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Among the works presented at this Kirin exhibition, one was made of old bricks tied together by numerous rubber bands. Seeing such a work, people might say, “Do you call this some sort of art? Things like this lie around everywhere.” At first glance, it may appear meaningless; however, I think it is very good….[She] did not try to tie bricks beautifully. She just wanted to tie them up together and she presented it as a work. Because she presented it as a work, it became different from things we see around us.
—Atsuko Tanaka (1956)

Describing this submission to the Kirin children’s art exhibition, Atsuko Tanaka staked out a critical position on the definition of art that was central to her own oeuvre.1 Tanaka’s work was a highly conceptual response to the gestural automatism of Informel and Abstract Expressionism practiced by artists around the world. As opposed to those artists, who sought to expand the expressive possibilities of painting through the use of gesture and materiality, Tanaka focused on the boundaries of painting and sought to enlarge the definition of this medium to include sound, time, space, alternative materials, and alternative forms of visual representation such as technical drawings. In so doing, Tanaka breached the boundary between art and life, making a critical maneuver that is generally credited to later movements in the history of art.2

This essay concentrates on the genesis of Tanaka’s work—the period between 1953 and 1958—when she laid the foundations for her alternative to gestural abstraction.
3 It examines her role in defining the artistic discourse of the Gutai group, and the critical stance that she took with respect to the dominant mode of expression for her generation in Europe, the United States, and Japan.4

Atsuko Tanaka was thirteen years old when, on August 15, 1945, the scratchy sounds of Emperor Hirohito’s voice came across the radio waves, announcing Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces. Despite the poverty and hardship of the immediate post-war period, it was a time of possibility and reinvention, as ordinary Japanese people were released from the suffocating demands of a government that had militarized every aspect of civilian life for the war effort. Young writers like Osamu Dazai, Taijiro¯ Tamura, and Ango Sakaguchi vociferously and emphatically promoted values of authenticity and individuality. Sakaguchi, in particular, stressed that unless society was based on a genuine foundation of subjective autonomy (shutaisei), the indoctrinating power of the state would have no trouble reasserting itself. Even under the American military occupation, regular citizens enjoyed more freedoms than they had under the militarists. As the historian John Dower argues, “It was a rare moment of flux, freedom, and openness when new patterns of authority and new norms of behaviour were still in the process of forming.”

This exhilarating new climate challenged cultural leaders to resituate and reconsider the contours of modern Japanese identity. What kind of pictorial representation was most appropriate for a post-war Japan? What did it mean to be both Japanese and modern in a context where modernity was identified with the West and thus the Occupation? Was it possible to build a national identity that was not nationalist? In what way could artists critically engage with the political, economic, and social legacy of the war? In the art world, two major tendencies emerged: first, an attempt to articulate an artistic language that combined elements of traditional Japanese culture with aspects of modern and avant-garde art. In Tokyo, Taro¯ Okamoto turned to prehistoric Jo¯mon art, and in the Kansai area, the Genbi (in full, Gendai Bijutsu Kondankai or Contemporary Art Discussion Group) explored the traditional arts of Japan by experimenting with avant-garde calligraphy, pottery, ikebana (flower arrangement), and an interdisciplinary approach to art. Second, a highly socially and politically conscious group of artists called the Reportage school mixed the visual language of Social Realism and Surrealism to create painting that commented on the horrors of war or social conditions of the post-war period.

Tanaka’s work from this period shared a commitment to authenticity with Reportage painting and the works of Dazai, Tamura, and Sakaguchi, in that it sought to bring the materials and experiences of everyday life into painting. These artists and writers were obsessed with representing the world without idealizing it, and depicting the fragility and imperfection of human nature. This strategy was aimed at opposing the aestheticization and idealization of death, sacrifice, and honour that had been common during the war, during which giving one’s life for one’s country was described using formulaic poetic metaphors such as dying “like a shattered jewel” or “like a faded cherry blossom.”
7 As with post-war artists in Europe, like Jean Fautrier and Alberto Giacometti responding to the hard-bodied classical aesthetic of Fascism, post-war artists and writers in Japan were no longer prepared to weave fictions.8 In contrast to Reportage painters, however, Tanaka rejected the use of realism. Rather than trying to represent the realities of post-war Japan, she incorporated them directly into her work.

Painting Time

Tanaka decided to abandon the figurative still lifes that she had been painting in art school during an extended hospital stay in 1953. Disoriented by the sameness in the routine of hospital life and looking forward to her discharge, Tanaka began counting the days to give shape to time. One, two, three, four, five, six. She wrote numbers on a piece of paper. She realized that the written numbers gave form to time, and began to make her Calendar series. Turning something as ordinary as a calendar into a work of art, Tanaka rejected the question of realism versus abstraction that still constituted one of the central problems of artistic practice in Europe, the United States, and in Japan after World War II. With Calendar from 1954, Tanaka ventured into the realm of schematic and semiotic representation and revealed a fact that is taken for granted: the calendar’s transformation of time into space and pattern. Tanaka collaged pieces of tracing paper and architectural blueprint on a white ground, and drew what appears to be an ordinary calendar on top of the collaged elements. Breaking down the distinction between figure and ground, Tanaka used the shapes of the architectural blueprint to determine, and in some cases fill in, the letters and numbers of her calendar. The reversed “S” for Sunday follows the curve of the technical drawing underneath, and the “W” and “F” are both completed by architectural forms in the blueprint, making Calendar a palimpsest of semiotic systems: spatial, temporal, numeric, and linguistic, thus highlighting the spatiality of how a calendar represents time.

