After World War II, a group of avant-garde artists in Japan began challenging the limits of painting. Though the Gutai art movement isn’t widely known in the US, the Dallas Museum of Art is paying a lot of attention to it. KERA contributor Joan Davidow explains how the DMA’s exhibition of two Gutai artists reveals influences and similarities with American artists working at the same time.
Projected on a big wall photograph and video, we see Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga wallowing in mud in an outdoor installation. The piece, created in the early 1950s, shows us how an avant-garde group of Japanese artists participated in “Happenings,” just as American artists were doing at the time. It was a way to experiment and confront the aftermath of World War II.
Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga make up the pair of swashbuckling Japanese artists in the DMAs new exhibition called Between Action and The Unknown. The two artists participated in a group known as the Gutai movement. These inventive contemporary artists were active for about two decades until 1972, when their founder died. Now over 50 years later, museums and collectors in the West, including the DMA, take keen interest.
Shiraga’s early mud-stomping plays into the visceral brushstrokes in his 1963 Wild Boar Hunting II of violent red paint sloshed though a boar’s black fur. Conversely, Motonaga’s work feels sweet and idealistic, as in his delightful early oil painting of a bumpy mountain topped with lyrical little dots or a 1959 painting called Kiss, of tall, blue and red dynamic brushstrokes that almost touch at the top.
The Gutai movement is new to the U S. Scholarly art history books might spend one or two paragraphs on it. Yet the movement informed America’s postwar artists, just as the Americans influenced Gutai. At the same time Shiraga was moving mud around, Jackson Pollock was swirling paint on the floor. But American academics and collectors were following this country’s vibrant contemporary art scene and didn’t pay much attention to faraway, war-torn Japan.
Today, though, museum audiences are more diverse and better connected. So museums in the West must present a more expansive worldview.
In Dallas, art collector Howard Rachofsky first saw Gutai art ten years ago, and five years later acquired his first piece. Others soon followed, curios about this previously hidden, dynamic art scene in Asia. Three major U S museums in New York and San Francisco have presented postwar Japanese art. Rachofsky continues to collect and encouraged the DMA to open its doors to Japanese contemporary art. The museum also hired assistant curator Gabriel Ritter, who specializes in the art of postwar Japan. He and a colleague from Japan co-curated the exhibition. The Japan Foundation paid to ship works never seen in the US.
The curators chose Shiraga and Motonaga because both artists were important contributors to the Gutai movement and because their styles continued to evolve beyond the period, well into the 21st century.
Thanks to the DMA, we can explore the work of these important Japanese artists and learn how it relates to the major American abstractionists of the same postwar period.