The Guggenheim opened “Gutai: Splendid Playground” yesterday, a retrospective of 145 works by 25 artists who were part of the optimistic collective that lifted the spirits of the postwar art scene in Japan between 1954 and 1972. The exhibition is the first major North American survey of Gutai, which the museum’s Asian art curator Alexandra Munroe recently called “the most influential postwar Avant-Garde collective.”
Elevating everyday materials to art supplies, Gutai members — of which there were 59 in its 18-year legacy — stitched expanses of fabric into monochrome “canvases,” painted their bodies with mud, and threw bottles of pigment onto paintings.
“[T]he great lives of the Renaissance are nothing more than archaeological relics,” wrote founder Yoshihara Jiro in his “Gutai Manifesto” as he called for a return to materiality (the word “Gutai” translates to “concreteness”). He went to write that “Gutai aspires to present exhibitions filled with vibrant spirit, exhibitions in which an intense cry accompanies the discovery of the new life of matter.”
Guggenheim curators expect that this lively spirit will translate across nations and generations to speak to America’s own postwar, post-crash society. Stressing this point, co-curator Ming Tiampo mentioned during the press preview that Japanese conceptualist and recent Guggenheim subject Lee Ufan had stopped by earlier in the week and commented on how “fresh and contemporary” the show looked.
In at least one case the art has been literally adapted for its new context. The first piece greeting visitors as they enter the museum is an updated version of Motonaga Sadamasa’s “Work (Water),” a lattice of clear plastic tubes crisscrossing the heights of the rotunda, each seeming to bend under the weight of colored water pooled in the center. The artist first conceived of the work as an outdoor installation in 1956 and reimagined it for the museum in 2011, shortly before he died.
“Gutai: Splendid Playground” is open through May 8.
— Rachel Corbett
(Photos: Motonaga Sadamasa, “Work (Water),” 1956/2011; Yamakazi Tsuruko, “Work (Red Cube),” 1956; Yoshida Minoru, “Bisexual Flower,” 1969.)