This collision of semiotic systems revealed their arbitrariness and materiality by revealing how the same shape could simultaneously represent part of a building or part of a letter and thus a day. Creating a series of works that used numbers or fragmented them, Tanaka experimented with their formal qualities, testing the strength of the relationship between form and meaning. Work, from 1954, was her first painting in this genre. Tanaka wrote numbers on a surface that she made by sewing together two pieces of hemp painted blue and yellow. Several of the numbers are fractured at the seam—like an envelope signed on the seal that has been opened. By slightly shifting parts of the numbers and placing them on two different coloured grounds, Tanaka made it difficult for the viewer to read the numbers seamlessly, accentuating the act of interpretation that associates shapes with meaning. Later in 1954, with another piece entitled Work,
9 Tanaka considered how far one could distort the shape of a number before it lost its meaning through fragmentation and repetition.

Conceptualizing Gutai

After her release from the hospital, Tanaka joined the Zero-kai (Zero Society), a small collective established in 1952 by artists Akira Kanayama (whom she later married), Saburo¯ Murakami, and Kazuo Shiraga. In the fall of 1954, her Work was included in the Zero-kai’s only group show, installed in the window of the Sogo¯ department store in Osaka. In December 1954, the Zero-kai was invited to join the Gutai group. By the spring of 1955, all four members had become a part of the Gutai, and submitted their first works to the 8th Ashiya City Exhibition, juried by Jiro¯ Yoshihara.10

This invitation was part of Yoshihara’s efforts to bring the Gutai into a new phase. Before the arrival of Zero-kai, Yoshihara had been searching for a voice for the new movement. The Zero-kai artists entered quickly into a creatively symbiotic relationship with the existing Gutai members, contributing to the atmosphere of irreverence and experimentation for which the Gutai became known. For the first year of Gutai’s existence, Yoshihara led the group in essentially the same direction as Genbi, a group of artists and critics who were searching to articulate the meaning of modernism in Japan. As a leading member of Genbi until his departure in 1955, Yoshihara had collaborated with calligraphers, ceramicists, painters, and ikebana (flower arrangement) artists in this highly interdisciplinary group to question what it meant to create art that was both modern and Japanese.
11 In his essay for the first issue of the Gutai journal, Yoshihara expresses goals for the Gutai that are quite similar, and it is clear that the leader had not yet formulated a clear vision of the Gutai’s direction.

By the time that the second issue of the Gutai journal was published in October, the Zero-kai had joined the Gutai and the synergy of the two movements resulted in a new course of action. According to Sho¯zo¯ Shimamoto, “Yoshihara departed from the ideas of Genbi because he wanted to engage with art, not just Japanese art.”
12 In the second issue of Gutai, it is clear that the group’s focus had shifted away from modernizing Japanese art to articulating a discourse that engaged with larger artistic problems of international relevance. Articles in the journal included challenges to the boundaries of modern art that were important to the former members of Zero-kai, and reflections on the nature of creativity and expression, which preoccupied the rest of the Gutai. Both were addressed through an investigation of two “outsider artists” who were regarded as test cases for the limits of artistic practice and an inquiry into the process of creativity.13

It is within this fertile context of exchange between the former members of Zero-kai and the Gutai that Tanaka made a gradual transition from the Calendar series to a variety of highly experimental projects that moved beyond representational issues to questioning the limits of art-making. The piece that Tanaka showed at the 8th Ashiya City Exhibition, the first work to be exhibited alongside that of the Gutai, was made of fabric in three parts: one square, one rectangle, and one circle. Each part was constructed of several pieces of almost identical overlapping fabric that were glued together in such a way as to allow the edges of the piece below to peek out. Of this painting that used no paint, she commented, “I want to make paintings that are like an equation where one has forgotten a zero.”

At the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition in 1955 at the Ohara Kaikan hall in Tokyo, Tanaka exhibited another highly conceptual work. Work[s] (Yellow Cloth) (1955) was even more minimal than the first, consisting of three sheets of yellow cotton of equal heights, two of approximately the same length (2 metres) and one slightly less than double their length (3.7 metres). Simply cut from the roll, they were tacked to the wall with no further intervention. Before their entry into the matrix of the art gallery, they could have been made into a shirt, or a dress, or a tablecloth, thus questioning what constitutes an artwork.

More specifically, these works ask, “What is painting?” The fact that she submitted her work to the Western painting section (yo¯ga) of the 8th Ashiya City Exhibition, rather than to the Japanese painting section (Nihonga) suggests that the definition of Japanese painting was too rigid for Tanaka, too ingrained to be manipulated, unlike notions of Western painting.
15 Like Western artists who embraced the idea of abstract calligraphy far more easily than their Japanese counterparts, Tanaka was able to push the idea of abstraction to its absolute limit with relative ease. The same could not be said in Europe. When the French artist Yves Klein entered his first monochrome painting, Expression of the World of the Colour Lead-Orange (1955), into an open exhibition for abstract paintings in 1955, he was refused and told that “You understand, it is really not enough, but if [you] would agree at least to add a small line, or a point, or even simply a touch of another colour, we would be able to hang it.”16

