“Gutai Art is the product that has arisen from the pursuit of possibilities. ··· It is our desire to embody the fact that our spirit is free. It is also our hope that no restrictions will be placed on the desire to experience fresh sensations through every form of expression,”
from Gutai Art Manifesto’.
“Gutai”, officially known as Gutai Art Association, is the first radical, post-war artistic group in Japan. Founded in 1954 with the aim to go beyond abstraction and pursue enthusiastically the possibilities of pure creativity, they emphasized that Gutai art does not alter matter but rather speaks of the delicate interaction between spirit and matter that ultimately enables art to tell a story. The name “Gutai” was meant to “present concrete proof that our spirit is free.” “Sprit” was considered to be specific to each individual but also an abstract entity. Gutai was formed by a collection of young artists led by Jiro Yoshihara. Under this charismatic leader, a group of young artists cheerfully challenged the boundaries circumscribing traditional art works.
With the celebrative and challenging spirit of Gutai, many of Gutai’s early works were more focused on performance, large installation and happening. Tearing paper (Saburo Murakami), muddling paint with feet (Kazuo Shiraga), throwing bottles of paint (Shozo Shimamoto), wearing a dress made of electric bulbs (Atsuko Tanaka), etc, characterized “Gutai”, the art movement reflecting the freedom of postwar society contradicted to totalitarian during wartime. From early 1960s, the focus of Gutai gradually moved to more two-dimensional works coinciding the opening of Gutai Pinacoteca, an exhibition space for not only Gutai artists but also for notable western artists including Lucio Fontana, Guiseppe Capogrossi and Sam Francis. The second-generation of Gutai, Yuko Nasaka, Tsuyoshi Maekawa, Shuji Mukai and Takesada Matsutani created their signature works by making use of unconventional materials and tools, actively participated in exhibitions held in Gutai Pinacoteca.
he Gutai group started to gain more public recognition after a ground-breaking exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2013, following several important museum and gallery shows such as ‘Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde,’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and ‘Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962’ at LAMOCA. Art market has also recognized the importance of this post-war art movement and organized special exhibitions and sales such as ‘Avant Garde Asia: Gutai and its Legacy’ at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, March 2015 and ‘Full Circle – Yoshihara Jiro Collection’ at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 2015.
Gutai’s leader Jiro Yoshihara relentlessly demanded to the members to create art unlike any that had ever existed in the past. He also organized exhibitions to show their work in parks, on stage and in the sky in hopes of encouraging them to generate new ideas free of the existing framework of art. The group was highly acclaimed abroad and the name “GUTAI” came to be widely recognized in the Western art world from the late ’50s. And the very spirit is still alive along with the artists who fearlessly followed their leader even after the group’s dissolution in 1972.
Yoshihara was the founding member of and a mentor to fellow artists of the Gutai Art Association, a Japanese post-war avant-garde art group. Gutai sought to create innovative art by using the artworks’ the materials themselves for artistic expression. The group’s slogan, “Don’t copy anyone,” likewise speaks to its innovative spirit. In 1960, Yoshihara created a number of works composed of singular bold circles spread over a plain background of canvas. The artist developed this motif in his own exquisite way and became highly appreciated overseas. The innovativeness of Yoshihara’s circle is its lack of philosophical meaning. It is only chosen for convenience. Yoshihara went far to liberate art from traditional conventions, and his artwork remains influential, especially in the context of the Gutai art movement.
Considered a pioneer of Japanese action painting, Kazuo Shiraga is the most recognized Gutai artist overseas. Shiraga’s works, created by spreading paint with his feet while suspended from a rope, leave traces of action in the form of thick layers of paint on the surface. These works are surprisingly dynamic but full of stoicism at the same time. Before participating in the Gutai movement in 1955, the artist had already been active as a member of the “Zero Society” with artists Atsuko Tanaka, Akira Kanayama, and Saburo Murakami. Michel Tapié, French art critic who created the title “Art Informel” for an influential art movement which was prominent in the European art world at the time, highly appreciated Shiraga’s talent. Subsequently, the artist entered the Buddhist priesthood at Enryakuji-Temple at Hieizan Mountain and received his Buddhist name Sodo Shiraga. In 1993, Shiraga took part in the Venice Biennial. His work continues to fascinate art collectors around the world.
Shimamoto was one of the original members of the Gutai Art Association since its establishment. Most of all, Shimamoto’s art is characterized by large-scale dynamism. Shimamoto is internationally recognized for his cannon painting made using handmade cannons to shoot paint balls and for his bottle-throwing paintings. The essence of Shimamoto’s art, which is “the trace of action” itself, embodies the spirit of Gutai, a movement which attracted international audiences to Japanese contemporary art. As an artist, Shimamoto has always demonstrated an innovative and pioneering mindset.
