Gutai group

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The Gutai group (具体; means "Embodiment", "Concreteness") is the first radical, post-war group in Japan. It was founded by the painter Jiro Yoshihara in Osaka, Japan, 1954, in response to the reactionary artistic context of the time. This influential group known as Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Art association of Gutai) was involved in large-scale multimedia environments, performances, and theatrical events.[1]


According to the official website of Shozo Shimamoto, Shimamoto and Yoshihara founded Gutai together in 1954, and it was Shimamoto who suggested the name Gutai, which contrary to popular belief, does not mean concrete but rather embodiment. The kangi used to write 'gu' meaning tool, measures, or a way of doing something, while 'tai' means body.[2]

Coming about during postwar Japanese reconstruction, Gutai stressed freedom of expression with innovative materials and techniques. [3]Gutai challenged imaginations to invent new notions of what art is with attention on the relationships between body, matter, and space. After the war, attitudes regarding cultural exchanging changed amongst nations as the art environment involved great optimism for global collaboration. Since artists were pursuing advances in contemporary art transnationally, the art environment of the time fostered thriving conditions for the Gutai group. For example, with the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, there was an increase in cultural exchanges between Japan and its new western allies. Gutai artwork began being shown in exhibitions in both American and European cities.

With post-occupation Japan's emphasis on freedom, the United State’s goal was to promote abstract art in order to promote democracy. Like the social reforms of the Allies occupation of Japan after the war, the United States wanted to steer Japan, and other axis nations, away from the more communistic art style of socialist realism.[4]This helped spread Gutai art since it sponsored its creation. One example is the Guggenheim International Award exhibition that begun after the war and tactfully included work from Japan, a former axis state, in order to invite non-western art into the purview of contemporary abstract art as it cooperated with the democratic propaganda.

Yoshihara Jiro was a self taught abstract painter who founded Gutai art in 1954 by gathering a group of artistic protégés in Ashiya, Hyōgo. The group shared a gallery space in Osaka. He directed the artists to attempt to do what has never been done before. These early works focused on marks made from bodily movements. Yoshihara’s vision for Gutai was one of internationality, which was very plausible considering the political climate of the time. The worldwide distribution of hundreds of bulletins titled Gutai is perhaps the first proactive international effort done by Yoshihara. The bulletins included avant-garde works and Yoshihara sent subsequent Gutai bulletins to artist like Jackson Pollock, whom Yoshihara greatly admired, with the same aspiration of international recognition. Another one of Gutai’s initial involvements with global extension was in 1963 when Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's curator Lawrence Alloway chose Gutai art to be represented in its show in order to exemplify the universality of art while to also admire the specificity of its culture. This notion is something that Gutai did indeed want to express. The avant-garde abstract art of the time created a universal language.[5]Gutai engaged in this language yet used its cultural and physical distance to preserve originality.[6] Gutai art challenges the particularity of performance and art and can be simplified as an intricate combination of the two.

The Gutai Manifesto[edit]

In December of 1956, Yoshihara wrote the manifesto for Gutai group. The manifesto emphasizes that Gutai art does not alter matter but rather speaks of the delicate interaction between spirit and matter that ultimately enables art to tell a story and possess life and freshness.

Among its preoccupations, the manifesto expresses a fascination with the beauty that arises when things become damaged or decayed. The process of damage or destruction is celebrated as a way of revealing the inner "life" of a given material or object:

"Yet what is interesting in this respect is the novel beauty to be found in works of art and architecture of the past which have changed their appearance due to the damage of time or destruction by disasters in the course of the centuries. This is described as the beauty of decay, but is it not perhaps that beauty which material assumes when it is freed from artificial make-up and reveals its original characteristics? The fact that the ruins receive us warmly and kindly after all, and that they attract us with their cracks and flaking surfaces, could this not really be a sign of the material taking revenge, having recaptured its original life?...." [7]

As stated in the manifesto, Gutai art aspires “to go beyond abstraction” and “to pursue enthusiastically the possibilities of pure creativity.” The goal of Gutai is "that by merging human qualities and materials properties, we can concretely comprehend abstract space.”

The manifesto makes references to many art works to exemplify what Gutai is and is not. The references to non-Gutai art offer ideas of how Gutai art can expand and advance art to new heights while the references to Gutai art offer a brief visualization of how exactly the movement is going about advancing art to these new heights. Specified in the manifesto, Gutai art is all about experimentation. It welcomes all pursuits whether it be actions, objects, or sound; Gutai art has no rules.[5]


In addition to Yoshihara and Shimamoto, members of the Gutai group included Takesada Matsutani, Sadamasa Motonaga fr:Sadamasa Motonaga, Atsuko Tanaka, Akira Kanayama, and others. A formative influence on the later Fluxus movement, the group was also associated with certain European (particularly French) art world figures such as Georges Mathieu and Michel Tapié, and with tachisme ("art informel"). According to the Tate Gallery's online art glossary, Gutai artists also "created a series of striking works anticipating later Happenings and Performance and Conceptual art." [2] Gutai artists also created works that would now be called installations, inspiring the work of non-Japanese artists such as Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, and Conrad Bo, and leading to the later Fluxus network.