Unlike Klein’s painting, which was a stretched canvas, painted, signed, and dated, Tanaka’s Work[s] (Yellow Cloth) rejected all of these signifiers of painting. Only tacked to the wall without stretcher or frame, Work[s] (Yellow Cloth) were not set apart as objects of art. The only indication that these particular pieces of fabric were paintings was the fact that they were exhibited in an art exhibition. Dyed in a factory, the works subverted both the notion of the artist as creator, and the division between surface and support that would become such a central issue for artists in the 1960s—Mark Rothko, as well as the French Supports/Surfaces group. There was little about Work[s] (Yellow Cloth) that differentiated them physically from other pieces of fabric from the same roll. It was ordinary material, presented in a way that allowed its aesthetic qualities to be seen and not overpowered by the intervention of an artist. It was the work of a woman who made her own clothes and reveled in the sensual qualities of a freshly cut piece of fabric, filled with the transformative potential of her imagination. As artist Sadamasa Motonaga commented, Work[s] (Yellow Cloth) brought art into the everyday and framed the beauty of ordinary materials and events, anticipating a central concept of “Anti-Art” in Tokyo, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combine” paintings, and Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings”:

Regarding the cloth works, there is little work in them. Most people would think, “What’s this?” because she simply places the cloth there, and these people expect technique in works of art. Beauty is not technique. People experience the beauty of unfolding cloth even in their home. The artist pointed it out as beauty. This act is very precious.

Whereas in Calendar, Tanaka made a painting in the form of a calendar, in Work[s] (Yellow Cloth), she made paintings out of yellow fabric. Not satisfied with imitating ordinary objects, she appropriated an object from everyday life, cotton cloth, and designated it as a painting. Unlike Duchamp, who left the realm of painting to make his Readymades, Tanaka expanded the definition of painting so that it could include her work. The three plain lengths of yellow cotton are separated from the world of everyday objects by an infra-thin boundary that wavers every time a viewer walks by and makes the work flutter, destroying the illusion that these swaths of fabric are a painting and not ordinary objects. The paintings do not obey any of the expected rules. Soft, not hard, and not made of marble, stone, clay, or paint on stretched canvas, Tanaka’s Work[s] (Yellow Cloth) anticipate the anti-form stances of Eva Hesse and Robert Morris. Furthermore, the idea of art as a marriage of concept and raw material furthered the Gutai notion of allowing the “cry of the material” to be heard and radicalized it, foreshadowing developments in Arte Povera and Mono-ha.

An Art of the Everyday

With Work (Bell) (1955), Tanaka turned her interest in ordinary things to the rapid proliferation of technology in everyday life. In this work, shown in the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition at the Ohara Kaikan hall in Tokyo, Tanaka connected twenty electric bells to a switch, and installed them throughout the first and second floors of the exhibition space. Approaching the work, the only cue viewers were given was a card that read, “Please feel free to push the button, Atsuko Tanaka.”19 Obeying this simple entreaty, they activated the mechanism. Tanaka explained:

The work consists of twenty electric bells connected by forty metres of cords that run all over the exhibition space. The bells will be turned on in sequence, regulated automatically by a motor, to ring one by one, the closest ones ringing loud and the farthest ones heard only faintly. It was my intention to create an acoustic composition with the differing loudness of the bell sounds.

The annoying clang of the bells is strangely compelling—lulling viewers into appreciating and reconsidering their preconceptions of beauty. The bells play on a theme that Tanaka explored throughout her work —the notion of pursuing beauty in unexpected forms. She commented, “In my work, I would like to destroy safe beauty.”
21 In any other context, the cacophony of the bells would be grating and probably communicate danger.

Despite its irritating sound, interacting with the work is extremely pleasurable. First, there is the thrill of transgression—creating a racket in the quiet space of contemplation that is the art exhibition, as well as breaching the sacred rule, “do not touch.” Second, there is the pleasure of discovery. As with Work[s] (Yellow Cloth), Work (Bell) frames a functional aspect of everyday life—emergency communication systems—and reveals formal qualities. As John Cage explored in his work with found sound and silence, Work (Bell) posits that music composition is no longer about control and the subjective production of a work so much as it is about listening to the world.

But Work (Bell) was visual nonetheless. The bells, ringing in sequence from closest to farthest, not only created an “acoustic composition” that referred to the composition of a painting, but also defined a space. In this work, Tanaka challenged the borders between different registers of experience—space, sound, sight, time—by considering the use of time and sound to articulate space and composition. Artist Sadamasa Motonaga described this synesthetic experience in visual terms in the pamphlet he prepared for the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition in 1955, describing it as “a unique [experience] in which a line is drawn clearly within one’s inner vision.”

It was not just the visual and architectural qualities of the sound experience that made Work (Bell) a work of visual art. The technical drawings that she made for the work possess a strange beauty (1955, plates 9, 10, 11, 12, 13), and her design for the switching mechanism, Notch (1955, plate 14) is also extremely visual. As with Calendar, where Tanaka shifted the discursive function of a calendar from timekeeping to art, in Notch and the preparatory drawings for Work (Bell), Tanaka explored the beauty of ordinary things and the very fine line between art and life.

Tanaka’s works expanded the boundaries of painting more than any of the other Gutai artists. In turn, it was the Gutai that stimulated her to take her experiments further, into the outdoors, and onto the stage, incorp-orating the body of the artist or the body of the viewer into the work of art. In Work (Bell), for example, Tanaka rejected the traditionally passive relationship between viewer and artwork. Without a viewer, the installation is not complete. Not only does it require a viewer to push the button, it also requires their listening ear. Without perception, Work (Bell) has no shape and is just noise. Like Bakhtin’s description of the “word” in language, Work (Bell) “is a two-sided act.”

