On 25 February 2013, MoMA closed its doors on “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde”, a three month long exhibition that looked at the art of Japan’s capital during the transformational years of the 1950s and 1960s.
The survey exhibition, which contained over 200 works in different mediums by sixty artists, received praise from art critics for its artist selection, varied presentation of works and global outlook. Art Radar condenses the commentators’ views.
The decades following the Second World War were a period of readjustment for Japan, as the country transformed itself from a defeated nation into one of the world’s strongest economies. MoMA’s “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” focused on the artists living through these turbulent years, documenting
artistic crossings, collaborations, and at times, conflicts, with the city as incubator. It introduces the myriad avant-garde experiments that emerged as artists drew on the energy of this rapidly growing and changing metropolis.
Tokyo in focus
Many people will be familiar with names such as Yayoi Kusama, Daido Moriyama and Yoko Ono, but the artistic movements that they came from might not be as well known to gallery goers living outside Japan. Associate Curator Doryun Chong hoped MoMA’s exhibition of a relatively small slice of Japanese art might help Japan’s “understudied” capital achieve recognition as “one of the great metropolises and cultural centres” alongside New York, Paris, London and Berlin.
Chong’s curatorial intent seems to have been largely successful with commentators, who praised the show for its global perspective.
…a large exhibition devoted to the artistic ferment that occurred in Tokyo between 1955 and 1970. And, although the focus of the show sounds narrow, what seems likely to set it apart from anything seen in recent years in Japan will be a curatorial perspective that encompasses the world.
It’s astonishing to see postwar Japanese artists assimilating a half century of European vanguardism and coming up with analogs to Mad cartoonist Basil Wolverton (Ikeda Tatsuo) or assemblages evoking the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Tetsumi Kudo), updating traditional Japanese practices as Miró-elegant modern art (Sadamasa Motonaga‘s enameled stones) or trumping the East Village by thirty years with auto-slide projections (Shōzō Kitadai’s table-top epic Another World).
Artist Lee Ufan, who was born in Korea in 1936 but moved to Japan in 1956 and whose work appeared in the exhibition, agreed that the show successfully contextualised the works for an international audience, commenting that “the development of Japan’s post-war art and thought is well arranged and exhibited in the eyes of an outsider“.
Many commentators pointed out the political overtones of Japanese avant-garde art; MoMA’s exhibition included the work of artists such as Kazuo Shiraga and Genpei Akasegawa. The work of these artists counters the tendency to dismiss Japan as a “group-think” society, redefining Japanese political art through its
…radical dissent, new political visions and revelations (though not always convincing), all of which result from an artist community’s attempt to re-establish itself in a westernised world.
Holland Cotter, writing for The New York Times, said that these political overtones drew Japanese avant-garde art closer to European vanguardism, and historical Japan closer to the contemporary world.
…because you’ve just been through a show that encourages you to look for the particular in the large picture and for the resistant politics in the particular, you do just that, and you find it, which is the bottom-line story of modernism — modernisms — in every city, everywhere.
With art that is often event- or performance-based — and just as often explicitly political — the show is ultimately most pertinent not to historical Japanese issues but to contemporary ones. The strategies for provocative and playful activity on display here are ones that might be useful to any citizen today.
Japanese avant-garde “unique”
The exhibition did not neglect to highlight the differences as well as similarities between Japanese and international avant-gardisms.
Two perhaps related phenomena unique to postwar Japanese art are the unusual emphasis on corporate-sponsored exhibitions and prizes and the importance of art collectives. Powerful corporations drove Japan to become the country with the world’s second-highest GDP, and companies like Shell Oil, Mainichi Shimbun (a major newspaper) and the Shirokiya department store were in turn major supporters of contemporary art. Art groups with names like Gutai, Hi Red Center, Jikken Kobo and Genshoku (‘Tactile Hallucination’) all sprang up in the same era. Their spirit of teamwork and collaboration may have initially echoed the corporate culture of the new Japan, but ultimately it challenged that aggressive style of capitalism.
This “spirit” of collaboration and direct action proved occasionally elusive.
