Shozo Shimamoto and Jiro Yoshihara founded Gutai together in 1954, and it was Shimamoto who suggested the name Gutai. The kanji used to write 'gu' meaning tool, measures, or a way of doing something, while 'tai' means body. Yoshihara considers it to mean "embodiment" and "concreteness." The group was officially known as Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Art Association of Gutai).
Coming about during postwar Japanese reconstruction, Gutai stressed freedom of expression with innovative materials and techniques. Gutai challenged imaginations to invent new notions of what art is with attention on the relationships between body, matter, time, 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.
In the early 1950s, works by Yoshihara were featured in the opening shows of Nihon Kokusai Bijutsu-ten (International Art Exhibition Japan) and Gendai Nihon Bijutsu-ten (Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan) during the resurgence of contemporary art in Japan. In "Osaka 1951", Yoshihara and others established the Gendai Bijutsu Kondan Kai (Contemporary Art Discussion Group), known as "Genbi". This group served as a workshop and forum for creating new art forms merging Eastern and Western culture as well as the modern and traditional. The main focus of Yoshihara was gaining recognition in the art world through Japanese tradition and in 1952 Yoshihara participated for example to the Salon de Mai in Paris and again in 1958 after the visit of Georges Mathieu to Japan in 1957 and the discovery of the movement by the art critic Michel Tapié.
With post-occupation Japan's emphasis on freedom, the United State's goal was as well 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. 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 businessman, self-taught 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. Gutai engaged in this language yet used its cultural and physical distance to preserve originality. Gutai art challenges the particularity of performance and painting and can be simplified as an intricate combination of the two.
The Gutai group developed a new perspective on individuality and community, which were ideas pertinent to the post war atmosphere. The group developed a "collective spirit of individuality" by emphasizing the importance of the individual in a group context. To the Gutai group, community was essential in fostering the creativity of the individual. In terms of the post war atmosphere, it was common in Japan to believe that community was to blame for enabling such war aggression to happen and therefore it needed to be abolished. This is what inspired Yoshihara to rethink community. The group took on a horizontal system of community as opposed to a hierarchical one. Gutai believed that community was essential to the development of the individual. Gutai viewed individualism as challenging oneself against external forces, such as the psychological forces of fascism, in which the individual becomes a means of asserting freedom. Asserting freedom is how one can prevent totalitarianism from returning. These views were written in articles and shared in the Gutai bulletin. Artistically speaking, the Gutai group maintained their collective identity by having group exhibitions and group journals. The importance of the individual comes into play in the diversity of the artists themselves. The styles and approaches greatly varied with in the group. They also had many existential reflections like Jean Fautrier and Jackson Pollock. Their principles of emancipation were from the rapid dehumanizing industrial growth that was happening in Japan. Their concerns were close to that of Allan Kaprow, the Situationist International, the Dutch group Nul, and the Brazilian Neo-concretists The group worked together for 18 years and dissolved after the sudden death of Yoshihara in March 1972.
In December 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:
"Now, interestingly, we find a contemporary beauty in the art and architecture of the past ravaged by the passage of time or natural disasters. Although their beauty is considered decadent, it may be that the innate beauty of matter is reemerging from behind the mask of artificial embellishment. Ruins unexpectedly welcome us with warmth and friendliness; they speak to us through their beautiful cracks and rubble—which might be a revenge of matter that has regained its innate life. In this sense, we highly regard the works of [Jackson] Pollock and [Georges] Mathieu. Their work reveals the scream of matter itself, cries of the paint and enamel. These two artists confront matter in a way that aptly corresponds to their individual discoveries. Or rather, they even seem to serve matter. Astonishing effects of differentiation and integration take place.".
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 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 sounds; Gutai art has no rules.
Although extremely diverse in nature, all Gutai art highlights the method in which it is made. The process of creation is very essential to the significance of the whole. It is the bodily interaction with the medium that distinguishes Gutai art from other movements. The body was essential yet the body was not prioritized over the materials themselves. It was rather seen as collaborating with the material. Gutai art has included many mediums such as paint, performance, film, light, sound, and other unconventional materials. Attempting to create unprecedented art, many Gutai artists experimented with materials that challenged the boundaries of art. Some artists who challenged the art making method are Saburo Murakami who punctured paper with his body, Atsuko Tanaka who schematically wired alarm bells and wore a dress made of flashing lightbulbs, and Shozo Shimamoto who shot paint from cannons and threw bottles of paint from elevated surfaces. Kazuo Shiraga, the "foot painter," wrestled in cement, gravel, clay, plaster, pebbles, and twigs in what he called "Challenging Mud" and then went on to create works in which he would suspend himself over a canvas and paint with his toes. His work "married theory with practice" which was one of Gutai's aspirations. The mediums used to produce Gutai art had no restrictions.
The journals were the first act of the group and were published January 1, 1955. The Gutai journals consisted of the artist's documented artworks, as well as essays and articles. Yoshihara, prioritized recording the group's activities in text and photographs, and on film. He famously sent the Gutai journal and photographs of members' works to Allan Kaprow, Jackson Pollock and Michel Tapié, as well as other artists and luminaries. It allowed Gutai to disseminate their work. It was through the journal that many artist, abroad, first encountered the experimentation of Gutai. They sought ways of connecting themselves with audiences, artists, critics, art historians, around the world. That's part of the reason why they're so heavily documented. Because they were extremely self conscious of the fact that whatever they did would not be seen by anyone unless they documented it and disseminated it.
"Gutai Art on the Stage" were two performances that were given by the Gutai group in 1957 and 1958, respectively. During the first live performance, Kanayama painted red and black lines on a large balloon in a web-like pattern. Then, this balloon was inflated slowly (starting out completely flattened out) so that it became an abstract sculptural piece. This ballon, now rotating on the spot, was placed directly under lights that changed color. The balloon was then cut and deflated, almost returning to it its' original state. Shimamoto composed "monotonous" music (this is how sound was incorporated into some Gutai art pieces) that was played during, and complimenting, the balloon inflating piece.