Sadamasa Motonaga is one of the representative artists from the first generation of the Gutai Art Association. In his later career, Motonaga was also active as an author of children’s books, and his unique sense of humor is well known among people of all ages. Motonaga belonged to the Gutai group from 1955 to 1971. He developed innovative ideas one after the other, including the concept of “Water Sculpture,” which involves hanging vinyl bags filled with paint and water, his style of the traditional Japanese drip-painting method called “Tarashikomi,” his utilization of airbrush techniques for scattering acrylic paint, and others. Motonaga was immersed in the overseas art world from his early career through contracts with Martha Jackson Gallery (New York) and the International Centre of Aesthetic Research (Turin, Italy). The artist is highly acclaimed and has participated in international exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale, the Seoul International Print Biennale, the Torino Premio Risone International Exhibition, and others.
Tanaka joined the Gutai Art Association in 1955. With her “Electric Dress,” composed of light bulbs colored with synthetic enamel paints, presented in “Gutai Art on the Stage” (1956), Tanaka entered the limelight. This idea was inspired by electrical diagrams, where innumerable circles are intertwined with lines. Tanaka consistently used synthetic resin enamel as a medium. With glossy materials and vivid colors, her creations have an energetic presence. Tanaka is considered one of the representative figures of the early period of the Gutai movement, along with artists like Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga. Tanaka’s works have been included in many exhibitions in the US and Europe.
Gutai has become highly acclaimed in recent years, and Uemae was one of the earliest participants of the group while it was active. In contrast to Shimamoto, the charm of Uemae’s works comes from their elaborate materials and introspective spirit. The artist first experienced various job fields, working as a crane operator and an apprentice at a traditional dyeing factory in Kyoto. Uemae then taught himself Chinese “Nan-ga” painting before shifting to oil painting. In 1953, Uemae met Yoshihara, and, since then, the artist took part in every Gutai exhibition until its dissolution. His wide-ranging creations, from two-dimensional works composed of patterns achieved by knife painting or intricate stitching to sculptural works made of wood or sawdust, come from the broad experience he gained during his adolescence.
It was at the 8th Gutai Exhibition where Mukai appeared for the first time, and he participated in every subsequent Gutai exhibition until the group’s dissolution. Mukai’s works are composed of various types of symbols that fill the canvas, spaces, and sometimes the body of the artist himself. Mukai established his own style early on in his career, with an exquisite installation at the 10th Gutai Exhibition (1961), a solo exhibition at the Gutai Pinacotheca (1962), and his take on a Jazz café entitled “Check” (1966), among others. In 1969, the artist executed his large-scale action artwork in which he burned tableaus. Thus, Mukai’s stance has always been ahead of its time. Mukai’s installations at the Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective exhibition “Gutai: Splendid Playground” (2013), and at several exhibitions of the Venice Biennale, as well as at Proportio at Palazzo Fortuny (2015), are still fresh in our minds. In 2017, Mukai contributed installation works to the renovation of Louis Vuitton’s SOHO boutique in New York City (curated by architect Peter Marino), and he is highly acclaimed in various fields.
Maekawa has used burlap as the main material for his works throughout his career. Burlap has become almost so closely associated with the artist to the extent that it is no doubt what first comes to mind when we think of Tsuyoshi Maekawa. Before Maekawa’s arrival in the art scene, there were a few artists in art history who used burlap, such as Joan Miró and Alberto Burri, but Maekawa was the first who exhibited a lifelong persistence in using this material. Maekawa attached and sewed pieces of burlap to achieve a three-dimensional quality on the canvas, and he also added color by using oil paints on the surface. Maekawa had an unwavering persistence to his artistic process of using burlap, while also pursuing innovation and new shapes and effects. Alongside artists like Shuji Mukai and Takesada Matsutani, Maekawa is representative of Gutai’s second generation. Even after the Gutai movement dissolved, Maekawa continued his creative pursuits and participated in many international exhibitions.
Born in Osaka in 1937, Takesada Matsutani studied under Jiro Yoshihara in 1960 and participated in the 9th Gutai Art Exhibition. He began producing relief artworks in 1962 using vinyl adhesive and was highly praised by Yoshihara who invited him to be a member of the Gutai Art Association. In 1967, he joined the print studio of S.W. Hayter and won several prizes at international print exhibitions. During the 1980s, he began to produce works using graphite pencil and vinyl adhesive. In June 2019, he presented a solo exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, and his works can be found in many well-known art museums.
Yasuo Sumi started painting while working as a high school teacher alongside Shozo Shimamoto, one of the founding members of the Gutai Art Association. Sumi, who used “soroban” (the Japanese abacus) as a tool for teaching mathematics, discovered coincidentally that a soroban produces a beautiful pattern when painted and rolled onto paper. After this discovery, the soroban became a key aspect of Sumi’s technique, in addition to using traditional umbrellas and even vibrators to create patterns. Sumi joined the Gutai group in 1955 and exhibited his works at each subsequent Gutai exhibition until the group’s dissolution. His numerous improvisational creations reflected his three principals: desperation, irreverence, and free-spiritedness. This philosophy was praised by Gutai’s leader, Jiro Yoshihara. Similarly to fellow Gutai artist Shimamoto, Sumi presented artworks in many exhibitions in Europe and the US and gained popularity, particularly in Italy.
