Posted:Dec 23, 2022

Three Keywords: Gutai Art Association

A large-scale retrospective exhibition, "Into the Unknown World - Gutai: Differentiation and Integration," is on view at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka, from October 22 to January 9, 2023. Yoshiko Suzuki, a curator at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, introduces three keywords surrounding the Gutai Art Association, which brought an innovative style to the Japanese postwar art scene. (Translated by Alena Heiß)

Kazuo Shiraga Tenbousei Ryoutouda 1962 Oil on canvas The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (On view at the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the dissolution of the Gutai Art Association, which was formed in Ashiya (Hyogo Prefecture) in 1954 by painter Jiro Yoshihara (1905-72). Since the 2000s, the organization’s activities have been reevaluated internationally, symbolized by the “GUTAI” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York (2013). In addition, various solo exhibitions of its members have been held both in Japan and abroad. A large-scale retrospective exhibition, “Into the Unknown World - Gutai: Differentiation and Integration,” is being held simultaneously at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka, from October 22 to January 9, 2023 (exhibition photo report). Expectations are high as the exhibition promises to define the reputation of Gutai in postwar art history and open up new perspectives.
Moreover, retrospective exhibitions of the group’s core members, “Worldwide Kazuo Shiraga” (Amagasaki Cultural Center) and “100th Anniversary of the Birth of Sadamasa Motonaga” (Mie Prefectural Art Museum), both take place during the same period. The group is also featured prominently in “The Timeless Imagination of Yves Klein: Uncertainty and the Immaterial” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. It is an excellent opportunity to take a fresh look at the Gutai Art Association and reevaluate its activities. To do so, we asked Yoshiko Suzuki, curator of the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, to describe the group in three keywords.【Tokyo Art Beat】

1. Jiro Yoshihara

The Gutai Art Association (Gutai) is an avant-garde art group formed in 1954 around Jiro Yoshihara, who was active as a painter before World War II. The group was founded in Ashiya City, Hyogo Prefecture, the home of Yoshihara. As a leader, he inspired the young artists that gathered around him with the slogan, “don’t imitate others.” Gutai remained active for 18 years until the sudden death of Yoshihara in February 1972, followed by the group’s dissolution in March. While many artists’ groups emerged in postwar Japan, most did not last long, and Gutai remains the most long-running.

Jiro Yoshihara Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the first projects the association worked on was the publication of the journal “Gutai” (first issue published in January 1955), followed by a group exhibition, the “Gutai Art Exhibition” (October 1955). With the cooperation of ikebana artist Houn Ohara, the first exhibition opened at the Ohara Kaikan in Tokyo. Houn, the head of the Ohara ikebana school, was well acquainted with Yoshihara and offered to provide the venue after seeing the “Open-air Modern Art Experiments under the Summer Sun” exhibition in Ashiya Park.

Gutai Journal 1~9, 11, 12, 14 (1955-65) Source:

In her article “Tokyo no Gutai-jin (Gutai People in Tokyo)” in “Gutai” No. 4 (July 1956), Tsuruko Yamazaki describes the exhibition in Tokyo:

“It is fascinating to see how the various artworks brought to the exhibition slide into the most appropriate places with the simple directions from Yoshihara. The viewer may feel that all pieces move in unison at their own will or wonder whether they are absorbed by the wall. Yoshihara is a magician.”
“During the exhibition, critics often said there was 'no content.' However, the words ‘nothing' and 'empty' sound quite pleasing. So far, people have argued whether or not there is any content in work, and if there is nothing of the sort, it is regarded as lacking content. In other words, the content (the 'empty' content) is not an issue. The emptiness is where various new questions and possibilities are proposed, separated from the existing ones, and what is buzzing with suggestions and revelations.” (*1)

Rather than regretting the lack of understanding in Tokyo, perhaps this exhibition demonstrated confidence in their expression. The Gutai journal, which played a part in Jiro Yoshihara’s international strategy (*2), also functioned as a platform for mutual criticism and learning, where members would contribute articles on a variety of topics, ranging from reviews of works (e.g., on works exhibited at the “Gutai Art Exhibition”) to discussions of abstract concepts.

