In the 1950s, the artists of the newly formed Gutai group of Japan worked fast and fearlessly, changing styles and mediums at will, staying abreast of the latest postwar developments abroad. The mood of this band of innovators was eclectic — and electric — as demonstrated by “Gutai: 1953-1959,” an ambitious show at Fergus McCaffrey gallery. Across some 70 works we see 11 of the artists who formed the group’s early reputation, ranging easily among abstract painting and sculpture, installation, environments and performance.
The McCaffrey effort is so large that it has taken over the cavernous space next door (formerly the Robert Miller Gallery) and at times feels like a series of solo shows. Some works here date from 1953 and helped spur the formation of Gutai a year later by several artists born mainly in the 1920s and led by an elder artist, Jiro Yoshihara (1905-1972). They excelled at hybrids and experimenting with materials, exemplified by the performative paintings that Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008) made with his feet, usually while suspended from a swing, achieving extravagant ridges and ruts of swirling paint. One rare work involving a brown sponge hiding a bonelike object invited viewer participation: “Please Push Strong.” (You can no longer touch, but there’s a video that shows Mr. McCaffrey doing so in white gloves, and Mr. Shiraga creating his swinging paintings.)
Perhaps not surprising in a country renowned for calligraphy, several of these artists (Mr. Shiraga included) probably did more with Jackson Pollock’s allover compositions and innovative drip techniques than their American counterparts. In New York, younger painters sought inspiration in the easier option, the more traditional paint handling of Willem de Kooning; a chief exception was the temporary transplant Yayoi Kusama, who, like her fellow Japanese artists, extended his ideas. (And whether by choice or economic pressures, the Gutai rarely worked in a large scale, avoiding macho overstatement, which is refreshing.)
You’ll see the influence of calligraphy in two abstract paintings by the great Masatoshi Masanobu: black surfaces covered with delicate curls and loops of cream color. In a smaller, equally beguiling work, he dabs cream over two shades of red and then adds more life with hundreds of short quick scratches rather like whiskers. Chiyu Uemae has several approaches. In a slightly unnerving painting, bits of bright color shine through a rough layer of brown paint; the effect is of buried jewels but also radiantly winged insects squirming to life, just below ground.
Entering the show is an act of Gutai participation: You have to step through a jagged hole in gold paper stretched across the gallery’s doorway. This is the most recent remake of Saburo Murakami’s famous “Entrance,” at the First Gutai Art Exhibition in Tokyo in 1955, in which he burst through several layers of paper that then became a work of art. (At the opening of this show in April, Alexandra Munroe, a curator of the Guggenheim Museum’s sweeping survey, “Gutai: Splendid Playground” in 2013, flung her body through gold-leafed Japanese paper.)
Other Murakami works here veer from Abstract Expressionist to Fluxus to Conceptual Art. His 1956 “Air,” an eight-inch-square cube of clear glass, is both a startling precursor and sendup of Minimalism; “All Landscapes,” also 1956, has you looking through an empty frame hanging from the ceiling, a Fluxus joke. But he was also making heavily slathered paintings that he intended to fall apart, as demonstrated by a red painting here that is missing a central chunk.
Sometimes this show fills in backgrounds on a particular artist. Toshio Yoshida was represented by seven of his wood panels burned with patterns, all from 1954, at the Guggenheim. These works, which parallel if they don’t anticipate the burned canvases of the Italian artist Alberto Burri, are, I suppose, Yoshida’s best bet for posterity. But the McCaffrey show includes 10 additional paintings, each different, registering the artist’s restlessness. Silk cords dangle from one painting; another, on red velvet, entails big daubs of concrete. My favorite seems at first to have a garland of bright flowers around its edges, but a closer look reveals patches of color on a surface of brown papier-mâché on burned wood with a hole in the center. It suggests a packed-earth floor strewn with petals — as well as an ingenuous way to save paint while commenting on Japan’s postwar poverty.
Sadamasa Motonaga’s work makes a similarly memorable impression of constant motion. A big white box periodically spews fog; the two big slurry green forms on a larger canvas might be an abstract tribute to Edvard Munch. In a pile of sand, two slim tree trunks bristle with scores of nails. Brightly painted stones with a row of short straws resemble a herd of small finned reptiles, but also weapons.
The revered Atsuko Tanaka, whose dress made from colored light bulbs was one of the highlights of the Guggenheim show, is represented here by “Work (Bell)” of 1955, an interactive installation with 12 bells installed around the space that buzz when someone steps on their floor buttons. The wiring for this piece helped inspire Tanaka’s interest in electricity.
Fujiko Shiraga, wife of the paint-by-feet Kazuo Shiraga, is represented by five-foot-high drawings of layered rice paper that the artist has scratched with her fingernails or torn in different ways. They’re at once deeply Japanese and in step with some of Robert Rauschenberg’s early ’50s white and black paintings. One piece that especially intrigues is “White Board” of 1955 — a sloping 26-foot-long plank of wood nearly four feet wide and bisected by an irregular crack. It could be like a model for an earthwork by Walter De Maria or Dennis Oppenheim, as well as “Shibboleth,” Doris Salcedo’s 548-foot-long crack in the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2007.
Aesthetic ideas drift in the air, used by one artist and then discarded, reabsorbed by another, according to ambition, means and opportunities. The sad thing, at least for art, is that in 1961 Ms. Shiraga stopped making her own visionary art to work closely with her husband. Perhaps their efforts merit double billing.
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