Avant-garde explosion

Gutai, a collective of exuberant avant-gardists that blossomed in late-1950s Japan, staked their careers on creativity for life’s sake. “Do what no one has done before!” commanded Yoshihara Jiro, the group’s leader, and his younger disciples obligingly smashed pigment-swollen bottles on to the surface of their canvases; pirouetted across them in bare feet; ladled gloops of tar across them and sprinkled them with sand. It was a paradox, really: a collective formed to test the limits of individual innovation.

The Guggenheim’s buoyant survey, Gutai: Splendid Playground, catches that gasp of group intoxication, albeit dimly. We hear the distant exhalation of inventiveness, which imperial culture had long suppressed. We sense the giddiness but a great scrim of distance interferes. Gutai was as much about process as product. The word means “concreteness”, which reads like an abstraction in English, but suggests an embrace of art as a physical activity. These earnest pranksters leapt, wrestled, shot and burnt, treating their canvases the way the Beastie Boys left hotel rooms, as the scenes of their exploits. But the evidence just isn’t as much fun as the event, and even when the Guggenheim provides a video of the Gutai gang in action, it’s like hearing about a party you didn’t attend.

If Yoshihara was the guru, Jackson Pollock was the muse – or, to be exact, the version of Pollock who jumped, twisted and tossed paint in Hans Namuth’s 1950 pictures, which the Gutai group knew from Life magazine. Namuth recognised the inspirational power of those images, though he probably didn’t reckon with their impact in Japan. “It was a great drama,” he said. “The flame of explosion when the paint hit the canvas, the dance-like movement; the eyes tormented before knowing where to strike next; the tension; then the explosion again.” That theatrical sequence helped define the term “action painting”, and became the point of departure for the Gutai artists.

Murakami Saburo’s ‘Passing Through’ (1956)

The Gutai artists were keenly aware of the promotional power of the media. In 1956, they contacted Life magazine, inviting a team of photojournalists to chronicle a day of creative festivities, staged in the ruins of a bombed-out factory. In one performance, Murakami Saburo hurled himself through a gauntlet of paper screens, tearing through 24 reams before collapsing. The Guggenheim has a series of time-lapse photographs that capture his relentless self-pummelling and meticulous control.

Shiraga Kazuo, like his friends, discarded airy art materials for baser stuff, plunging his half-naked body into a colossal mud puddle and wrestling with the slime until he emerged battered and bleeding. The photos documenting his titanic 1955 battle with oozing earth have a rude, eerie beauty that fuses joy and destruction. Gutai was about irreverence and play but it had a dark, violent side too. Shrieks of laughter mingled with shrieks of rage.

Shiraga also pioneered the ur-Gutai technique of foot painting, which he continued to refine. Initially, he stomped all over the canvas, leaving glutinous marks that resonate with the ghostly handprints in Pollock’s “Number 1 (Lavender Mist)”. More darkly, they also evoke the nuclear shadows of Hiroshima victims. Shiraga kept trying to outdo himself as a pedi-painter. He stamped his feet on a boar’s hide, gumming its thick fur. A year later, he devised a daring acrobatic approach that involved dangling from ropes strung above the canvas. Delicately performing an aerial ballet, he smeared paint wherever he touched down.

The Gutai gang saw themselves as members of a global avant-garde, catching ideas tossed from Europe and the US, and flipping them back again, transformed. They amped up the theatrics of action painting and turned the process into a performance. When the American artist Allan Kaprow coined the word “happening” in the late 1950s, he was painting a year or two behind Gutai. Already in 1956, Tanaka Atsuko staged a Kaprowesque event when she tangled herself up in an electric dress, an assemblage of wires and light bulbs painted red, blue, green and yellow. Plugged in, the ensemble looks like a neon burning bush, a revelation from the high-tech gods of the future. Usually optimistic and playful, those deities could turn mean and deliver a painful shock instead of a playful poke.

Beneath the crackling circuitry and balletic optimism of Gutai lie undercurrents of masochism and violence. The raw trauma of the war never receded; it just morphed into a merrily destructive current that edged into chaos. Gutai looked beyond Pollock back to Dada and surrealism, those post-first world war movements born of disgust, as the poet Tristan Tzara said. Yoshida Toshio tapped into the surrealist technique of “fumage”, taking chance as his guide and burning random marks into slabs of wood. Yoshihara Michio channelled André Masson by drizzling sawdust on skeins of glue. Yamazaki Tsuruko improvised drawings on zinc sheets.

Like Dada, Gutai took aim at holy platitudes, raging at the regime that had produced mass butchery, and dancing on the ashes of convention. The Guggenheim is sympathetic but it’s a museum, of course, and therefore part of the establishment that the exhibition’s subject was trying to explode. Convention has taken its revenge, neutralising the revolutionaries with lethal doses of respect.

‘Gutai: Splendid Playground’, Guggenheim, New York, until May 8, www.guggenheim.org

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