Tsuruko Yamazaki Work 1960 Oil and enamel on canvas, The National Museum of Art, Osaka "Into the Unknown World - Gutai: Differentiation and Integration" (On view at the National Museum of Art, Osaka)

2. Gutai Art Manifesto

The “Gutai Art Manifesto” was published by Jiro Yoshihara in Geijutsu Shincho, Vol. 7, No. 12 (December 1956), and consists of three pages with seven accompanying illustrations. It is the only “manifesto” of the group, and it has been analyzed through keywords such as “material” and “spirit” to decipher the philosophy of Gutai (*3) or to position it under the influence of the Art Informel (*4). The latter part of the manifest is often abbreviated when quoted, presumably because it is considered unrelated to the topics above (*5).

The words “into the unknown world” and “differentiation and integration” in the title of the “Into the Unknown World - Gutai: Differentiation and Integration” exhibition are both taken from the Gutai Art Manifest.

There are numerous examples of “manifests,” for example, the prewar Futurist Manifest, the Manifest of Surrealism, and the postwar Pan Real Manifest in Japan. However, the Gutai Art Manifest was written not immediately after the group formation but two years later. Therefore, it is not intended to be a so-called “manifest” or to praise the philosophy and principles. The first half of it discusses Western painters such as Jackson Pollock, Georges Mathieu, and “Art Infomel,” thus, it is more of a “general discussion.” But the second half shows Yoshihara’s true potential as a leader.

Kazuo Shiraga Tenbousei Ryoutouda 1962 Oil on canvas The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (On view at the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka)

At the end of the second page, the manifesto presents specific examples of members’ work. As opposed to the general discussions in the first part, each artist’s work is explored individually. It starts with Toshiko Kinoshita, followed by paragraphs devoted to Kazuo Shiraga and Shozo Shimamoto, continuing with Yasuo Sumi, Toshio Yoshida, Atsuko Tanaka, Tsuruko Yamazaki, Shozo Shimamoto once again, Saburo Murakami, Akira Kanayama, Atsuko Tanaka again, and Sadamasa Motonaga. The first illustration shows a glimpse of the “2nd Gutai Art Exhibition” (Atsuko Tanaka, Akira Kanayama, Sadamasa Motonaga), the second one features Saburo Murakami’s paper-tearing and Shozo Shimamoto’s bottle-throwing performances, and Kazuo Shiraga’s foot painting (photographs were taken by Kiyoji Otsuji, who was a contract photographer for the journal), and the third page features Toshiko Kinoshita, Shozo Shimamoto, and Sadamasa Motonaga.

Atsuko Tanaka Electric Dress 1956/86 Synthetic enamel paint on light bulbs, electric cords, control console Takamatsu Art Museum Photo by Shigefumi Kato © Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association (On view at the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka)

This lineup features the most representative works of the Gutai Art Association and proves Jiro Yoshihara’s sharp eye and talent. The absence of any mention of Yoshihara’s works reflects his pride in leading the group and perhaps is why the Gutai Art Association itself has been described as such (*7). The way the works are introduced is distinctly different from the critic’s perspectives, who tend to explain when and where works were made, which genre they are, etc. It reflects a sense of surprise and admiration for the creativity of young artists.

Shozo Shimamoto 1962-1 1962 Paint, glass pieces on canvas Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka (On view at the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka)

It is not difficult to imagine the respect the members named in this article must have had for their leader. There are, of course, many others who were not mentioned. According to “Gutai” No. 6, twenty-eight artists (including eight women) participated in the “2nd Gutai Art Exhibition” held in October 1956, the same month that Jiro Yoshihara wrote the “Gutai Art Manifest.” Three women were also along ten members mentioned in the manifest (*8). The tactfulness and initiative of Jiro are indeed the qualities of a good leader.