The Tate article records that "the group dissolved in 1972 following the death of Yoshihara."

Significant Works[edit]

Mail Art[edit]

Inspired by 1956 Ray Johnson’s nascent mail art, the Gutai artists utilized nengajõ, or New Years postcards, for their mail art. Nengajõ were more than just greeting cards. They have long traditional significance and serve as a ritualistic social interaction, which reflects the Gutai goal of giving spirit to the typically inanimate. Motonaga Sadamasa sent what is believed to be the first Gutai nengajõ to Yamazaki Tsuruko in 1956. The card showed green, blue, red, yellow, and black pigments, which were then smudged to animate the markings. The mailing imparted the paintings with life and also pushed the limits of painting in regard to time and space. It also expanded the limits of exhibition spaces, which was another goal of the Gutai group. As stated by Dick Higgins, “There are two ways you can introduce time into a piece: turn it into a performance, or allow it to reveal itself slowly, through the mail.”

At the 11th Gutai Art Exhibition, visitors could pay ten yen to a Gutai Card box to receive a nengajõ from one of the Gutai members inside of the box. This was viewed as a performance, not consumerism, and the money went to a children's charity, which furthered the nengajõ idea of a gift.[6]

Biennale di Venezia 2009[edit]

Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim Museum 2013[edit]

From February 15 to May 8, 2013, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presented Gutai: Splendid Playground, a retrospective of the Gutai Art Association (1954–72), the radically inventive and influential Japanese art collective whose innovative and playful approaches to installation and performance yielded one of the most important international avant-garde movements to emerge after World War II. Based on fifteen years of research, Gutai: Splendid Playground provided a critical examination of both iconic and lesser-known examples of the collective's dynamic output over its two-decade history and explored the full spectrum of Gutai’s creative production: painting, performance, installation art, sound art, experimental film, kinetic art, light art, and environment art. “Gutai: Splendid Playground” is the first large, in-depth exhibition devoted to Gutai and the first to thoroughly cover its panoply of mediums.[8]

Comprising approximately 145 works by 25 artists and spanning two generations of Gutai artists, Gutai: Splendid Playground was organized into six chronological and thematic sections presented along the Guggenheim ramps:

  • Play: An Uninhibited Act
  • Concept: Can a Piece of Cloth Be a Work of Art?
  • Network: To Introduce Our Works to the World
  • The Concrete: The Scream of Matter Itself
  • Performance Painting: Pictures with Time and Space
  • Environment: Gutai Art for the Space Age

The exhibition also included documentary films of the group’s historic outdoor exhibitions and stage events and offered a focus on their eponymous journal as a platform for international artistic exchange. A centerpiece of Gutai: Splendid Playground was a site-specific commission of Work (Water) (1956/2011) by the late Motonaga Sadamasa. Prior to his death in 2011, Motonaga reimagined his iconic early Gutai outdoor installation, made of plastic tubes filled with colored water, for the Guggenheim rotunda. Sixteen tubes stretched across the rotunda, greeting visitors with "jewel-like dollops of water tinted red, yellow blue or green." [9]

Gutai: Splendid Playground was co-curated by Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor of Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Assistance was provided by Asian Art Curatorial Fellow Lyn Hsieh.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barnes, Rachel (2001). The 20th-Century art book. (Reprinted. ed.). London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 0714835420. 
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Tiampo, Ming (2007). "Create what has never been done before! Historicising Gutai Discourses of Originality". ThirdText. pp. 689–706. doi:10.1080/09528820701761335. 
  4. ^ Saunders, Frances Stonor. Modern art was CIA's weapon. The Independent. 22 October 1995.
  5. ^ a b Tiampo, Munroe., Ming, Alexandra (2013). Gutai Splendid Playground. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications. pp. 21–27. ISBN 978-0-89207-489-1. 
  6. ^ a b Tiampo, Ming (2011). Decentering Modernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 45–46. ISBN 978-0-226-80166-7. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Smith, Roberta. The Seriousness of Fun in Postwar Japan. The New York Times. Feb. 14th, 2013.
  9. ^ Smith, Roberta. The Seriousness of Fun in Postwar Japan. The New York Times. Feb. 14th, 2013.

General references[edit]

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