A decade after the end of World War II, a new mood seized Japan, and with it an art movement at once burdened by the past and attempting to break with it. The impossibilities of this position found expression in the often radical work produced during the 1950s and ’60s. Orientated toward the domestic political and cultural situation, which during this period included American military occupation and student protests, this movement was also outwardly directed, signalling the internationalism of a new generation of artists.
‘Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde’ began by creating a visceral portrait of postwar Japan, using painting to establish both the dominant visual language of the period and the psychological trauma that continued to scar the country. The first gallery – comprising entirely painting, some of which dated from the early 1950s – tracked the transition from a heavily Surrealist style to abstraction, as typified by the early work of Yayoi Kusama and On Kawara. From there, ‘Tokyo 1955–1970’ rapidly established the contours of the emergent postwar avant-garde: collective, cross-disciplinary and frequently action-based. In contrast to their predecessors’ preoccupation with the past, these artists were engaged with the current state of social and political affairs in Japan, and often used the body to illustrate a situation of conflict and confrontation.
Many collectives – in particular Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association), Hi Red Center and Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension) – became increasingly politicized and, by the mid-60s, were staging actions aimed specifically at disrupting the flow of people, information and capital through the city. Initially, however, many of these artists lived in uneasy cooperation with corporate and government forms of support: the collective Jikken Kobo, for example, created a series of photographs for the Asahi Picture News in the early 1950s, and received Sony sponsorship for a project in 1953.
One of the most important exhibitions of this period was the annual Yomiuri Independent (1949–63). It showcased artists including Tetsumi Kudo, Genpei Akasegawa and Shusaku Arakawa, and by the late 1950s contained work that was sufficiently anarchic to be dubbed ‘anti-art’ (though it was sponsored by the centre-right newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun). In 1963, the organizers established prohibitive guidelines in an attempt to curtail the more radical elements of what had become a crucial survey of contemporary art in Japan. The exhibition was permanently discontinued in 1964. In that same year, Hi Red Center member Akasegawa was investigated (and later convicted) for counterfeiting Japanese bills in his work, in what became known as the Model 1000-Yen-Note Incident.
In retrospect, 1964 was a turning point, after which artists were pushed into a more direct confrontation with power. A number of artists, including Kudo and Arakawa, left Japan. Of those that remained, perhaps the groups that best typified this transition were Hi Red Center – which although only active for two years (1963–4) remain highly influential – and Zero Jigen. Hi Red Center’s actions included cleaning a street in Tokyo’s Ginza district with toothbrushes (Cleaning Event, in the Metropolitan Area, 1964). In Shelter Plan (1964), staged at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, a physical cataloguing of guests was performed, ostensibly to create individual nuclear shelters. Zero Jigen, meanwhile, staged disruptive ‘rituals’ in public space, using the bodies of the artists to upset the smooth functioning of the urban landscape.
But even as the exhibition communicated the vibrancy of this period and celebrated the city as a creative territory, it also traced a set of more complex exchanges: between urban and rural, between the Tokyo Kanto and the Osaka-Kobe Kansai regions. Gutai, for example, were based in Kansai, an identity that was important to their work, but strategically staged several of their key performances in Tokyo, including Challenging Mud and Six Holes (both 1955). Another polarity lay between the domestic and international scenes. The majority of these artists were keenly aware of what was taking place in New York art at the time, in part through the activities of institutions like Sogetsu Art Center. The partial orientation toward an international context explains the complex set of influences and associations that informed the vanguard in Japan; for example, Fluxus collaborated with Hi Red Center, and a number of the artists affiliated with the Sogetsu Art Center would later become members of Fluxus.
Indeed, some of the most recognizable names in the exhibition – Yoko Ono, On Kawara, Yayoi Kusama, Tetsumi Kudo – lived or emigrated abroad. But on the whole, rather than focusing on artists who are now familiar international names, the survey largely showcased artists and in particular collectives who have been under-recognized in the US: Gutai, for example, is only this year receiving its first North American museum show, at the Guggenheim in New York.
By contrast, the final gallery featured graphic and photographic work that is instantly familiar to a Western audience, indicating the degree to which Japanese photography, design and film were canonized relatively early on (not coincidentally, a number of these works were drawn from MoMA’s permanent holdings). This gallery featured the work of two photographic collectives, Vivo and Provoke, whose members included Daido Moriyama. Also exhibited are bold works of graphic design by artists such as Tadanori Yokoo, who collaborated with a number of notable cultural figures, including the writer Yukio Mishima.
Mishima committed ritual suicide in 1970, the terminal point of the exhibition’s titular time frame, in a gesture that acted as a symbolic end to a period exploring the role of the body in art and politics. The story of his suicide has been repeated, referenced and immortalized by and for a Western audience. But 1970 was also the year of the landmark Tokyo Biennale (‘Between Man and Matter’) and the Expo ’70 in Osaka, both of which signified Japan’s emergence onto the world stage. The Expo and the Biennale featured many of the artists included in ‘Tokyo 1955–1970’. A number of these went on to achieve international recognition, having first tested themselves locally, in the roiling, complex world captured in this compelling and significant exhibition.