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ATSUKO TANAKAWork, 1963, synthetic resin and enamel on canvas, 159 × 129 cm. Courtesy De Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Gutai

De Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong
Hong Kong Japan

Japan’s Mono-ha group and Korea’s Tansaekhwa movement, dating back to the late 1960s and 1970s, having recently experienced a resurgence of interest—a development that comes as surprising only because the subtlety and self-contained experimentation of both bodies of work seem like the farthest thing from “trends.” Considering this new wave of attention, it is only logical that critics and gallerists are dialing the clock back a few years to reexamine Japan’s Gutai movement (1954–72), a key force in postwar Japanese art that spearheaded experimentation in abstract painting, performance and multimedia art. Although abstract expressionism and “happenings” are sometimes used as shorthand comparisons for Gutai, the group either predated or coexisted with these concepts, being innovative in its own right. At Hong Kong’s De Sarthe Gallery, the group show “Gutai” directs attention to the vibrant immediacy and formal innovation of the group’s artists, including Kazuo Shiraga (1924–2008) and Atsuko Tanaka (1932–1995), among others.

However, even as recent critical reevaluations of Gutai (which translates as “concreteness” in Japanese) have correctly remedied its earlier dismissal of the group as being overly derivative of Western modern art, the movement’s legacy remains complex. Courting the Western art world and media at a time when much of Japan was united against America’s continued military presence, Gutai stands in contrast to other currents in Japanese art including “Reportage Painting”— which emerged in the early 1950s and lasted until the beginning of the next decade—that combined surrealism and social realism to depict postwar unrest. In this context, some Japanese intellectuals did not embrace Gutai, dismissing it as “bourgeois play.” Though the pieces on display at De Sarthe do not fully answer questions about Gutai’s social or political importance, the show does demonstrate that the work of Gutai artists remains compelling today.

JirĊ Yoshihara (1905–1972) co-founded the Gutai Art Association in August 1954 with 16 other artists, including Chiyu Uemae (b. 1920, also on display at De Sarthe), and the group disbanded following his death. Though smaller and less immediately eye-catching than other pieces at the gallery, Yoshihara’s paintings encapsulate the Gutai ethos—which is one of pure expression and individuality. Two untitled paintings dating back to the 1960s present loose, fluid black circles on rectangles of off-white paper about 40 centimeters tall. The pieces are almost too minimal, yet the smooth strokes that make the circles, and the artist’s confidence to let forms speak for themselves, come together to create a strong impact.

Though intriguing for their juxtapositions of bone-like shapes on saturated fields of color, Yoshihara’s other pieces pale in comparison to larger canvases from other artists. Shiraga started painting with his feet when he began to feel his hands were “overeducated.” It is hard to determine whether his work at De Sarthe involved his feet or not: looking at his paintings the means of creation is not visible. One can only see thick, unmixed channels of red and yellow, undulating in waves that rise off the canvas, which grant the paintings a sculptural quality. Curiously though, Dattan, Shunie No Gyo (1973), more than a meter tall and almost two meters wide, is Shiraga’s earliest piece in the show. Two other paintings, though captivating, date from the 1980s and 1990s, thereby disconnected from Gutai.

The question of temporality also arises when looking at Atsuko Tanaka’s paintings. As the only female artist included in the show, Tanaka’s presence provides a contrast to the all-male collective of Mono-ha shows. Though predominantly male, Gutai may have been slightly more inclusive than other art movements that followed. Tanaka’s painting Work (1963) arranges brightly colored circles and string-like strands on a white canvas around 1.5 meters tall. Suggesting cybernetic networks and electronic connections, it seems to eerily predict the high-tech path that Japan and the rest of the world would pursue in the coming decades. However, two similar paintings date from after Gutai’s demise, including 97A (1997), which rearranges the interconnected nodes of Work into a colorful thicket, and is arguably more visually arresting than the original. The viewer can observe how Tanaka’s technique matured over time, but this work positions the De Sarthe show more as a document of the artistic development of certain Gutai members rather than a snapshot of the movement at its height, as suggested by the exhibition’s title. 

Selections on display from other artists match Shiraga and Tanaka’s skill, if with a less intense palette. Tsuyoshi Maekawa’s (b. 1936) knit burlap paintings over muted blue and green tones seem to anticipate Mono-ha for their focus on materiality. Meanwhile, Chiyu Uemae’s roughly textured, untitled 1963 painting appears to hide found objects behind layers of oil paint, echoing the messy, industrial feel of a Dada assemblage. Though Yoshihara contrasted Gutai’s joyous creation with Dadaism’s nihilism, Uemae’s art suggests there were lingering connections.

As such, together the pieces in the exhibition certainly prove that Gutai artists had produced innovative, striking art. Yet the fact that many pieces are dated from after the group’s avowed period of activity leaves the heart of the movement unexamined. Naturally, increased collector interest in Gutai may have made it harder to assemble art from the group’s heyday. The pieces gathered at De Sarthe are very strong; however, they may have benefited from a broader contextualization, referencing how the artists continued to evolve and refine their craft even after Gutai formally disbanded.

CHIYU UEMAE, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 117 × 91 cm. Courtesy De Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong. 

TSUYOSHI MAEKAWA, Untitled, 1975, acrylic and sewn burlap, 70.5 × 33 cm. Courtesy De Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong.