The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) announces the first West Coast survey exhibition of Gutai (1954-1972)-a significant avant-garde artist collective in postwar Japan whose overriding directive was: "Do something no one's ever done before."
Rejecting the figurative and abstract art of the era, and in an effort to transform the Japanese psyche from wartime regimentation to independence of thought, Gutai artists fulfilled their commitment to innovative practices by producing art through concrete, performative actions. With a diverse assembly of historical and contemporary art, including several site-specific performances commissioned exclusively for SFAI, "Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response" creates a dialogue with classic Gutai works while demonstrating the lasting significance and radical energy of this movement. This exhibition showcases North American, neo-conceptualist artists' responses to groundbreaking Gutai performances; dozens of paintings, original video, photographs, and ephemera from private collections; and an expansive collection of Mail Art from more than 30 countries.
As one of the nation's most vital contemporary fine arts institutions-and an epicenter of experimental, interdisciplinary thinking on the West Coast for more than 140 years-SFAI is the ideal venue for an exhibition that seeks to celebrate the legacy of the Gutai artists and contextualize these important works for a new generation. Co-curator and SFAI's Interim Director of Exhibitions Andrew McClintock explains, "We're bringing a critical, undervalued aspect of postwar modernism to our students and the general public." He continues, "Not only is this rediscovery timely-with a renewed interest nationally and internationally in Gutai and other lesser-known Japanese art-but the exhibition's focus on contemporary response and avant-garde performance is a natural extension of SFAI's boundary-pushing, renegade culture."
"Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response" investigates an array of classic Gutai performative activities: smashing paint-filled bottles; full-body engagement with mud and cement; leaping through a series of paper screens; painting with feet. At the exhibition's opening reception, Bay Area artist and SFAI alumnus Guy Overfelt will break open the plane of painting atop a motorcycle in response to Saburo Murakami's "Passing Through" (1956). Jeremiah Jenkins, also a local artist and alumnus, will respond to Kazuo Shiraga's "Challenging Mud" (1955) by taking on the materials as a professional wrestler, complete with WWF-style theatrics. Through completely different actions, these artists aim to mirror the physical relics of Shiraga's and Murakami's works while demonstrating for SFAI's present-day audience the unfettered expression and excitement that the original performances brought to onlookers more than fifty years ago. Original photographs and videos of classic Gutai performances on the nearby gallery walls add additional perspective to Overfelt and Jenkins' pieces.
On loan from museums, galleries, and private collections, the exhibition's nearly two dozen paintings-several on view for the first time in the U.S.-help to complete a fully immersive Gutai experience. They range from pre-Gutai works, painted by Shiraga during the Zero-Kai period, to the action painting that characterized the early years of the movement, including both small and large pieces by Jiro Yoshihara (Gutai's founder), Shozo Shimamoto, Chiyu Uemae, and Takesada Matsutani. Many of these works of art are nothing more than the visual documentation of the artists' momentary interaction with their chosen medium. A group of post-Gutai paintings, especially a large Atsuko Tanaka from 2010, reveals how the artists remained rooted in their quest for freedom through novel means, even after the group disbanded in 1972.
The exhibition also presents an impressive collection of Mail Art elicited in response to the movement by over 200 contemporary artists from thirty countries. These artists learned about Gutai through Shimamoto's involvement in the Mail Art community, and their work sits adjacent to a reading room featuring historical Gutai ephemera: facsimile of the fourteen issues of Gutai magazine and the Gutai Pinacotheca's catalogues from the early '60s. Co-curator and art historian John Held, Jr., who performed with Shimamoto and other prominent Mail Art artists in the U.S. and Japan, explains, "Gutai artists' rethinking of venues for exhibition took the display of art outside the 'white cube' of traditional showrooms and centered it in the midst of people's lives." He continues, "It's closely aligned with the concepts of long distance, delayed aesthetic communications tested and examined by contemporary Mail Artists. Both are timeless artistic concerns still being explored today."
SFAI's exhibition takes its title from Gutai's first exhibition, "The Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Burning Sun," which was held in a park north of Osaka in 1955. Special thanks goes to the Ashiya City Museum of Art and History, Museum of Osaka University, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Don Soaker Gallery, Gallery Paule Anglim, Japonesque Gallery, Inc., The Falkenstein Foundation, and private collectors.
An exhibition catalogue will be available at the closing reception on March 27 for "Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response." It includes an essay on Gutai by the curators, installation photography, select Mail Art from the exhibition, and a complete list of contributing artists.
In addition to the works featured in the Walter and McBean exhibition, "Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response" includes related events-a lecture, film screening, and panel discussion-to further understanding of Gutai's historical significance and contemporary relevance, and to explore curatorial challenges that surround performance recreation.
The exhibition and all its associated events are free and open to the public. Space is limited for some events, and advance registration is recommended. See details below and visit our website to register: http://www.sfai.edu/Gutai