Two Faces of Avant-garde: Gutai and Kosai Hori

For the sake of this presentation I selected two creative approaches which in some sense can show a more concise, almost synthetic picture of the Japanese avant-garde. I have chosen the artists from the Gutai circle and the works of Kōsai Hori.

It all starts at Tama Art University. Its best known graduate is Issey Miyake, a fashion designer and perfume giant, but in the avant-garde “department” the top was reached by Hori. His abstractionism surfaced fairy late. As it usually is in such cases, an artist who balances on the verge of conceptual rebellion went to Paris and then – congested with pure form – decided to question everything he has done so far. A feature that is common for Japanese artists is that they use pigments and Hori made his trademark out of it. Together with the composer Yasunao Tone they created a group called Bikyōtō Revolution. It was something of a spiritual village, which strengthen the idea – which was already well grounded in Japan – that collectivity in art is a way for everlasting survival.

In Japanese aesthetics dominated by wabi sabi and the spirit of Master Ojio Yūshō, who consciously created symbolic signs of never-ending journeys out of them, the art of Kōsai Hori went against this entire tradition. Hori is a painter of abstraction. He paints with the use of oil paint, pencil, pastels or charcoal. He is aggressive. One could say that his paintings are an ouverture to artistic practice, the references of which reach the heights of virtue and solemnity. And it is all seen in a way in which beauty is understood by the painters of the avant-garde. Compared to several dozen avant-garde artists from both sides of the Pacific, a lot of whom are not distinguishable, Kōsai is the most distinct one solely because of his relations with broader culture, i.e. the intellectual material taken from the world of literature, cinema and Mediterranean art.

Gutai is one of the most important artistic groups in post-war Japan (Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai). It was established in 1954 in Osaka out of the initiative of Jirō Yoshihar, a painter and performer, icon of Japanese post-war art. Gutai is contrast, breaking away from respected form of exhibition, as well as from art itself; it is a kind of rebellion, contestation of the official doctrine. Gutai means free choice, the idea of free space that goes outside the cramped gallery or museum rooms; it is most of all “definiteness”. Gutai is a fascination with inner essence of life, it is the process of destruction and decomposition of things, which is in the end also part of our existence. It is nothing else but a reference to WA form, i.e. old-Japanese philosophy about the inevitability of death. These important source factors are dressed in the form of avant-garde revolt, conceptual art and performance. The brightest star of the group was Saburō Murakami, who referred to Western artistic phenomena and attitudes. The Japanese artists from the group looked intensely at the works of their American and European counterparts and they subsequently enriched their activities through the emanation of dialogue and added effects. Murakami created his own version of conceptual attitudes, having up his sleeve an entire arsenal of tradition and philosophy which made Japan one of the most fascinating areas of culture in the world. Other members of the group include i.a. Shimamoto Shōzō, Kazuo Shiraga, Takaseda Matsutani, Sadamasa Motonaga and many more.