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MoMA exhibition focuses on the transformation of Japan's capital into a center of the Avant-Garde
Ay-O. Pastoral (Den’en). 1956. Oil on panel. 72 1/16″ x 12′ 1 13/16″ (183 x 370.4 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. © Ay-O, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

NEW YORK, NY.- MoMA presents Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, the first museum exhibition to focus on the city of Tokyo during the remarkable period from the mid-1950s through the 1960s, when the city transformed itself from the capital of a war-torn nation into an international center for arts, culture, and commerce. The exhibition is on view from November 18, 2012, to February 25, 2013. Following past MoMA exhibitions focused on artmaking in Japan—including The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture (1965) and New Japanese Photography (1974)—Tokyo 1955–1970 draws from MoMA’s collection of Japanese works across curatorial departments in addition to over 100 works on loan from important public and private collections in Japan and the United States. Reflecting the numerous multidisciplinary crossings that characterized the postwar Japanese avant-garde centered in Tokyo at the time, the exhibition encompasses many mediums—including painting, sculpture, photography, drawings, graphic design, architecture, video, and documentary film—with over 200 works on view by more than 60 artists and art collectives. The exhibition brings together some of the most iconic works from the period, as well as works recently discovered or reevaluated by new scholarship. Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde is organized by Doryun Chong, Associate Curator, with Nancy Lim, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition is co-organized and supported by The Japan Foundation.

Tokyo 1955–1970 begins in MoMA’s sixth floor lobby by focusing on Metabolism, one of the most significant movements in 20th-century architecture, which emerged at the time of the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo, through the initiative of a group of young Japanese architects. The Metabolists, motivated by Tokyo's urgent need for systematic urban infrastructural growth, envisioned flexible, expandable, and technologically advanced megastructures built along linear axes. Included is a photographic reproduction of the first large-scale, unrealized plan to synthesize these ideas, Tange Kenzō’s A Plan for Tokyo 1960, a three-level megastructure that combined transportation systems, offices, and commercial and residential spaces that projected into and spanned the Tokyo Bay. Metabolist designs that were realized and are represented in the exhibition include Tange’s national gymnasiums for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and Kurokawa Kishō’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower Building.

The first gallery focuses on the mid-1950s, when Tokyo witnessed a strong, socially conscious, even activist tendency in painting, drawing, and printmaking. Many artists used art to represent and document the traumatic aftereffects of the war, the difficult lives of the proletariat, and social injustices. During that decade surrealism, which had thrived in Japan in the 1930s, again exerted a powerful influence and gave rise to the avant-garde aesthetics of these artists, which was often called Reportage Painting. By the mid-1950s, painting had shifted away from earlier social realist style toward a more complex relationship with social concerns and imagemaking, mutating into bizarre, fantastical, and even abstract forms. This section includes works by Okamoto Tarō, Hamada Chimei, Ikeda Tatsuo, Yayoi Kusama, Yamashita Kikuji, On Kawara, and Ay-O, among others, including Tatsuo’s noted painting Arm (Ude) (1953), On Kawara’s large-scale painting Stones Thrown (1956), and Kikuji’s surrealistic Totems (Oto otemu) (1951), an important precursor to the tendency represented in this section.

Jikken Kōbō/Experimental Workshop, Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai (Gutai art association), and Sogetsu Art Center are the focus of the following sections. Active throughout the 1950s, the collective Jikken Kōbō/Experimental Workshop exemplified the tendency of artists to cross genres, which was an important characteristic of the art world in Tokyo during the postwar years. The group comprised 14 members—visual artists and music composers, a lighting designer, an engineer, and a musicologist—who came together around the influential critic Takiguchi Shūzō. The group was also highly interested in an amalgamation of art and technology, in reflection of the increasingly industrializing and modernizing conditions in postwar Japan. Works on view include Matsumoto Toshio’s short film Bicycle in Dream (Ginrin) (1955) and Kitadai Shōzō’s Another World (Mishiranu sekai no hanashi) (1953) with music by Yuasa Jōji, an installation that combines slide projections with music. In 1954, a group of young enterprising artists formed Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai (Gutai art association) (1954–1972) under the leadership of the older and charismatic artist and mentor Yoshihara Jirō. Although firmly based in the Western Kansai (OsakaKobe) region, the collective strategically presented itself in Tokyo by self organizing group exhibitions and stage performances in its first years of existence. Gutai is best known for its members’ early actions, such as Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud (Doro ni idomu) (1955), Tanaka Atsuko’s Electric Dress (Denki-fuku) (1956), and Murakami Saburō’s Paper-Breaking (Kami yaburi) performances, created as they developed their signature individual styles. Included in the exhibition are works by these Gutai artists, along with those of their colleague Motonaga Sadamasa.