3. Gutai Pinacotheca

Gutai Pinakoteka pamphlet Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art

Gutai Art Association remained active for eighteen years; however, many of its members only participated for a certain amount of time, which makes it challenging to capture the complete picture of the group’s activities. Gutai’s history can be divided into three periods: the “early period” (1954-1957), from the formation to the visit of the French art critic Michel Tapié; the “middle period” (1957-1965), during which the group was connected to the worldwide “Infomel” network; and the “late period” (1965-1972), when the group grew and welcomed more members. It can also be roughly divided into the first and second phases by using the opening of Gutai Pinacoteca as a benchmark (*9).

A unique exhibition facility, Gutai Pinacotheca, was established in 1962 in Nakanoshima, Osaka (where Yoshihara’s house was also located) and soon became a new base for Gutai’s activities. Formerly a warehouse owned by Yoshihara, it was remodeled and named “Pinacotheca” (meaning “picture gallery”) by Michel Tapié.

Yoshihara Jiro Work 1962 Oil on canvas Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (On view at the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka) This piece was exhibited at the show commemorating the opening of Gutai Pinakoteka. The dim white circle on a black background reminiscent of the letter "G" became the mark of Gutai Pinakoteka. Former collection of Michel Tapié.

In addition to the group “Gutai Art Exhibition,” it also hosted solo exhibitions of Gutai members and foreign artists. Gutai Pinacoteca was not only a base for Gutai’s activities but also served as a place to welcome guests from Europe and the United States and deepen mutual friendship (*10).

Members who held solo exhibitions at Gutai Pinacoteca include, in order of the shows: Shozo Shimamoto, Kazuo Shiraga, Toshio Yoshida, Atsuko Tanaka, Saburo Murakami, Shuji Mukai, Tsuruko Yamazaki, Takesada Matsutani, Tsuyoshi Maekawa, Michio Yoshihara, Yuko Nasaka, Masatoshi Masanobu, Chiyu Uemae, Norio Imai, Minoru Yoshida, Satoshi Tai, Sadaharu Horio, Sadayuki Kawamura, Kumiko Imanaka, Jiro Yoshihara, Seiko Kanno (*11).

Yuko Nasaka Work 1964 Synthetic polymer paint on cotton cloth, mounted on plywood The Miyagi Museum of Art (On view at the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka)
MInoru Yoshida JUSTCURVE '67 Cosmoplastic 1967 Stainless steel, plexiglas, flourescent lamp, sensor etc Takamatsu Art Museum (On view at the National Museum of Art, Osaka)

Solo exhibitions served as a turning point for the group and its leader. In the 1950s, Yoshihara emphasized group exhibitions and encouraged new forms of expression by organizing outdoor and on-stage shows. In 1960, Gutai installed advertising balloons on the roof of the Takashimaya Department Store in Osaka (the “International Sky Festival” is also “reproduced” at the retrospective exhibition in Osaka). But with the establishment of the Gutai Museum as their base in the early 1960s, Gutai, as an association, entered a new phase.

Kumiko Imanaka Red and Yellow 1966 Oil, tinplate, styrofoam The National Museum of Art, Osaka (On view at the National Museum of Art, Osaka)
“Gutai” No. 11 (1960) Cover: International Sky Festival Source:

Gutai’s activities transcend existing values and challenge the unknown. Over the past decade, the group’s work has been the subject of numerous large-scale exhibitions, such as exhibitions at the National Art Center, Tokyo (2012) and the Guggenheim Museum in New York (2013). The current retrospective exhibition in Osaka is an excellent chance to experience the “freedom of spirit” of the Gutai Art Association.