As for many of her Gutai colleagues, the entry of the body, time, and space into the field of painting became a central concern for Tanaka from 1955 onwards. In the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition at the Ohara Kaikan hall in Tokyo, a significant number of the works illustrate experimentation with the destruction of the boundary between art and life by questioning the distance expected between a work of art and its viewer, as well as that imagined between art and its maker. Like Tanaka’s Work (Bell), Sho¯zo¯ Shimamoto’s Please Walk on Here (1956) breached the boundary between spectator and artwork, and subverted the gaze by appealing to a sense other than vision. In this work, Shimamoto constructed a rectangular box with a series of platforms inside. The viewer was invited to walk on the surface, which looked like that of a suspension bridge. Supported by springs of varying stiffness, however, each platform responded differently to the weight of the visitor, creating a composition of physical experience. Kazuo Shiraga’s Challenging Mud (1955) experimented not with incorporating the body of the viewer into the work of art, but the body of the artist. In Challenging Mud, Shiraga abandoned the canvas where he painted with his feet, and threw himself into a pile of mud, rocks, earth, and cement. Kicking, thrashing, punching, throwing, rolling, he struggled against the mud, which acted on him as he acted on it.

Yoshihara’s experimental exhibitions, which took place outdoors and eventually on a stage, were a catalyst for new art in the Gutai group. Tanaka described the contribution that Yoshihara made to her creative process in the article “Search for an Unknown Aesthetic,” in 1960. She wrote:

Our leader, Mr. Jiro¯ Yoshihara, had a unique method of nurturing our creative ideas by fostering creative activities. Under his leadership, we created and presented our works in many places, i.e., outdoors, on-stage, and indoors. By presenting our works in these hitherto unthinkable venues, we gained unexpected and valuable experiences. I believe we have made a significant statement.

I often felt strangely resistant to instantly accepting proposals, even if it was I who made the work. Each new work transformed and expanded my sensibility.

By pushing art out of the sacred space of the museum exhibition and into the spaces of real life, Yoshihara incited the Gutai artists to engage with real space, real time, and thus real materials in their works. Tanaka distinguished herself from the other Gutai artists by introducing the materials of industrialization and the aesthetics of urbanization, gesturing towards the radical changes that were taking place in the everyday life of post-war Japan.

Stripped Bare

In addition to bringing the body into the work of art, Gutai art experimented with new ways of incorporating time and three-dimensional space into the field of painting. Artist Saburo¯ Murakami commented:

Up until now, painting has not contained time as a concrete element. The Cubists present elements illustrating different aspects of time on the same surface. The Futurists try to represent movement itself. But these are still single tableaux whose entirety is taken in at once. Time is simply part of the notional content of the picture, and is expressed as no more than an image of itself.... The Gutai group’s urge for discovery demands the element of time, as well as the element of space, in order to give a full aesthetic impact. The time of space and the space of time: it consists of a notion of painting that takes on new meaning.

In 1956, Yoshihara invited two photographers from Life magazine to produce a photo essay on the Gutai. He and the Gutai artists organized the One Day Only exhibition, for which the Gutai artists focused on their performances as an all-out attempt to redefine painting on the world stage. Highly aware of the role that Life magazine played in the construction of Jackson Pollock as a star on the international art scene and therefore its importance in creating an “imagined community” for the art world, the artists set forth a clear artistic position. A reporter for the Shin Osaka shinbun aptly captured the mood of the show, which was also covered by competing newspapers as well as by the Life photographers. The title of the article was: “‘Tackling Art’ in the Spotlight: Introducing a Very Modern World in Japan.”

Tanaka most likely presented Work (Pink Cloth) (1955) and possibly Work (Bell) and Work[s] (Yellow Cloth).
27 The piece that generated the most excitement, however, was an early version of Stage Clothes (1956), a performance where the artist’s body became the “canvas” and the site of visual production.

In this performance, which she refined for the 1957 performance of Stage Clothes in Gutai Art on the Stage (1957) Tanaka first explored the concept of using her body as the site of “painting,” creating a variable composition of shape and colour through clothing. She constructed special costumes for the performance, with trick sleeves and removable panels that when taken off revealed another layer of clothing that could be pulled up, twisted, or released to create a different outfit of different shapes and colours. She performed before a camera and in front of a pink backdrop, stripping until she was down to her black leotard and tights.

Closely related to Work (Pink Cloth) and Work (Bell), Stage Clothes also explores movement in painting. With the former, Tanaka was fascinated by the undulations of the fabric’s surface in the wind. With the latter, she discovered the possibility of using movement to define and redefine a border until it became indeterminate. With Stage Clothes, she inserted her own body into the frame in the performance, thus critically engaging with the myth of Pollock.

At the same time, by inserting herself into the work, she inevitably introduced a gendered body into the arena of painting, thus shifting the main issues brought up by her work from formal problems to social concerns, such as the role of women in art, the (in)visibility of feminine sexuality, and the feminization of modern consumer culture. These issues were implicit in some of her earlier works. The cloth works were executed in materials that were linked to Tanaka’s hobby as an amateur seamstress—a pastime that could not have been more gendered in 1950s Japan, and which was, furthermore, linked to the identification of modernization with a female gendered consumer.
30 This gendered aspect of her work was not lost on her audience. Sho¯zo¯ Shimamoto writes of Work[s] (Yellow Cloth):

Among these few examples of avant-garde art, Tanaka’s work has taught me about an aesthetic sensitivity that I did not have, especially an alternate possibility of rigorous beauty that can be created from womanly sweetness and frailty. They were a great influence on me. I ask you to reconsider her works, which is why I wrote this essay.

