What if…? Gutai, Japan’s New York School
A Visual Essay on Gutai at Hauser & Wirth, New York
September 12 to October 27, 2012
32 East 69th Street, between Madison and Park avenues
New York City, 212-794-4970
In the early 1950s, a group of Japanese artists saw Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Jackson Pollock at work and, also, some of his paintings. The members of the Gutai Art Association were inspired to produce a marvelous variety of abstractions. But when in 1958, when they showed in New York, Americans were too much under the spell of the still-unfolding achievements of the Abstract Expressionists to look sympathetically at their paintings. And so this ambitious exhibition of twenty-seven works of art, many of them large, is a revelation. It includes Shozo Shimamoto’s arrows, which resemble Adolf Gottlieb’s geometric compositions; Tsuruko Yamazaki’s Work (1956-57), oddly akin to an intense Helen Frankenthaler; Sadamasa Motonaga’s Sakuhin (No. 54) (1958), a vertically oriented abstraction not unlike Robert Motherwell’s classic paintings; and Shuji Mukai’s Work (1963), which puts me in mind of Alfred Jensen’s gridded pictures.
A branch of history writing is devoted to alternate histories. What if Winston Churchill had died in the traffic accident in New York, 1931, when he was seriously injured? Or what if the plot on Hitler’s life in 1939 had been successful? World history might have been very different. Imagine, in the same spirit, that in 1956, just after Pollock died, that some catastrophe had killed Gottlieb, Frankenthaler, Motherwell and Jensen. The Gutai, I think, might have developed exactly as they in fact did, for once they understood how to use Pollock’s techniques to do painterly abstractions, they would have developed basically the same options as their American near-contemporaries. The famous survey text art since 1900 by the editors of October describes the Gutai’s response to Pollock as “one of the most interesting . . . ‘creative misreadings’ of twentieth-century art.” Judging just by this exhibition, that judgment is absolutely mistaken. In fact, the Gutai independently identified something like the same options as their American peers. Even Jiro Yoshibara’s Work (1967), a black circle on a white field the odd man out in this exhibition, fits into this plan. For just as in response to Pollock’s gestural technique, some Americans became proto-minimalists, so also in Japan a similar development occurred. I certainly don’t want to overdo this parallel between American and Japanese painting. Although Yasuo Sumi’s Work (1955-56) resembles Morris Louis’s pictures of that date, it seems to embody a different sensibility. And I find Norio Imai’s challenging White Ceremony-F/G/E (1966-2012) hard to place in relation to American art.
Nowadays any history of contemporary art has to be a worldwide history, looking at the contributions from every culture. It’s astonishing to look back forty-some years and find serious commentators like Michael Fried writing as if the future of painting depended just upon a few New York artists. This exhibition is a salutary reminder that historians of modernism need to expand their range of examples. Thanks to Pollock’s inspiration, the Gutai worked out quite independently in their own country something like the developments of abstraction, which took place in New York. Maybe, then, the laws of art historical development are (relatively) universal. And so, once a novel style of painting is created, perhaps artists any and everywhere can develop it. This exhilarating exhibition thus suggests a far- reaching vision about how to develop our thinking, about modernism, which deserves further attention.