Atsuko Tanaka (artist)

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Atsuko Tanaka
Atsuko Tanaka, Electric Dress.jpg
Atsuko Tanaka in 1957, wearing her Electric Dress
Born(1932-02-10)February 10, 1932
DiedDecember 3, 2005(2005-12-03) (aged 74)
Known forPainting, Sculpture, Performance art, Installation art

Atsuko Tanaka (田中 敦子, Tanaka Atsuko; February 10, 1932 – December 3, 2005) was a pioneering Japanese avant-garde artist.


Tanaka was born in Osaka, on February 10, 1932.[1] She went to several local art schools where she worked in mostly figurative mode. The schools she attended were the Art Institute of Osaka Municipal Museum of Art in 1950, and from 1951 on, the Department of Western Painting at Kyoto Municipal College of Art (now Kyoto City University of Arts).

There, she made friends with a man named Akira Kanayama, who helped her explore new artistic territories. In 1955, she joined the Gutai group, an avant-garde artists' movement, to which she belonged until her marriage to Akira Kanayama in 1965.[2] In the same year, Tanaka left Gutai with Kanayama and they moved into a house at the temple Myo*ho*ji in Osaka. She produced most of her works at home and in the second floor of her parents’ house, which was ten minutes away from where she had lived.[3]

In 1972, Tanaka and her husband moved from Osaka to Nara. On December 3, 2005, she died of pneumonia, aged 74.[4]

Involvement with the Gutai movement[edit]

In 1952, Akira Kanayama introduced Tanaka to his colleagues in an experimental art organization which he had founded called Zero-kai (Zero Society); she soon joined this association.[5] In the meantime, a skillful easel painter named Jiro Yoshihara had been offering private lessons in Western-style oil painting. After being influenced by the many abstractionists in Tokyo, Yoshihara had developed a new kind of art practice that would, in his words, “create things that have never existed before.” In 1954, Yoshihara, accompanied with his young colleagues founded the Gutai Art Association.[1]

Gutai artists had been known to be one of the first to carry out “happenings”; the physical actions they were involved in were documents of the actions, and the actual performances of the pieces. This brought on a new type of art, known today as performance art. Their creations weren’t influenced by doctrinaire theory; they focused more on playful, whimsical inventions. Similarly, Tanaka had displayed the same type of whimsical inventions through her work.[1]

Tanaka participated in both the 1st and 2nd Gutai Art Exhibitions in 1955 and 1956, presenting her iconic works Work Bell (1955), Work (Yellow Cloth) (1955), and Electric Dress (1956).[6]


Tokyo Work (1955), reconstructed in 2007.

Tanaka’s pieces can be seen as abstract works that rejected conventional notions of how works of art should appear or “perform.”[1] Tanaka's works, which include abstract paintings, sculptures, performances and installations, generally feature objects from everyday life: textiles, door bells, light bulbs and similar. One of these pieces, called Work Bell, produced in 1955, consisted of a string of electric bells laid out around the border of a gallery; the piece included a button for visitors to press which consequently set off a chain of shrieking rings.[1] In another of her works, Work (Yellow Cloth), executed in 1955, Tanaka took long pieces of plain, dyed fabric and tacked them to a gallery's walls, creating 'paintings' that removed any suggestion of human handling from their forms and surfaces.[1] Her piece, Stage Clothes, produced in 1956, consisted of gigantic stick-figure frames draped with fabric and light bulbs, and a large red dress with 30-foot (9.1 m) long sleeves. This was a multi-part ensemble that she wore at a Gutai performance. She peeled off each layer rapidly in a costume-changing routine. Tanaka literally inserted her body into the work of art, making herself a part of the performance.[1]