Handout for Gutai New York exhibition (Collection of Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art). The exhibition in New York (the first group exhibition to be held overseas, later to be called the “6th Gutai Art Exhibition”) was introduced as the “Osaka” group. Main image: Kazuo Shiraga Work I 1958

*1ー Tsuruko Yamazaki, “Tokyo no Gutai-jin (Gutai People in Tokyo),” “Gutai,” No. 4, July 1956.
*2ー See, for example, Ming Tiampo, “Gutai: Decentering Modernism,” University of Chicago Press, 2011.
*3ー Kazuo Shiraga describes the “Manifest” as follows: “This is a behind-the-scenes story, but Geijutsu Shincho came to us and asked to write something like that. So Yoshihara had no choice but to do so. After careful consideration, he showed it to us before presenting it to the public. Only four core members who often participated in this kind of thing - Murakami, Shimamoto, Motonaga, and me, Michio [Jiro’s son and Gutai member], [Toshio] Yoshida, who was like a secretary, read it”. Interviewer: Tokutaro Yamamura and Shinichiro Osaki, “Interview with Kazuo Shiraga,” Ashiya City Museum of Art (ed.), “Gutai Materials: Gutai Documents 1954-1972,” 1993, p. 386. Among the contents and keywords discussed in the “Manifest,” Shiraga mainly focuses on “qualities” (“Gutai,” No. 5, October 1956), and Shimamoto discusses several innovative methods in “Theory of Execution of Paintings” (“Gutai,” No. 6, April 1957). In addition, Akira Tatehata states, “Although it was drafted hastily at the request of the editorial department, it is an excellent statement by Yoshihara, who disliked ‘logic’ in his nature. The argumentative and definitive style of the manifest keenly explores the ideas of the Gutai.” “Action and Emotion, Paintings of the ’50s: Informel, Gutai, CoBrA” exhibition catalog, The National Museum of Art, Osaka, 1985, pp. 15.
*4ー Mizuho Kato, “Jiro Yoshihara’s ‘Gutai Art Manifesto’ from the Perspective of Infomel Influence,” Jiro Yoshihara Study Group (ed.), “Jiro Yoshihara Studies” 2002, pp. 55-69.
*5ー Shoichi Hirai (ed.), “What is “Gutai”? A Record of 18 Years of the Avant-garde Art Group on its 50th Anniversary,” Bijutsu Shuppansha, pp. 81.
*6ー Although featured in the second issue of “Gutai” and recognized as one of the most notable artists of the early Gutai period, Toshiko Kinoshita was only an active member from 1955 to 1958, and due to the lack of existing examples of her work, none are featured in the “Into the Unknown World - Gutai: Differentiation and Integration” exhibition.
*7ー For example, Koichi Kawasaki remarks,” ‘Gutai’ was his work in the sense that only pieces that passed Yoshihara’s criteria could be exhibited.” Toshikazu Masaki, “Cultural Gene: Gutai Art (1) Jiro Yoshiwara’s Dream: Art that does not imitate others The title is ‘Work,’” Sankei Shimbun, May 21, 2018. (in Japanese)
*8ー Some female artists, such as Atsuko Tanaka, have transcended the borders of the Gutai group and received significant recognition in recent years. For example, the 2020 exhibition at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art featured a section focusing on the female members of Gutai. See the exhibition review for more information: Izumi Nakajima, “Gutai Now: The 50th Anniversary of the Opening Works from Museum Collection”, ART RAMBLE, No. 70, March 2021, pp. 4-5. (in Japanese)
*9ー See, for example, “What is ‘Gutai’?” (reference No.5 above), and Alexandra Munroe and Ming Tiampo (eds.), “Gutai: Splendid Playground” exhibition catalog, Solomon R., Guggenheim Museum, 2013.
*10ー Toshio Yoshida, “Guests of Gutai Pinacoteca,” All Kansai, Vol. 5, No. 6, June 1970, pp. 66-67.
*11ー Seiko Kanno exhibition was held at the Gutai Mini-Pinakoteka. In 1970, Gutai Pinacoteca was demolished to build an entrance for the Hanshin Expressway, and Gutai Mini Pinacoteca opened in the nearby building.

Yoshiko Suzuki

Yoshiko Suzuki

Born in Nara Prefecture. Curator at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art. Specializes in modern and contemporary art.