Art Term

Gutai

Gutai were a Japanese avant-garde group formed in 1954 whose radical ideas and approaches to making art anticipated later performance and conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s

Shozo Shimamoto, ‘Holes’ 1954
Shozo Shimamoto
Holes 1954
Tate
© Shozo Shimamoto

The Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association) was formed in 1954 in Osakaby by Yoshihara Jiro, Kanayma Akira, Murakami Saburo, Shiraga Kazuo and Shozo Shimamoto. The word has been translated into English as ‘embodiment’ or ‘concrete’. Yoshihara was an older artist around whom the group coalesced and who financed it. The art historian Yve-Alain Bois has said that ‘the activities of the Gutai group in the mid 1950s constitute one of the most important moments of post-war Japanese culture’.

In their early public exhibitions in 1955 and 1956 Gutai artists created a series of striking works anticipating later happenings and performance and conceptual art. Shiraga’s Challenge to the Mud 1955, in which the artist rolled half naked in a pile of mud, remains the most celebrated event associated with the group. Also in 1955 Murakami created his reportedly stunning performance Laceration of Paper, in which he ran through a paper screen. At the second Gutai show in 1956, Shiraga used his feet to paint a large canvas sprawled across the floor. From about 1950 Shimamoto had been making paintings from layers of newspaper pasted together, painted and then pierced with holes, anticipating the pierced work of Lucio Fontana. In 1954 Murakami had made a series of paintings by throwing a ball soaked in ink at paper. In 1956 Shimamoto went on to make works called Throws of Colour by smashing glass jars filled with pigment onto canvases laid out on the floor.

Ashiya City Museum of Art and History in Japan holds a large collection of Gutai work and archives. The group dissolved in 1972 following the death of Yoshihara. There was a retrospective exhibition of their work at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1999.

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