“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.
Founder and mentor of Gutai Art Association, Japanese postwar avant-garde group: GUTAI pursued the way of innovative art by appealing direct on materiality itself. Its slogan is known as “Don’t copy anyone”. In 1960, Yoshihara creates a number of works composed of a bold circle spread over a plane background of canvas. The artist develops this motif in his own exquisite way and becomes to be highly appreciated from overseas. The innovativeness of Yoshihara’s circle is its no philosophical meaning. It is only chosen for convenience. Yoshihara goes far in liberating art from any stereotypes and he has kept absolute influence on GUTAI members.
Considered as pioneer of Japanese action painting, Kazuo Shiraga is the most recognized GUTAI artists in overseas. Shiraga’s creation executed by spreading paints with his feet while suspended from a rope, and his trace of action left as thick accumulation of paints on the surface are surprisingly dynamic but full of stoicism at the same time. Before participating in GUTAI in 1955, the artist had already activities as a member of “zero society” with Atsuko Tanaka, Akira Kanayama, and Saburo Murakami. Michel Tapié, French critique, also originator of Art Informel, which hailed around art world at that time, highly appreciates Shiraga’s talent. The artist enters in Buddhist priesthood at Enryakuji-Temple at Hieizan Mountain (receives Buddhist name Sodo Shiraga). In 1993, Shiraga takes part in Venice Biennial. His work continues to fascinate art collectors around the world.
One of the original members of Gutai Art Association since its establishment. Above all, the art of Shimamoto is characterized by its huge-scale dynamism. Shimamoto is internationally recognized by his cannon painting which is using his handmade cannon to shoot color balls and by his bottle-throwing paintings, which he uses the bottle filled with paints. Essence of the art of SHimamoto, which can be said as “the trace of action” itself, embodies the spirit of GUTAI most clearly and contributes to attract international attention for Japanese contemporary art. Also the artist is not the last to focus on Mail Art. Thus, Shimamoto never stops to be a pioneer.
Sadamasa Motonaga is one of the representative artists from the first generation of Gutai Art Association. In his later career, Motonaga is also active as author of children’s books, and his specific style of humour is well known among people of all ages. Motonaga belongs to Gutai group from 1955 to 1971. He develops one after another his own innovative ideas such as “Water Sculpture”, which hangs vinyl bags filled with painted water, application of traditional dripping method of Japanese painting “Tarashikomi” to his own style, adoption of airbrush for scattering acrylic paint, etc. Motonaga gets experience in oversea from his early period including contracts with Martha Jackson Gallery (New York) and International Centre of Aesthetic Research (Turin, Italy). The artist is highly acclaimed in international exhibitions such as Venice Biennial, Seoul International Print Biennial, Torino Premio Risone International Exhibition, etc.
Tanaka joins in Gutai Art Association since 1955. With her “electric dress”, which is composed of bulbs with synthetic enamel paints, presented in Gutai Art on the Stage (1956), Tanaka enters the limelight. She gets this idea from electrical diagram, where uncounted circles are intertwined with lines. Tanaka uses consistently synthetic resin enamel as mediums. With its glossy matiéres and vivid colors, her creation shows outstanding presence. Tanaka is considered one of the represented figures of early period of GUTAI like Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga. Tanaka’s works are included in many exhibitions in USA and Europe.
While GUTAI being highly acclaimed in recent years, Uemae is one of the oldest witnesses of the group and its period. In contrast to Shimamoto, the charm of Uemae consists in the elaborated matières and its accumulation of introspective energies. Experiencing various jobs such as crane operator, apprentice to traditional dyeing factory in Kyoto, Uemae studies firstly Chinese “Nan-ga” as self-taught, then shifts to oil painting. In 1953, Uemae meets Yoshihara, since then, the artist takes part in every Gutai exhibition until its dissolution. His wide-ranging creation from two-dimensional works which are composed of pattern accumulation by painting knife or of sensitive stitch to sculptural works made of wood or saw dust, comes from his broad experience in his adolescence.
It is at the 8th Gutai Exhibition that Mukai appears for the first time; participates at every Gutai exhibition until group’s dissolution. Mukai’s works are composed of various types of symbols that filled the canvas, spaces, and sometimes the body of the artist himself. Mukai establishes his own style in his early career; his exquisite installation is already apparent at the 10th Gutai Exhibition (1961), solo exhibition in Gutai Pinacotheca (1962), symbolization of Jazz café “Check”(1966), etc. In 1969, the artist executes his large-scale happening in which he burns all of tableaus. Thus, Mukai’s stance is always ahead of the time. Installations at the Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective exhibition “Gutai: Splendid Playground” (2013) and extension exhibition of Venice Biennial, Proportio at Palazzo Fortuny (2015) are still fresh in our mind. In 2017, Mukai contributes his installation works to the renewal of Louis Vuitton’s SOHO boutique in New York (curated by architect Peter Marino), highly acclaimed from versatile fields.
