TSURUKO YAMAZAKI, Work, 1957, aniline dye on tin, 73.3 × 82.7 cm. Photo by Rebecca Fanuele. Courtesy Galerie Almine Rech, Paris.

Beyond Gutai 1955–2009

Tsuruko Yamazaki

Galerie Almine Rech
Japan France

Between 1954 and 1972, the Japanese avant-garde art movement Gutai (meaning “concrete” or “embodiment”) challenged traditional artistic media through spectacularly orchestrated exhibitions. Kazuo Shiraga writhed in a viscous mass of cement and plaster in his performance, Challenging Mud (1955); Atsuko Tanaka donned a thatch of flashing lightbulbs, her visage poking through a conical tangle of cable and iridescence, for Electric Dress (1956). Although Gutai works have been included in the lastdocumenta and Sydney and Venice biennales, and it is one of the only non-Western movements acknowledged in the 2006 tome Art Since 1900, its history is still relatively unknown to the wider public. “Beyond Gutai 1955–2009,” a solo exhibit of founding member Tsuruko Yamazaki, now 85 years old, was thus quite timely.

Despite her inclusion in the first Gutai exhibition in 1955, Yamazaki remains one of the less discussed members of the group. As its title suggested, “Beyond Gutai” aimed for a comprehensive viewing of her oeuvre, bringing together 35 works from the 1950s to 2009 that employ tin, her favored medium, chosen for its reflective and malleable qualities. However, a linear reading of Yamazaki’s career trajectory was complicated by the inclusion of three contemporary remakes of works from the 1950s without the originals, which had been destroyed after their first showing. In front of the gallery’s main room, 30 metallic blue Tin Cans, 1955 (2009), initially presented at the First Gutai Exhibition in Tokyo in their original pink color, were piled on the floor. This seemingly arbitrary change of color and shiny newness indicates a Yamazaki at odds with the “beauty of decay” mentioned in the 1956 Gutai Manifesto.

The exhibition’s occasional side-by-side pairing of originals and remakes offered the viewer a chance to engage with Yamazaki’s career path. The original Work (1957), a tin painting made with aniline dye, was hung on the back wall of the gallery. A large smouldering smudge occludes most of the square metallic surface of the piece. The infinite details of the streaked, stained and scraped gradations of incandescent pink and earthy tones bring out the work’s base materiality and the “damage of time and destruction” celebrated in the manifesto. Adjacent to this painting were two 2009 riffs on Work, illuminated by multicolored spotlights. The first was comprised of six round crumpled lumps resembling partially inflated Mylar balloons massed together in two rows of three; the other was made of flattened and spliced angular tin sheets. Both pieces present pared-down, three-dimensional versions of the 1957 Work, yet they were only sensorially and intellectually compelling in the context of their predecessor.

Upstairs hung more conventional works on canvas that showed the diversity of Yamazaki’s practice. The bolder paintings belonged to a series from the 1960s, the earlier of which were exhibited in 1963 at the Gutai Pinacotheca in Osaka. Colorful concentric circles daubed on the surface and crudely formed triangles of thick paint smeared over by looping doodles jolt against each other and protrude from Confusion (1963). The seemingly uncompositional character of this assemblage, split halfway in the middle, aims to replicate the temporary blinding effect caused by looking directly into light beams reflected off metal. Other paintings from the 1990s and 2000s show the same gestural freedom but without the verve of the earlier set.

As with many shows that seek to transcend a historically defining and potentially overbearing style or moment in an artist’s career, “Beyond Gutai” only reaffirmed the centrality of the Gutai period in Yamazaki’s trajectory. Paradoxically, this vivid choreography of old, new and made anew argued for a serious engagement with the various principles and characteristics of Gutai instead of offering an invitation to go beyond it.