Gutai was an avant-garde group established in Japan, 1954, known for creating art that foreshadowed conceptual art during the 1960s and 1970s.
The Gutai Art Association, or Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai, was established in 1954 in Osaka by artists including Yoshihara Jiro, Kanayama Akira, Murakami Saburo, Shiraga Kazuo, and Shozo Shimamoto. The word "Gutai" can be translated as "embodiment" or "concrete." Yoshihara, an older artist who provided financial support, played a central role in the group. Renowned art historian Yve-Alain Bois has emphasised that the activities of the Gutai group during the mid-1950s represent a crucial moment in post-war Japanese culture.
During their early exhibitions in 1955 and 1956, Gutai artists created remarkable works that foreshadowed later developments in happenings, performance art, and conceptual art. For instance, Shiraga's ‘Challenge to the Mud’ in 1955 featured the artist rolling in a pile of mud, a performance that remains one of the group's most celebrated events.
In the same year, Murakami presented a striking performance called ‘Laceration of Paper’, in which he ran through a paper screen. At the second Gutai show in 1956, Shiraga used his feet to paint a large canvas laid across the floor. Starting around 1950, Shimamoto had been creating paintings by layering newspapers, painting them, and piercing them with holes, anticipating the pierced works of Lucio Fontana. In 1954, Murakami Saburo produced a series of paintings by throwing an ink-soaked ball at paper. Shimamoto went on to create works titled ‘Throws of Colour’ in 1956 by smashing glass jars filled with pigment onto canvases placed on the floor.
The Ashiya City Museum of Art and History in Japan houses a significant collection of Gutai artworks and archives. The group disbanded in 1972 following Yoshihara's death. In 1999, there was a retrospective exhibition of their work at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.
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