It was not until the Stage Clothes performances, however, that gender came to the foreground in her work. Despite Tanaka’s claims to the contrary, the insertion of herself into the field of representation makes gender analysis both inevitable and important. She stated recently, “My works have nothing to do with politics …neither do they have anything to do with gender. It doesn’t matter whether I am a man or a woman.”
32 Nevertheless, when she and her husband, Akira Kanayama, were discussing the work in 1998, they brought up the response of Tanaka’s mother to the performance. Kanayama started out by saying:

She went out on stage wearing a dress and peeled off layers one by one. First, a dress of organdy appeared suddenly, and then a striped outfit was revealed. After that, she appeared almost nude. Actually, this nudity was a costume made of rubber. Her mother was there, and nearly fainted!
To which Tanaka responded, mimicking her mother’s voice, “What is my daughter doing?”

Two other versions of this work were presented on subsequent occasions. The first was in 1957 at the Gutai Art on the Stage exhibition (figs. 15, 16, 17), and the second in 1962 with the Morita Dance Company in the show, Don’t Worry! The Moon Won’t Fall! In 1957, for the Gutai Art on the Stage exhibition, she designed the entirety of the stage environment, creating a total work of art that included sound, light, costume, and stage set. The backdrop of the performance was an enormous red dress, four metres tall with nine-metre-long sleeves and two legs sticking out the bottom (plate 21).
35 From under the dress, Tanaka emerged wearing a shiny, loose-fitting bottle green dress in organza, with one yellow sock and one green sock. In a series of quick changes that lasted no more than a few seconds each, Tanaka removed the sleeves of her green dress, then the mid-section to reveal a yellow dress that was instantly transformed into a fuchsia chiffon evening gown that unrolled from the hem of the yellow dress. Seconds later, she removed the fuchsia dress to reveal the yellow dress again, which she transformed into a yellow-and-black striped dress by peeling off pieces of the yellow dress, the way one would peel an orange. Down to her black leotard and tights, the performance seemed over, but then Tanaka revealed yet another costume, which she removed from her gloves. Twirling her arms in the air vigorously, she caused two streams of fabric to emerge from the gloves—one yellow and one pink, which she draped over her body. This became the final outfit, a dress that was yellow on one side, and pink on the other. After that, the artist disappeared back under the large red dress, and two figures dressed in costumes made of coloured flashing light bulbs came on stage against the backdrop of a large cruciform dress, also covered in lights.

Unsafe Beauty

Perhaps Tanaka’s best-known work, Electric Dress (1956) initiated a vocabulary of circles and lines, which she elaborated in her paintings and drawings from 1956 onwards. As with Work (Bell), Electric Dress was a response to the sudden changes in the material conditions of everyday life. As art historian Françoise Levaillant pointed out in her article, “Japan in the 50s: The Electric Costumes of Atsuko Tanaka,” the Gutai emerged at a time when Japan was rapidly industrializing, and everyday life was being suffused by the influx of technology.36 After the economic hardships of the immediate post-war period from 1945 to 1949, Japan’s fortunes changed in 1950 with the start of the Korean War. Needing supplies and support for the war, the United States jump-started the Japanese economy, with a significant impact on the aesthetics of everyday life.37

Everywhere—in the home, on the street, at the workplace, in parks—the Japanese were inundated with advertisements cajoling them to consume. In fact, it was thanks to the neon signs and the culture of advertising that Tanaka came up with the idea for Electric Dress. She commented:

For a long time I tried to come up with an interesting idea. After half a year or so, I was seated on a bench at the Osaka station, and I saw a billboard featuring a pharmaceutical advertisement, brightly illuminated by neon lights. This was it! I would make a neon dress!

In the end, the Electric Dress was actually made of blinking incandescent lights covered with red, blue, yellow, and green enamel paint. It was a fantastic, other-worldly costume that made the wearer glow eerily and, due to its weight and awkwardness, move with ghost-like slowness. Flashing on a circuit, the shapes and colours of the figure wearing the costume changed constantly, giving the impression of a body in constant motion even when standing still.

Uniting art and technology, the Electric Dress captured the hustle-bustle of the modern city and embodied the aesthetic of urban life. However, like modernity, and in particular modernity in post-Hiroshima Japan, the Electric Dress was not simply a celebration of light, technology, and spectacle. It was a far more ambivalent machine that showed the destructive as well as the creative potential of technology. Tanaka described the experience of trying on the dress for the first time:

When it was finished, I was uncomfortable about the electrical connections.
Since somebody had to wear it, I covered myself with vinyl and put the electric dress on. The moment Mr. Sannomiya said, “I am turning the electricity on,” I had the fleeting thought: Is this how a death-row inmate would feel?

More appropriate might have been a birth metaphor, not unlike that of Japanese post-war pop culture figures Mighty Atom (Tetsuwan Atomu) or Godzilla (Gojira), who also came to life with the flick of a switch. Mighty Atom (known as Astro Boy in North America) was created in 1951 by his “father,” Dr. Tenma, who was disillusioned by the misuse of technology in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla, a lizard mutated by atomic testing in the Pacific, was also inspired by the anxieties of the post-nuclear age. The Electric Dress embodied the ambivalence towards technology that was characteristic of post-war Japan. It was at once a flashy costume that seduced the eye and the imagination, and an unsafe instrument that threatened to electrocute the wearer, tear down the boundaries of painting, and make uncanny reference to the effects of nuclear war.

