Postwar Japanese Abstractionism

Tanaka’s expressionism formed core of influential Gutai group

Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka’s first museum show in this country features paintings, drawings, sculpture and performance documentation of her early work and of an influential artistic group.

Born in 1932 in Osaka, Tanaka joined the prescient Gutai group in 1955. Gutai’s members overturned many conventions of art in favor of new and inventive forms. Inquiring and assertive, this fertile questioning, in the aftermath of World War II’s destruction and Japan’s incipient technological advancements, marked this era.

The group’s members used innovative methods to reject realistic figuration, including painting with watering cans, the bodily application of paint, and throwing paint-filled objects at the canvas. One Gutai artist broke through the picture plane of framed rice paper in performance, in order to blur the line between creation and object.

Tanaka’s early piece, entitled “Calendar” (1954), was created after a lengthy hospital stay and immediately points to her schematic and diagrammatic interests. In “Bell” (1955), a series of electric bells are placed along the outer parameter of the gallery. Activated by a button’s touch, the sequential ringing disrupts the silence as well as defines the space.

A pioneer in Body Art, Tanaka’s performances used the body as an innovative multi-faceted costume that would evolve during performances. One such piece involved a 30-foot dress. Inspired by an electric street sign, Tanaka developed her most known work “Electric Dress” (1956), made of blue, green, red, and yellow painted bulbs descending into a tangle of wire at the base. When lit, the sculpture covers the body with a syncopated rhythm of color and light, suggesting the nervous system on the exterior of the body.

Much of Tanaka’s art involves technological dsiplays with a human touch. Tanaka’s painting and drawing evolved from the electric circuitry of the “Electric Dress.”

With daring and worthy experimentation, Tanaka expresses playfulness, without undermining her serious exploration of the how indelible interconnections challenge preconceived assumptions of identity.

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