Maekawa uses burlap as a main material on his creation throughout his career: burlap becomes almost a synonym of the artist to the extent that it comes first in our mind whenever referring to Tsuyoshi Maekawa. Before Maekawa’s appearance, there are a few artists who also use burlaps, such as Joan Miró and Alberto Burri in the history of art, but Maekawa is the first one who shows his lifelong persistence in its materiality. Not only attaching and sewing burlaps with three-dimensional expression on canvas, Maekawa always gives a coloring with oil on the surface; it is a testimony of the artist’s stir persistence to the tableaux regardless of his pursuit for undulating effect. Alongside with Shuji Mukai and Takesada Matsutani, Maekawa is the representative figure from Gutai’s second generation. After dissolution of Gutai, Maekawa never stops to be full of creative activities including many exhibitions in overseas.
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 works in 1962 using vinyl adhesive and is 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 starts painting while working as high school teacher alongside with Shozo Shimamoto, one of the founding members of Gutai Art Association. Sumi who uses soroban (Japanese abacus) as the material of teaching mathematics, discovers by chance that there is beautiful trace left after rolling painted soroban on paper. Since then, soroban becomes synonym for Sumi’s technique as well as vibrator and traditional umbrella. Sumi joins to Gutai in 1955 and continues to exhibit his works at each subsequent Gutai exhibition until its disbandment. The number of improvisational creations reflected his three principals “desperation, absence of seriousness, irresponsibility” is praised by the leader of Gutai, Jiro Yoshihara. As well as Shimamoto, Sumi experiences many exhibitions in Europe and USA, gets popularity especially in Italy.
By being prized consecutively at the Nika Exhibition and the Ashiya City Art exhibition in 1962, Yuko Nasaka is caught the eyes of Jiro Yoshihara, the leader of Gutai Art Association. Nasaka joins to Gutai in the following year. Due to her family business that produces meters for ships, Nasaka is familiar with the form of circle from her childhood. Then, circle becomes her lifelong motif for creation. Her first solo exhibition at Gutai Pinacoteca (1964), which filled whole space with number of concentric circles, draws so much attention; among visitors, international prominent figures such as Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham are contained. After a certain period of break from her career, the artist comes back to her creation and continues to present a series of circles and big pieces. The worldview of Nasaka knows no boundaries to fascinate the views as well as her boundless circles. The popularity of Nasaka grows also in Europe.
Aine Kinashi aims to be a musician (artist name “Aine” phonetically derives from the well-known piece of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik”, from the first word of the piece), but he switches over to a career in painter while studying at Osaka School of Music (presently Osaka College of Music). With Masaya Sakamoto, Kinashi establishes avant-garde art group “Delta” and “Tempo” in 1950s. Kinashi joins to Gutai Art Association in 1965 as one of already established artists in the art scene of Kansai region. Kinashi explores musical effects through his work bringing sense of rhythmical movement and different shades of blue colors, also by adding gold and metal powders to oil: it makes him a stylistically distinct figure among other Gutai artists who make the most of dynamism and strong warm colors influenced by Art Informel. After a certain period of interval (to devote to musical education for children), the artist comes back to creation in 1977 and leaves many large-scale works.
After studying art colleges, Senkichiro Nasaka enters the Kyoto City Painting University: encounters Kazuo Shiraga who is in the same class. Nasaka makes a career switch from Japanese painting to Oil painting in 1960s. It is until in 1965 that Nasaka presents his work to the 15th Gutai Art Echibition and becomes member of Gutai Art Association subsequently. During his Gutai period, there is a great change in the style from tableaux works influenced by Art Informel to hardedge imagery such as light art and kinetic art, which becomes representative style of the later Gutai. At Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective exhibition Gutai: Splendid Playground in 2013, Nasaka reproduces his past work made of aluminum tubes, which are running across the whole exhibition space like a scaffold. Nevertheless, the works from his early period of Gutai, characterized by nuanced marriage of various colors are particularly in high demand among collectors.
Born in Ashiya-city, Hyogo, in 1925. During her study at Obayashi Sacred Heart School in 1946, Tsuruko Yamazaki encountered with Jiro Yoshihara, the founder of Gutai Art Association. In 1948, her work was submitted to 1st Ashiya City Exhibition. Tsuruko Yamazaki is one of the few members who belonged to Gutai group from its establishment to disbandment. After Gutai, she participated in “Artist Union” through the introduction of Masunobu Yoshimura. Tsuruko Yamzaki is known for her vivid colored, striped paintings as well as her sculptural works comprised of fluorescent painted tin cans. On the occasion of “One Day Outdoor Exhibition” of Gutai in 1956, her huge installation entitled “Red” using mosquito tent which invites the audience to get inside, attracted much attention as pioneered interactive work and it has still been talking about now. After 1980s, the artist was active as a freelancer. Her works have been broadly exhibited not only nationwide but also worldwide including in Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain. She passed away in June, 2019.
Matsuda joines Gutai Art Association in 1967 as the youngest hope, where he acts one of the main members of group’s second generation. The artist is counted as a pioneer of kinetic art, which is quite rare in Japan at that time. Simple coloring and shaping centering on monotone embodies intellectual but still magical peace and elegance. Mechanical sound created by implements like motor makes the viewers feel rhythmical undulation and his works seems to predict the era of technology towards the next few decades. In 1984, Matsuda opens his private art school Bunsei Dojo Gallery Do in Namba (Osaka) and contributes to expand a wide range of educational activities.