Marter, Joan M. Abstract Expressionism: The International Context. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2007. Print
Like in 1956 Ray Johnson's nascent mail art, the Gutai artists utilized nengajo, or New Years postcards, for their mail art. Nengajo 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 nengajo 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 nengajo idea of a gift.
Gutai's first American appearance at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1958 faced many accusations from critics exclaiming that the art was imitating Jackson Pollock. However, Gutai art did not copy from Pollock but rather took what inspiration it needed to be able to address the issue of freedom after the world war in Japan. Yoshihara praised Pollock as the greatest living American painter and admired his pure originality and concrete interpretation of freedom. Yoshihara shared with Pollock a desire to embody nature as opposed to creating representational art. Yoshihara accepted being in the same aesthetic realm as Pollock, however, he aggressively strived to create a distinct style. Prone to the assumption that Japanese artists follow Western artist, Yoshihara insisted Gutai artists create an extremely distinguished style. One thing Yoshihara did to try to avoid derivative accusations was to have his pupils study in his library to learn about contemporary issues so that their work could compete with the art of the center. Gutai work made from bodily processes did find inspiration in Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, yet expanded on these concepts drastically. At a glance, Gutai's early paintings may look like Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, however their approach and methods were radically different. If one compares Jackson Pollock's, Number 7 to Sumi Yasuo's work. Pollock's is deliberate and composted within rectilinear bounds. Whereas Yasuo worked by "going recklessly wild" and splattering paint. Gutai was also called Dadaistic in which Yoshihara addressed in the manifesto, "Sometimes, at first glance, we are compared with and mistaken for Dadaism, and we ourselves fully recognize the achievements of Dadaism. But we think differently, in contrast to Dadaism, our work is the result of investigating the possibilities of calling the material to life." Gutai specialist Fergus McCaffrey said, "Shiraga and other members of the Gutai Art Association had their work dismissed as derivative of second-generation Abstract Expressionism when showing at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1958, and it is only recently that we have been able to shake off that terrible misunderstanding.'" Jiro Yoshihara sought to create a genre that was beyond classification in pursuit of true originality despite these earlier accusations.
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 the art critic Michel Tapié who promoted Gutai art in Europe, 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 Performances, notably by Yves Klein from 1957, who sojourned in Japan in 1952–1954 and introduced Gutai to the german artists of ZERO and Piero Manzoni, as well as conceptual art. 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.
Gutai had a very important political message. They tried to do what has not been done before in the history of Japan. In the 1950s modern Japanese art was dominated by the theme of Social Realism. During that time refined abstraction (in particular, post-war Nihonga) was exported to foreign exhibitions as Japanese art that is representative of their artistic expression. A growing desire to escape this monotony was evident. Jiro Yoshihara really pushed the young members of Gutai to escape this Artistic/political oppression, seek individuality, and to resist oppression. This definition of Freedom is inescapably found in the idealistic rights-based model that requires an escape from political oppression. Yoshihara did not directly imply or announce a political agenda for Gutai. Art historian Alexandra Munroe and curator Paul Schimmel read Gutai art as a response to the prevailing political situation in Japan in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Munroe, for instance, speculated that they engaged in their actions in order to make faster the introduction of American-style Democracy in Japan. Their deliberate ambiguity in painting released the artists from tyranny which espouses one kind of attitude, and therefore an escape towards 'freedom'.
An exhibition, in the most general sense, is an organized presentation and display of a selection of items. In practice, exhibitions usually occur within museums, galleries and exhibition halls, and World's Fairs. Visitors to art exhibitions typically expect to be dazzled by the creativity of others. The Gutai group, however, challenged our definitions of the term, staging many outdoor, participatory, experiential "exhibitions."
The first Gutai exhibition, "The Experimental Outdoor Modern Art Exhibition to Challenge the Burning Midsummer Sun," was staged by Yoshihara in July 1955. Taking over a public park in Ashiya, Gutai presented a two-week, twenty-four-hour-a-day exhibition in open air. A painting some fifty feet long hung from the trees, illuminated sculptures glowed in the night, a hot-pink nylon sheet pinned just above the ground rippled in the wind. "The experiment," the group announced, "is to take art out from closed rooms . . . exposing the works to the natural forces of sun, wind, and rain."
In 1970, from March 15 and September 13, Japan's Expo '70 was the stage for one of their most remarkable and also their last major appearances and art performances as the Gutai art movement before the permanent disbanding of the Gutai two years later. During Expo '70, some of the Gutai's art performances consisted of men floating on giant balloons and men in bubble blowing fire trucks.
From February 15 to May 8, 2013, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presented "Gutai: Splendid Playground, a retrospective of the Gutai Art Association". It was the first North American museum exhibition devoted to the Gutai group. The exhibition featured 145 works by 25 artists and spanning two generations of Gutai artists.
The Gutai group's work can be divided into two separate phases, the first lasting from 1954 until 1961, and the second beginning in 1962 and lasting until Gutai's dissolve in 1972. Gutai's first phase and original intention upon forming was to create works in new media and expand painting to become more performative. Artists of this phase of Gutai focused on the aesthetics of destruction as an art form to respond to postwar Japan. The artists blended artist and material for psychological relief by smashing paint-filled bottles against the canvas or punching holes in Japanese paper screens to exemplify rupture and fragmentation and their desire for transformation. The second phase of Gutai works, made starting in 1962, were responding to the cultural shift happening in Japan as a result of rapid population growth and technological advances.Jiro Yoshihara