My Life With The GUTAI Part One: 具体美術協会とマイ·ライフ

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Shinbun Onna” (Miyuki Nishizawa), myself, unidentified gallery visitor, Master Shozo Shimamoto

A visitor to my blog has asked me about life spent with my friend and mentor Shozo Shimamoto and the resultant influence from the GUTAI Art Association.

Japanese artist Shozo Shimamoto (1928-2013), along with Jiro Yoshihara, co-founded the Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (“concrete arts association”), an arts group whose collective ideas/works preceded and informed the eventual creation of performance, conceptual, installation, and action arts. Though the group disbanded in the early 70s, member Yasuo Sumi is still active today, continuing to create work in the GUTAI spirit. Shimamoto also participated in the genre of Mail Art, and led an association for handicapped artists though he himself was not.

Much GUTAI art could be characterized by gestural and bodily abstraction in the leaving of various types of traces, including the use of nude female assistants covered in ink directed across the canvas (Japan: nyōtaku). Shimamoto created a number of important GUTAI works that would inspire such renowned international artists as Allen Kaprow, Yoko Ono, Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, and many others. He was called one of the four most important artists of the 20th century (along with Lucio Fontana, John Cage, and Jackson Pollock) by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Spain, and Tokyo, and his work is on permanent display at the Tate Modern (London), the National Museum of Modern Art (Rome), the Art Center of Milan, the Paris Gallery, the Ca’Pesaro International Gallery of Modern in Venice, and elsewhere. Important to any discussion of Shimamoto’s or Sumi’s work, of course, are the ideas contained in the GUTAI Manifesto.

This statement of the group’s ideology and intentions, published in the art journal Geijutsu Shincho (Dec. 1956), discusses amongst other things: (1) the ideology of minimal alteration to art materials through collaboration of materials and the artist’s spirit, and (2) the beauty of materials in natural decay. As much as the beauty of natural decay implies a Zen austerity or impermanence aesthetic such as wabi-sabi, the GUTAI engaged in works that did not utilize their extensive art training, but rather actions such as running through paper, “grappling” with mud, randomly dropping paint on canvases, and nyōtaku, which required neither discipline nor Zen aesthetic conceptualization.

Over the three year period that I was actively engaged in various art projects instigated by Mr. Shimamoto, I provided musical accompaniment to films being shown on the back of his head, modeled several discs of felt cleverly linked into a multi- purpose outer garment, wandered the length and breadth of his gallery in Takarazuka (Hyogo Prefecture) sporting a vision obscuring helmet made out of plastic cups, and other such activities. As much as Mr. Shimamoto was Japanese and well versed in Zen ideas and ideology, his personality and works spoke more of a highly intellectual yet rather lighthearted, secular approach to art, with none of the stereotypical “Zen Japaneseness” one might assume or expect from an artist of his pedigree and nationality.

Another interesting fact pertaining to the GUTAI was the presence of Atsuko Tanaka, a prominent female member of the group hardly mentioned in art history. The GUTAI had no less than 13 women artists out of its fifty-nine members, including Tanaka, who herself prefigured participation and/or sound installation art with her work Bell in 1955. Yet the female members of the group remain to this day under-researched and virtually unknown internationally.

In Part Two I will discuss our friendship and provide (now rare) pictures from my private archive.

© 2013 Daniel Schnee.danielpaulschnee.wordpress.com

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