The Electric Dress also inspired a new idiom in Tanaka’s work that brought together her interest in schematic and technical representation from the Calendar period with the electrical works Work (Bell) and Electric Dress. It is from the technical drawings made in preparation for the construction of these two works that Tanaka’s later vocabulary of painting evolved. In particular, plans for Electric Dress provided the vocabulary for her drawings and paintings after 1957. The plans consisted of three types of drawings: architectural (fig. 19), which defined the structural support of the dress, electrical (fig. 20), which determined the wiring, and textile (fig. 21), which designed the “fabric” of the dress. Inspired by these plans, Tanaka created a series of drawings inspired by the Electric Dress (plates 29–47). These works, although now often misconstrued as the actual technical plans for the Electric Dress, were created after the construction of the work. Almost monumental in scale, they contrast with the tiny, intimate scale of the technical drawings and were made to be shown with the Electric Dress. At the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, the Electric Dress was exhibited against a wall covered in twenty Drawing[s] after “Electric Dress.” The overall impression of the installation was not that of technical plans displayed to explain the creation of the exhibited dress, but rather a visual meditation on the endless combinations of colour and shape made possible by Tanaka’s machine. The Drawing[s] after “Electric Dress” were conceptually and visually distinct from the technical drawings, even the “textile” drawings that most resemble her later works because of their common vocabulary of lines and circles. In the “textile” drawings, the lines and circles are used to make a “fabric,” which in one case is literally cut out like a sewing pattern to create a garment maquette. The lines and circles are quite regular, and sketch out the structure of the actual dress when it is turned off. The Drawing[s] after “Electric Dress” are not prescriptive. Rather, they seem to record and imagine fleeting impressions of the Electric Dress as sections of it flash on and off, revealing new form through technology with every passing moment.

Tanaka’s interest in technology was shared by her future husband. Kanayama began making his Machine Drawings in 1957, which were a critique of automatism and the value it placed on self-expression through gestural painting. Kanayama’s Machine Drawings were made by attaching a can of quick-drying paint to an automatic toy car that created paintings whether or not the artist was even in the room, prefiguring the Métamatic painting machines that the Swiss artist, Jean Tinguely, began to build in 1959. Both Kanayama and Tanaka used technology as a mark-making instrument. By using a vocabulary of form that had technological rather than psychological origins, Kanayama and Tanaka launched a conceptual attack on the Informel and Abstract Expressionist idea that art could or should be an expression of the soul, poured out and worked on a canvas.

Having incorporated technology in her work, Tanaka freed herself from the idea of painting as a transparent expression of the soul and was able to return to a medium whose possibilities she felt she had expanded through the experiments discussed in this essay. Using the motifs she explored in Drawing[s] after “Electric Dress” (1956), Tanaka began painting again on canvas, using only lines and circles. These paintings balance precariously between the memory of technical drawings and the creation of a new visual language for a technologically ambitious post-war Japan. For almost half a century now, she has painted nothing else, creating a complex visual system out of two simple elements.

The paintings grew out of Tanaka’s revolutionary artistic experiments that began with Calendar and culminated with Electric Dress. It was through this early body of work that Tanaka launched a critical attack on automatist gesturality, the orthodox mode of expression for her generation. Her works brought a level of conceptual sophistication to the Gutai that encouraged the group to question the boundaries of art. In turn, Yoshihara encouraged Tanaka to develop her critique of gesturality through innovative exhibitions outdoors and on stage that acted as a catalyst for works such as Work (Bell), Stage Clothes, and Electric Dress that were milestones in the history of art, and conceptual keys to electrifying painting.

1 The exhibition was the Kirin Children’s Art Exhibition, sponsored by Kirin (Giraffe), a children’s art and poetry journal.

2 Until recently, canonical accounts of art history situated the move away from the canvas, breaching the boundary between art and life, in the work of Allan Kaprow. In a history of modern Japanese art that distinction has generally gone to the Anti-Art movement—a group of Neo-Dada inspired artists exhibiting at the Yomiuri Indépendant from the 1960s. My argument is that in both a Japanese context, and on the larger international stage, Gutai should be considered the first group to have taken this critical stance.

3 The first large-scale investigation of the avant-garde in Japan was Japon des avant gardes, exh. cat. (Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1986). Another excellent source is Alexandra Munroe, ed. Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky, exh. cat. (New York: Harry N. Abrams,1994).
On the Gutai, consult Munroe’s essay in Scream Against the Sky, titled “To Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun: The Gutai Group,” as well as Shin’ichiro Osaki’s essay “Action in Post-War Japan” in Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979, Paul Schimmel, ed., exh. cat. (London: Thames and Hudson and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998); and Ming Tiampo, Florence de Mèredieu, and Atsuo Yamamoto, eds. Gutai: Moments de Destruction, Moments de Beauté (Paris: Blusson, 2002).
See alsoTanaka Atsuko: Michi no bi no tankyu¯, 1954–2000/Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954–2000, exh. cat. (Ashiya: Ashiya City Museum of Art & History and Shizuoka: Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, 2001).

4 Gestural abstraction, also known as lyric abstraction or “hot” abstraction, was the dominant language of painting in Japan, Europe, and the United States. It is generally known as Informel or “Art autre” in Europe, Abstract Expressionism in the United States, and Anformeru in Japan.