‘Tokyo 1955-1970’ is worth seeing if you are interested in Japanese history and culture, or postwar art in general — or if you are just interested in how a devastated city remade itself into a global economic capital. If the show has a flaw, it is that the best work from this period is not the sculpture and painting on view, but an ephemeral attitude of resistance and collective activity that can only ever be footnoted by physical objects.
Range of highlights
Commentators noted several high points in “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde”, including the socialist realism/surrealist works and works that documented site-specific performance pieces from the 1960s.
The first works one encounters in the show, and arguably the strongest, are paintings that equally recall surrealism from the west and socialist realism from the east. Three works by Nakamura Hiroshi hang next to each other, titled Period of War (Sensōki) (1958), Period of Peace (Heiwaki) (1958), and Upheaval (Nairanki) (1958).
The highlight is the section dedicated to Hi Red Center, a Fluxus-esque collective whose style of cool political critique in the early 1960s involved numerous performances in public spaces.
The events and resources complimenting the exhibition also received praise.
The timeline of the works covered in the show is available in great detail on an interactive website, which allows viewers to better explore the context of sculptural movements such as Mono-ha and artists like Daido Moriyama by clicking through the years and sections of Tokyo comprised in the show. MoMA has also put together a performance program and concurrent film schedule, which includes contemporary artists and artist groups Contact Gonzo, Eiko and Koma, Ei Arakawa, and Trajal Harrell – bringing Japan’s post-war art scene full circle.
60 Tokyo artists on show
“Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” included pieces from the following artists:
- Isozaki Arata
- Kikutake Kiyonori
- Kurokawa Kisho
- Tange Kenzo
- Kawaguchi Tatsuo
- Hamada Chimei
- Ikeda Tatsuo
- Ishii Shigeo
- Katsuragawa Hiroshi
- Kawabata Minoru
- Yayoi Kusama
- On Kawara
- Madokoro (Akutagawa) Saori
- Maeda Josaku
- Nakamura Hiroshi
- Nakanishi Natsuyuki
- Okamoto Taro
- Yamashita Kikuji
- Kukushima Hideko
- Shozo Kitadai
- Matsumoto Toshio
- Ōtsuji Kiyoj
- Yamaguchi Katsuhiro
- Motonaga Sadamasa
- Murakami Saburo
- Shiraga Kazuo
- Tanaka Atsuko
- Akiyama Kuniharu
- Ichiyangi Toshi
- Kubota Shigeko
- Yoko Ono
- Shiomi Mieko
- Tone Yasunao
- Akasegawa Genpei
- Arakawa Shusaku
- Iimura Takahiko
- Kikuhata Mokuma
- Kojima Nobuaka
- Kudo Tetsumi
- Miki Tomio
- Nakanishi Natsuyuki
- Takamatsu Jiro
- Yoshimura Matsunobu
- Hi Red Center
- Jonouchi Motoharu
- Haraguchi Noriyuki
- Ushio Shinohara
- Tateishi Koichi
- Lee Ufan
- Narita Katsuhiko
- Sekine Nobuo
- Akiyama Ryoji
- Fukase Masahisa
- Hosoe Eikoh
- Ichimura Tetsuya
- Kawada Kikuji
- Moriyama Daido
- Okanoue Toshiko
- Tomatsu Shomei
- Kamekura Yusaku
- Awazu Kiyoshi
- Oikawa Masamichi
- Sightseeing Art Research Institute
- Yokoo Tadanori
- Zero Dimension
Watch this short video for an introduction to MoMA’s exhibition and a glimpse of some of the works displayed.
New York will soon see more Japanese avant-gardism with “Gutai: splendid playground“, a major exhibition of the Gutai group, an Osaka based collective that formed in 1954 and united 59 artists in its eighteen year history. The exhibition will open at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in February 2013.
Did you visit “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant Garde” at MoMA in New York? Did the critics get it right? Tell us what you think in the comment section below.
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- Whimsy or Dark Psychosis? Tate Modern Yayoi Kusama retrospective – review round up – June 2012 – critical reception to Tate Modern’s Kusama exhibition
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