Her best-known work is Electric Dress, invented in 1956, a burqa-like costume consisting of electrical wires and lit-up coloured lightbulbs. Tanaka wore the dress to exhibitions. Her inspiration for Electric Dress came from a pharmaceutical advertisement illuminated by neon lights. The bulky garment expresses the body's circuitry, and acts like a costume. Here, the work lights up sporadically, giving off the sensation of an alien-like creature and, according to Tanaka, "blinks like fireworks.”[7] According to the Gutai artists, Tanaka's work symbolized post-war Japan’s rapid transformation and urbanization.[3] When Tanaka wore her dress for the first time, only her face and hands were visible. She had noticed the trepidation when she had worn it and flipping the switch: "I had the fleeting thought: Is this how a death-row inmate would feel?"[1] In 1950s, people recognize and distinguish gender difference from the surfaces of clothing. However, Tanaka's work was an attractive design that did not distinguish between for male or female on the surface of the clothing.[8] Although Gutai was ahead of the times, her artistic ability was evaluated through the recognition that she is a woman. For instance, another member of Gutai, Shozo Shimamoto said “Among these few examples of avant-garde art, Tanaka' s work has taught me about an aesthetic sensitivity that I did not have, especially an alternate possibility of rigorous beauty that can be created from womanly sweetness and frailty. They were a great influence on me.”[8] Some reviewers criticized that a factor of her success is because her unwomanly and dynamic style.[9]

In the 2000s, Tanaka's works were featured in numerous expositions in Japan and abroad, including at the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art, the Nagoya Gallery HAM, the New York Grey Art Gallery and Paula Cooper Gallery as well as at the Galerie im Taxispalais in Innsbruck. The Grey Art Gallery focuses on Tanaka's Gutai period and also includes a video and documentation of the movement plus a reconstructed version of Electric Dress.[10] In 2005, the University of British Columbia's Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver mounted a major exhibition of Tanaka's work entitled "Electrifying art: Atsuko Tanaka, 1954-1968". Electric Dress and other works were on display at the 2007 documenta 12 in Kassel.

Atsuko Tanaka's work is included in a number of internationally important public collections, including that of the Museum of Modern Art, MOMA,in New York. MOMA's online collection (see external links) features a large, untitled 1964 Tanaka work (synthetic polymer paint on canvas). Nearly 12 feet (3.7 m) tall and over 7 feet (2.1 m) wide, this piece, according to MOMA's online description, "evolved from Tanaka's performance Electric Dress", and "vividly records the artist's gestural application of layers and skeins of multicolored acrylic paint on the canvas as it lay on the floor."[11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Gomez, Edward M. (April 2005). "Atsuko Tanaka: Painting the Body Electric": 80–83. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ "Atsuko Tanaka, Art of Connecting" (PDF). Japan Foundation. 2 June 2011. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  3. ^ a b "Atsuko Tanaka". Worldwide corporation. 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-26.
  4. ^ ProQuest LLC (December 2005). "Atsuko Tanaka, 73, avant-garde artist". International Herald Tribune. Archived from the original on 2012-10-19. Retrieved 2008-04-26.
  5. ^ Ikegami, Yuko (1 June 2009). "Interview to Kazuo Shiraga". Oral History of Archive of Japanese Art. Retrieved 17 March 2019.
  6. ^ "Atsuko Tanaka | Artworks, Exhibitions, Profile & Content". 2019-03-04. Retrieved 2019-03-04.
  7. ^ Myers, Terry (June 2012). "Letter from Tokyo". The Brooklyn Rail.
  8. ^ a b Kunimoto, Namiko (September 2013). "Tanaka Atsuko's 'Electric Dress' and the Circuits of Subjectivity". The Art Bulletin. Vol. 95 (3): 473. JSTOR 43188842.
  9. ^ Akane, Kazuo (30 August 1968). "Very dynamic: Tanaka's unwomanly work". Yomiuri Shimbun.
  10. ^ Daily, Meghan (April 2008). "Atsuko Tanaka: New York University Grey Art Gallery/ Paula Cooper Gallery". Artforum International.
  11. ^ "MOMA".
  12. ^ "Atsuko Tanaka. Untitled. 1964 | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2019-11-13.

External links[edit]