The Guggenheim, Internationalism, and Gutai

3:42 | Published on February 15, 2013 | 177 Views

In 1955 the Guggenheim's director James Johnson Sweeney established the Guggenheim International Award, and Japanese artists were included in every edition of the exhibition that ensued. Gutai: Splendid Playground cocurator Alexandra Munroe explains how Japan emerged from totalitarianism to take a key role in the international art scene.

For more information, visit Gutai: Splendid Playground.

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Alexandra Munroe: In 1955, the director of the Guggenheim Museum, James Johnson Sweeney, established a Guggenheim International Award. Selecting artists from over forty countries around the world, including Japan. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of the United States, actually presented the award to the British artist Ben Nicholson. That gives us some sense of the stakes that were at play for American museums and for American cultural establishment in the postwar period, a time when Cold War policies and cultural policies were promoting American abstract painting in particular as the bastion of freedom and individual—individualism and self-expression.

In 1963, the curator for that exhibition was the Guggenheim curator, who was actually a British curator and critic, Lawrence Alloway. And he went to Osaka and visited the Gutai Pinacotheca and selected works by Yoshihara Jirō and Tanaka Atsuko—abstract paintings—for inclusion in the 1964 version of the Guggenheim International Award. The awards went through 1971, and what’s remarkable was that in every single iteration, Japanese artists were included.

Ten years earlier, we were fighting Japan. Within a very short period following the defeat of Japan, Japan became a massive ally in the Cold War, specifically in the Pacific arena.

So it was important to politically include Japan in these exhibitions that were celebrating abstraction as the land of the free.

But there were other reasons why Japanese artists were included. Artists around the world were looking to Japanese artists as mediums, as mentors of this other knowledge, of this other specifically non-Western art form to tap into to inspire their own creativity. And there was a great deal of anti-Western thinking in the avant-garde in the postwar period. There was a feeling that utopianism had led humankind to disaster, with the Holocaust, with the atomic bombings, with the catastrophe that World War II had wrought.

And Japan in particular rose as a fertile inventory of ideas that fed the artists who drove the experimentation of art in the postwar period.