Tanaka’s hanging fabric pieces constituted a new idea. And yet they invoked no immediate sensation of beauty in the viewer’s mind. If avant-garde painting can be divided into two categories—the one that shows superficially novel forms and the other that at once has novel forms and instantaneously touches the viewer’s mind—Tanaka’s works belong in the former.7
When, in 1955, a group of artists known as Zero Society (Zero-kai) merged with Gutai, they pushed Gutai to expand its definition of art. For Zero Society artists, the content of an artwork mattered less than the concept. They asked the question: Can an idea be a work of art? In addition, their art materials included not only everyday materials, but also time, chance, sound, unaltered factory-made materials, mechanical reproductions, and technical drawings.
Works by original Zero Society artists varied widely. Kanayama Akira’s (1924–2006) paintings were more conceptual and systematic rather than emotional. He created a series of gridded works reminiscent of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944). He also experimented with automation by creating a painting using an automatic toy car. Murakami Saburo’s (1925–1996) works, on the other hand, were more exuberant. He turned performance into painting by throwing objects through paper or leaping through paper himself. In 1956, for All the Landscapes, he hung an empty picture frame from tree branches in an outdoor Gutai exhibition, making the work dependent on the viewer’s position and perspective.
Tanaka Atsuko (1932–2005) experimented with the use of non-art materials. She created Gutai’s first sound art piece. Her installation of electric bells wound along the gallery floor. Visitors were invited by a sign—“Please push this button”—to set off a loud bell tone sequence, which defined the architectural space through sound, creating what Tanaka thought of as a line in space like a painting’s brushstroke. Shimamoto Shozo (b. 1928) called it “perhaps the first ever invisible work in the history of art.”8 At the same exhibition, Tanaka presented two installations made of large sheets of factory-made cloth. One of them, Work (Yellow Cloth) (1955), consisted of seven sheets of yellow cotton hung as paintings, with their edges occasionally scored and re-glued—her only artistic intervention. In this way, the yellow cloth mostly derived its artistic status through a change in context—from the everyday world to the gallery walls.
Gutai artists’ conceptualism was partly inspired by Dada, an art movement that advocated breaking down the boundary between art and life. It was also inspired by children and their thinking about art. In 1956, a third-grader submitted an unusual artwork to a children’s art exhibition in which Gutai members were involved: old bricks tied together with rubber bands. Tanaka praised the student’s act of conceptual transformation: “Because she presented it as a work, it became different from things we see around us.”9
Ask students to brainstorm qualities they expect an artwork to have.
Show: Tanaka Atsuko, Work (Yellow Cloth) (1955)
- Ask students what they notice about the work. Tell students this work consists of seven sheets of virtually unaltered yellow cotton hung as paintings. How would students have to change their definition of art and/or painting for it to include this work?
- Some people say the change of a material’s context alone—moving the cloth from everyday life to a gallery—is enough to qualify it as art. Tanaka was well known for making art with everyday materials, including a dress made of lightbulbs. She said of a third-grader’s artwork made of bricks tied together by rubber bands: “[She] did not try to tie bricks beautifully. . . . Because she presented it as a work, it became different from things we see around us.”10 What do students think about this idea?
- Tell students that this kind of work is considered “conceptual,” meaning its idea is more important than its content. Which ideas does this work seem to be exploring?
- Gutai, like art movements before it, perceived an artificial separation between art and life and wanted to break down that boundary. Ask students to imagine a world with no boundary between art and life and describe how their lives would change.
- The premise of the art group, Zero Society, that influenced Gutai’s conceptualism was: “Every work of art begins from nothing.”11 Ask students what they think of this statement. What does it mean in the context of Work (Yellow Cloth)? Do they think it is—or should be—true?
- Artworks like Tanaka’s have been the source of many debates about the definition of art. Stage a debate as a class. Address the question: Can a virtually unaltered piece of cloth be a work of art? Divide the class into two groups. One group should argue that Tanaka’s artwork is art. The other group should argue that it is not. Talk to students about the kinds of evidence they can present to back up their arguments. They may have to research the history of art, especially primary documents such as artist quotes, legal documents, or court trials. At the end of the debate, ask the class which side they think presented the most compelling argument and why. Has anyone changed his or her opinion?
English Language Arts
- Gutai artists believed an idea could be a work of art. Often, these ideas were about the definition of art. Ask students to work with a partner to list traditional ideas about what makes something art. Some traditional ideas include: art is created by an artist, made with traditional art materials, hangs on a wall or stands on a pedestal, requires “skill” or “hard work,” and is “complete” before the viewer encounters it. Ask partners to work together to think of ways artists could break these “rules” of art. For instance, what unusual materials could be used as art materials? (For Gutai artists, those materials included everyday materials, time, chance, and sound.) Ask students to sketch or write an idea with their partner for a work of art that breaks a traditional “rule” of art.
- Throughout the 20th century, artists’ movements have expressed their principles through manifestos. In 1956, Yoshihara Jiro (1905–1972) wrote a manifesto stating his vision for postwar Japanese art. Discuss the idea of a manifesto with your students. Read this excerpt from Yoshihara’s manifesto. What do students notice about the ideas and the language?
Gutai Art does not alter matter. Gutai Art imparts life to matter. Gutai Art does not distort matter.
In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other, while keeping their distance. Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter. When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out.12
Research other manifestos in art history—including the Futurist manifesto (1909), the Surrealist manifesto (1924 and 1929), and the de Stijl manifesto (1918). Challenge students to write their own manifestos capturing their visions for what art should be. They should ask themselves questions such as: Where should art be displayed? What should art not be? Should art influence politics?