’s treatment.
There are also two erotic collections. “Ten Commandments: Rainbow Buddha aka “Rainbow Hokusai,” Position II” (1970), are fifty-four individual silkscreens of a fragmented painting from the Edo period (1603–1868) that was chopped up, sent by mail and reassembled to avoid interference from postal authorities. Rainbow Night (1971), a section of a larger work, features intimate silhouetted body images of Ay-Ō and his wife Ikuko.
A few Fluxus-related objects provide context, either refabricated according to Ay-Ō’s wishes by Artechouse or borrowed for the exhibition. While Finger Box Set (No. 26) (1964), and Fluxkit (1965), lent by the Walker Art Center and MoMA, respectively, appear under glass, the recreations invite the kind of audience participation the anti-movement reveled in. In the “From the Dictionary” section of a suite of the artist’s silkscreens, “Rainbow Passes Slowly” (1971) (inspired by Dylan’s song “Time Passes Slowly”), elaborate, chance-generated diagram-like compositions became silkscreens after Fluxist Emmett Williams gifted Ay-Ō a German-language picture dictionary. Another portfolio on view, Then, Mr. Ay-Ō got drunk by the Rainbow (1974), began when another Fluxus friend, Alison Knowles, invited him to collaborate on an early 3M color copier, a suite which only became serigraphs later. Finally, in a detailed Hieronymous Bosch-like diptych of a Buddhist religious painting, Encouraging Virtue and Chastising Vice (1988), a close look reveals a deity literally condemning Ay-Ō to hell. These rainbows are a performance to attend, not objects to see—a performance extracted at a cost from its creator.