Yuko Nasaka’s artworks presented at the Nika Exhibition and Ashiya City Art Exhibition caught the eye of Jiro Yoshihara, leader of the Gutai Art Association, in 1962. As a result, Nasaka joined the Gutai group the following year. The motif of a circle was ingrained in the artist’s memory because her family’s business involved producing circular meters and dials for ship’s control panels. The circle became a lifelong trademark of her artistic career. Her first solo exhibition at the Gutai Pinacotheca (1964), which consisted of a space filled entirely with concentric circles, drew attention from visitors and prominent international figures, such as Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. After taking a sabbatical from her career, the artist returned to art with a series of large pieces with circles. Nasaka’s boundless circles and her artistic perspective continued to fascinate the art world, and her works grew popular in Europe.
Early on in his career, the artist Aine Kinashi aimed to be a musician. Even the artist’s first name “Aine” was derived from the German pronunciation of the first word in the title of the piece “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik” composed by Mozart. However, the artist transitioned to a career in painting while studying at the Osaka School of Music, now the Osaka College of Music. In collaboration with fellow artist Masaya Sakamoto, Kinashi established the avant-garde art groups Delta and Tempo in the 1950s. Kinashi continued to establish himself as an artist in the Kansai region’s art scene, and joined the Gutai Art Association in 1965. Kinashi explored incorporating musical aspects in his artwork by creating images that evoked a sense of rhythmic movement. He also attempted to imbue pieces with the mood of music by using varying shades of blue, and his works included shimmering gold and metallic colors that are reminiscent of musical instruments. These cool tones set the artist apart from other Gutai artists who used warm colors, influenced by Art Informel, to achieve a dynamic effect in their works. After a hiatus during which the artist provided musical education to children, he returned to art and created many large-scale pieces.
The artist Senkichiro Nasaka studied at art colleges before entering the Kyoto City Painting University, where he met artist Kazuo Shiraga who was in the same class. Although Nasaka began his career painting in a traditional Japanese style, he transitioned to oil painting in the 1960s. In 1965, Nasaka exhibited works in the 15th Gutai Art Exhibition and became a member of the Gutai Art Association. After becoming a member of the Gutai group, his artworks underwent a major shift from consisting mainly of more traditional canvas paintings to works showcasing new techniques, including using electricity, light, and kinetic elements. These techniques became representative of the later Gutai style. At the Guggenheim Museum’s Gutai retrospective exhibition “Gutai: Splendid Playground” (2013), Nasaka reproduced a previous work made of aluminum tubes, which were installed throughout the entire exhibition space like a form of scaffolding. In more recent years, the artist’s works produced during the early Gutai period, characterized by subtle blends of various colors, have been in high demand among collectors.
Tsuruko Yamazaki was born in the city of Ashiya in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture in 1925. While studying at the Obayashi Sacred Heart School in 1946, the artist became acquainted with founder of the Gutai Art Association Jiro Yoshihara. In 1948, the artist presented her work in the 1st Ashiya City Exhibition. Yamazaki is one of the few members of the Gutai group who was involved with the movement from its establishment to its dissolution. After working with the Gutai Art Association, she was invited to join the group “Artist Union” by fellow artist Masunobu Yoshimura. Yamazaki is known for her paintings with vivid colors and strips, as well as sculptural works made of tin cans painted in fluorescent hues. She attracted attention with her large-scale installation at Gutai’s “One-Day Outdoor Exhibition” (1956) called “Red,” consisting of a mosquito net which allowed viewers to enter and be immersed in the piece–a piece that was an early example of interactive art and that is still relevant in the art world today. From the 1980s onward, the artist was active as a freelancer. Yamazaki’s works have been exhibited not only in Japan, but also internationally, in countries like Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain. The artist passed away in June, 2019.
Matsuka joined the Gutai Art Association in 1967 as one of the youngest members at the time, and he was a key figure in Gutai’s second generation. The artist is considered a pioneer of kinetic art, which was quite rare in Japan before his arrival in the art scene. Using subtle, monotone shades of color and simple silhouettes, his works feel intellectual, while at the same time mystical, peaceful, and elegant. The mechanical sounds created by components of his pieces, like motors, make the viewers feel a sense of rhythmic undulation, and they seemed to foretell of the era of technological advancements in the decades to come. In 1984, Matsuda opened Bunsei Dojo Gallery Do, a private art school in Namba, Osaka, and he has engaged in a wide range of educational activities.