5 John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 121.

6 For further information on Genbi, consult Alexandra Munroe, “Circle: Modernism and Tradition,” Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, exh. cat. (New York: Abrams, 1994), 125–137. On Reportage painting, consult Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan, 1945–1965, exh. cat. (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1985).

7 Dower, Embracing Defeat, 38. The image of a faded cherry blossom fluttering to the ground is a metaphor that has been used in Japan to describe the death of warriors in their prime since the time of the samurai. It is an image of sadness and beauty in Japanese culture that encapsulates the fleetingness of life.

8 Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Gruber, and Germaine Richier represented the human body in a fragile, wounded and broken idiom that was self-consciously opposed to the Fascist obsession with the idealized bodies of classical Greece. For more on this subject, consult Francis Morris, ed. Paris Post-War: Art and Existentialism, 1945–55 (London: Tate Gallery, 1993).

9 This work was displayed in the only Zero-kai exhibition, which took place in 1954 in the shop window of the Sogo¯ department store in Osaka.

10 Despite the fact that independent artists’ groups in Japan were much freer and less hierarchical than the official salons run by the government, groups like the Gutai were still often run by a leader who had control over the group’s intellectual and creative objectives, as well as final say over what would be exhibited. In Yoshihara’s case, he maintained this “teacher-student” relationship with the group’s members until his death in 1972. This hierarchical relationship became increasingly rare in the post-war period. Gutai was an exception, along with the avant-garde group Jikken Ko¯bo¯ or Experimental Workshop (under Shu¯zo¯ Takiguchi) the Demokura¯to Bijutsuka Kyo¯kai or Democratic Artists’ Association (under Ei-kyu¯) and Hokubi or Northern Art (under Hidetaro¯ Tsuchioka). For further reading on collectivism in post-war Japan, see Reiko Tomii, “After the Descent to the Mundane: Japanese Collectivism from Hi Red Center to The Play, 1964–1973” in Collectivism After Modernism, Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2005).

11 The following Gutai members were also members of Genbi until they all left in 1955: Akira Kanayama, Toshiko Kinoshita, Yutaka Funai, Yasuo Sumi, Yoshio Sekine, Kazuo Shiraga, Sho¯zo¯ Shimamoto, Atsuko Tanaka, Keizo¯ Tanaka, Chiyu¯ Uemae, Tsuruko Yamazaki, Toshio Yoshida, Jiro¯ Yoshihara, Michio Yoshihara.

12 Sho¯zo¯ Shimamoto, interview with the author, May 6, 2002.

13 The artists in question are: Michiko Inui, a sixth grader who made exceptional abstract paintings, and Toshiko Kinoshita, a chemistry teacher who made paintings by mixing chemicals, spreading them on a piece of paper, and waiting for a reaction to occur and produce a colourful “painting” with no other intervention. When writing about Kinoshita’s work, Shimamoto addressed two key issues—her technique, which allowed the materials to determine the final form of her paintings, and its implications for the definition of art. He wrote, “…the artist is trying to explore a new dimension of art through concept, totally opposite to the majority of those who regard themselves as avant-garde…we can look at this whole event as a new challenge to define the boundaries of what we call modern art.” Sho¯zo¯ Shimamoto, “Commentary on the Works of Kinoshita Toshiko,” Gutai, no. 2 (1955).

14 Review of the 8th Ashiya City Exhibition, “In Search of Eccentricity at the Ashiya City Exhibition: On Western Painting Made of Woven Fabric,” Mainichi shinbun, June 9, 1955.

15 After the Meiji restoration of 1868, which ended centuries of isolationism, Japan invited Western scholars of all disciplines to come and teach. Young Japanese scholars and artists were also encouraged to study in Europe in order to gain what the government saw as the necessary knowledge to modernize and thus compete on the world stage. The arts, and in particular oil painting, which became known as yo¯ga—literally “occidental painting”—were seen as a way of understanding the European world view and thus advancing Japanese culture by introducing principles of visual resemblance, space, and perspective into representation. Among the Europeans invited to teach at the yo¯ga painting division of the Ko¯bu bijutsu gakko¯ (School of Art and Industry) established in 1876, was the Italian Barbizon School painter, Antonio Fontanesi. Nihonga (Japanese painting) emerged in the 1880s as a nationalist response to yo¯ga. The proponents of Nihonga, which included American scholar Ernest Fenollosa, his colleague Okakura Tenshin, and the members of the conservative Ryu¯chi-kai (Dragon Lake Society), accused yo¯ga artists of destroying Japanese tradition for the sake of modernity. Rather, Nihonga sought to incorporate techniques of Western art into a vocabulary of Japanese painting. Nihonga is typically executed in ink or pigment in a glue-based medium, on silk or paper, and in a traditional format such as hanging scroll, hand-scroll or screen. Yo¯ga and Nihonga continue to be taught and exhibited separately. See Reiko Tomii, “Yo¯ga” and “Nihonga” in Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture, Sandra Buckley, ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), 578–79, 355–56.

16 Yves Klein, “Mon Livre” (photocopy), Yves Klein Archives, Paris. The salon was the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, 1955.

17 Sadamasa Motonaga, A Handbook for Gutai Art, brochure printed for the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition, 1955.

18 Art historian Barbara Bertozzi argues that the Gutai’s significant presence in Turin in 1959 and 1960 could have directly influenced the development of Arte Povera, which was also in Turin. The convincing examples that she cites include Michaelangelo Pistoletto’s work with smoke and Pino Pascali’s performances in mud. Barbara Bertozzi, “On the Origins of the New Avant-Garde: The Japanese Association of Gutai Artists,” Gutai: Japanese Avant-Garde, 1954–1965. (Darmstadt: Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt, 1991), 58–62.

