Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, MoMA

As usual, my trip to New York included an afternoon at MoMA. I don’t always research the exhibitions in advance, I just show up and sometimes can be happily surprised. And upstairs from much publicized display of Eduard Munch’s The Scream, I found one such surprise. Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde catalogs the art movements that initially rose out of the ruins of post-war Japan, mixed and blended with international avant-garde trends of the 1960s, and ultimately moved more into alignment with Japanese culture at large.

[Nakamura Hiroshi. Upheaval (Nairanki). 1958. Oil and pencil on plywood. 36 1/4 x 72 7/16″ (92 x 184 cm). Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya. © Nakamura Hiroshi, courtesy Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya]

As one might expect, many of the 1950s pieces, only a decade after the end of World War II, are a bit bleak, and in some cases quite absurdist. This is consistent with the rise of butoh in the performing arts during the same period. But we also see examples that share characteristics with abstract expressionism that was happening in the United States at the same time.

[Yamaguchi Katsuhiro. Vitrine: Deep into the Night (Vitorīnu: Yoru no shinkō). 1954. Watercolor on paper, oil on wood, corrugated glass. 25 3/4 x 22 1/4 x 3 9/16″ (65.5 x 56.5 x 9 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. © Yamaguchi Katsuhiro, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.]

At the same time, the architectural pieces associated with the Metabolism movement were quite optimistic. Although some were fantastical in their designs such as Tange Kenzo’s A Plan for Tokyo, 1960 , there were a few that were actually built, such as Kurokawa Kisho’s Nakagin Capsule Tower Building.

The span of the exhibition intersects with Fluxus, and a few of the artists featured in last year’s Fluxus 50th anniversary exhibition made appearances here as well. Many of the Japanese artists that would become associated directly or indirectly with movement crossed paths at the Sogetsu Art Center, including Yoko Ono and Ichiyanagi Toshi. Among the pieces documenting this fertile ground were Ono’s Cough Piece and the graphical score Toshi’s IBM for Merce Cunningham. I still find inspiration in pieces like Toshi’s score four decades later.

[Ichiyanagi Toshi. IBM for Merce Cunningham. 1960 (Fluxus Edition announced 1963). Score. Master for the Fluxus Edition, typed and drawn by George Maciunas, New York. Ink, typewriting, and graphite on transparentized paper. 8 1/4 x 11 9/16″ (21 x 29.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2012 Ichiyanagi Toshi. Photograph by Peter Butler]

I was not at all surprised to see Yoko Ono represented once again in this exhibition. But I was happy to discover Akasegawa Genpei in the exhibition, though his membership in the Hi Red Center.

[Hi Red Center. Hi Red Center poster (recto). Fluxus Edition, edited by Shigeko Kubota, designed and produced by George Maciunas, New York. Edition announced 1965. Offset printing on paper, double-sided. 22 1/16 x 17″ (56 x 43.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © The Estate of Takamatsu Jirō, courtesy Yumiko Chiba Associates, Tokyo.]

The Hi Red Center again intersected with the world of Fluxus, even appearing in a Fluxus edition and hosting many associated artists as guests. But beyond that, Akasegawa Genpei was involved in original and sometimes controversial conceptual pieces. In his “Anti Art” objects, I could see that start for his work in the 1980s on “hyperart” or “Thomassons”. (Thomassons have been discussed on this site in earlier articles and will undoubtedly come up again.)

The later section of the exhibition chronicled the transition from the gritty and often monochromatic style of early conceptual art to a brightly colored cartoonish style associated with Japanese Pop Art. It is easy to see the rise of manga and anime in Japanese popular culture in this trend, though the content in these pieces is often more serious and subtle.

[Tateishi Kōichi (Tiger Tateishi). Samurai, the Watcher (Kōya no Yōjinbō). 1965. Oil on canvas. 51 5/16 x 63 3/4″ (130.3 x 162 cm). The National Museum of Art, Osaka. © Estate of Tiger Tateishi, courtesy The National Museum of Art, Osaka.]

Although I quite liked Tateishi Kōichi’s painting shown above and others in this part of the exhibition, overall the pop art did not hold my attention in the way the preceding sections on conceptual art did. But overall, this was a great exhibition that I was happy to come across.