19 Miyuki Minami, “The Message of Absence: A Note on Work,” Tanaka Atsuko: Michi no bi no tankyu¯, 1954–2000/Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954–2000, exh. cat. (Ashiya: Ashiya City Museum of Art & History and Shizuoka: Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, 2001), 158.

20 Atsuko Tanaka, from an interview with the artist. Asahi shinbun, evening edition, November 24, 1955.

21 The destruction of “safe beauty” was the theme of her 1956 series Untitled on paper. In these works, Tanaka explicitly negated the use of “pretty” colours and the traditional shapes of geometric abstraction—circle, rectangle, square—by crossing out these forms with messy (formless, undisciplined) “X” marks. In her gallery talk at the exhibition opening, Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954–2000, the artist described these works, saying, “I drew a circle, and crossed it out…too pretty! A square…too pretty! A rectangle… too pretty!” March 3, 2001.

22 Sadamasa Motonaga, A Handbook for Gutai Art, brochure printed for the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition, 1955.

23 V.N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans., Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 86. It is likely that the book was partly written by or under the influence of Bakhtin.

24 Atsuko Tanaka, “Search for an Unknown Aesthetic,” Geijutsu shincho¯ 11, no. 1 (January 1960), 271–272.

25 Saburo¯ Murakami, “On Gutai Art,” Gutai, no. 7 (1957).

26 Review of the One Day Only Gutai Art Exhibition, “Tackling Art in the Spotlight: Introducing a Very Modern World in Japan,” Shin Osaka, April 9, 1956.

27 Ibid.

28 Review of the One Day Only Gutai Art Exhibition, “Life Magazine Introduces the Gutai Group” Sankei shinbun, April 9, 1956.

29 The art critic Clement Greenberg promoted Jackson Pollock as his generation’s most important painter. Pollock’s reputation was, however, cemented internationally with an article in Life magazine entitled “Jackson Pollock: Is he the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” (August 8, 1949). In 1951, photographs of Pollock painting in his studio by Hans Namuth were published in ARTnews, revolutionizing artists’ portraiture and the status of process in painting. These photographs were important to Yoshihara, who published them in the journal Gutai, no. 6 (1957), along with an article by B.H. Friedman.

30 Dower, Embracing Defeat, 170. Begun as a “symbol of liberation from the drab poverty and anti-westernism of the war years,” the dressmaking boom was exemplified by the highly successful chain of dressmaking schools opened by designer Yoshiko Sugino in 1946.

31 Sho¯zo¯ Shimamoto, Gutai, no. 4, special edition for the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition.

32 Atsuko Tanaka, Symposium at UCLA, February 8, 1998, from Atsuko Tanaka: Another Gutai, prod. and dir. Aomi Okabe, 45 min. Ufer films, 1998, videocassette.

33 Atsuko Tanaka and Akira Kanayama, from Atsuko Tanaka: Another Gutai, prod. and dir. Aomi Okabe, 45 min. Ufer films, 1998, videocassette.

34 Ibid.

35 With Tanaka’s permission and assistance, we have reconstructed Work (Red Dress) for Electrifying Art.

36 Françoise Levaillant, “Au Japon dans les années 50: les costumes électriques de Tanaka Atsuko,” Bulletin d’histoire de l’electricité, nos. 19–20 (June–December), 1992, 21–44. Reprinted in Tanaka Atsuko: Michi no bi no tankyu¯, 1954–2000/Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954–2000, exh. cat. (Ashiya: Ashiya City Museum of Art & History and Shizuoka: Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, 2001), 34–42

37 From 1950 to 1953, the U.S. spent $2.3 billion on “special procurements” from Japan for the Korean War. This amount was more than the total aid the Japanese received from the Americans between 1945 and 1951. Even after the Korean War ended, the U.S. continued to pump money into the Japanese economy, making another $1.75 billion in purchases from 1954 to 1956.

38 Atsuko Tanaka, “When I Make My Work,” The National Museum of Art, Osaka, monthly newsletter, no. 81 (June 1999) (originally published as “Seisaku ni atatte,” Kokuritsu Kokusai Bijutsukan geppo¯). Included in the Anthology of this catalogue. See page 104.

39 The Electric Dress was made of a metal structure through which wires and sockets were trellised and into which painted incandescent bulbs and tubes (resembling the short fluorescent light bulbs available in North America) were inserted. The first version was powered by an electric circuit that made the bulbs flash sequentially, while the 1986 reconstruction is controlled by a computer. The Electric Dress consisted of several versions with blinking light bulbs in different shapes and colours. The sequence began with a dress of colourless battery-powered miniature bulbs. The blinking rate gradually increased, as the performer changed into dresses with 100-volt coloured bulbs, coloured tubes, and bulbs covered with enamel paint. In the end, the dress blinked in an incessant, chaotic manner. Included in the Anthology of this catalogue, p. 102.

40 Ibid.

41 Tanaka and Kanayama believe that this distinction between their work and that of Gutai artists involved in “Action Painting” should lead to a reconsideration of their work apart from that of the Gutai group. I would, however, argue that our conceptions of Gutai need to be broadened to include the incredible diversity of their works, not just the Action Painting and performance that were made famous in the West by Michel Tapié and Allan Kaprow.