In existence from 1958 to 1972, the Sogetsu Art Center was an extraordinary hub of experimental arts in Tokyo, presenting an ongoing series of experimental cinema, jazz, and classical avant-garde music. From 1961 to 1964, in particular, the center functioned as an unparalleled nucleus of interdisciplinary experiments and international exchanges. Figures such as Ichiyanagi Toshi, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik, and visiting luminaries of the American avantgarde such as John Cage, David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg, all performed at the center, connecting Tokyo with the international art world, especially New York. On view are graphic scores, instruction art, and printed matter by Ono, Ichiyanagi, and artists who would soon become important members of Fluxus, such as Shiomi Mieko and Kubota Shigeko.

The next sections look at the Yomiuri Indépendant exhibition and burgeoning performance art. Since the prewar era in Japan, there had been an established tradition of newspaper companies organizing and sponsoring art exhibitions. In the postwar years, the most important was the Yomiuri Indépendant exhibition (1949–63), an annual, non-juried salon that became a significant venue for the emerging generation of artists and the critical fulcrum of the avantgarde. In its final years, the radical air around the exhibition—with artists creating provocative, bodily sculptures or installations often made out of detritus—grew to such an extent that the work of the young exhibiting artists was widely called “Anti-Art.” Works on view from the Yomiuri Indépendant exhibition include pieces by Arakawa Shūsaku, Kojima Nobuaki, Kudō Tetsumi, Kikuhata Mokuma, and Miki Tomio, such as Kojima’s Untitled resin sculptures of figures wrapped in red-and-white fabric, and Kudō’s monumental 1961-62 installation, Philosophy of Impotence, which features hundreds of oblong objects made from discarded industrial materials, which the artist characterized as “phallus/chrysalis.”

Many of the artists who participated in the Yomiuri Indépendant also formed artist collectives that often organized guerrilla-style actions. Active from 1963 to 1964, one collective, Hi Red Center, consisted of three main members (Takamatsu Jirō, Akasegawa Genpei, and Nakanishi Natsuyuki) along with other associates. Using a red exclamation mark as their logo, Hi Red Center sought to bring art out of institutional or commercial spaces and into the “space of everyday activities.” In the process, their work not only rejected the decorum and hierarchies dictated by the mainstream art establishment, but also satirized the state’s efforts to regulate the proliferation of information, people, and objects in Tokyo. Some of the better-known actions by the group include Shelter Plan, an invitation-only event at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel staged in January 1964. For this work, guests, including Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik, were subjected to meticulous and bizarre physical examinations for the purpose of creating custom-fitted, single-person nuclear fallout shelters. This section of the exhibition also features a documentary on another important artist collective, Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension). This section also looks at the Model 1,000-Yen-Note Incident (Mokei sen-en-satsu jiken) (1964–70). In the early 1960s, Akasegawa Genpei (who emerged in the late 1950s as part of the new generation of artists and a member of Hi Red Center) created a series of works based on the Japanese 1,000-yen note. Akasegawa made an enlarged photorealistic reproduction of the note and ordered one-sided copies from printers. Using uncut sheets of the reproduced notes, he also covered wood panels and wrapped everyday and household objects. In early 1964, Akasegawa was visited by police detectives and investigated for copying the bills, and his wrapped objects and panel works were confiscated as evidence. Akasegawa was subsequently subjected to a protracted prosecution and trial through the rest of the decade, and his ordeal became a rallying point for many involved in the arts and culture in Tokyo. Included in the exhibition is a selection of Akasegawa’s “Anti-Art” objects, which became marshaled by the police as evidence of his allegedly illegal activity and had to be defended by the art community as “art works.”

The exhibition next focuses on Japanese Pop art and sculpture in the 1960s. Painters such as Tateishi Kōichi (Tiger Tateishi) and Nakamura Hiroshi—formerly a social-realist painter devoted to representing hardships of commoners during the postwar years—began to engage a wholly different set of subjects such as popular culture, subcultural fetishes, mythologies, and imaginary worlds. Along with Ushio Shinohara, who was greatly attracted to American art, they led what may be defined as Japanese Pop art. Works on view include Tateishi’s painting Samurai, the Watcher (Kôya no yôjinbô) (1965) and Shinohara’s sculpture Coca-Cola Plan (1964). By the end of the 1960s, sculptural practice also changed, shifting away from the corporeality that had been prominent in many avant-garde works presented in the final years of the Yomiuri Indépendant exhibition. Artists turned with increasing frequency to issues of optics and perception, and spatiality and materiality. In the final years of the decade, a new generation of artists emerged, deeply engaged with the relational phenomena of matter in space by combining organic and industrial materials. Soon known as Mono-ha (School of Things), the loose, informal group included Sekine Nobuo, Narita Katsuhiko, and Lee Ufan, the group’s strongest theoretical voice, all of whom are represented in the exhibition.

The final gallery focuses on photography and graphic design. Photography was an extremely fertile field in Japan during this time period, and some of the most important artists in the field developed their work around two cooperatives, Vivo and Provoke. Modeled after the successful Magnum Photos collective, Vivo was formed in 1959 by six photographers, including Hosoe Eikō, Kawada Kikuji, and Tōmatsu Shōmei. Though the photographers’ individual styles and contents differed greatly, their shared belief in photography as an art form introduced to Japan a new understanding of the medium and its roles. In 1968, marking a stylistic departure, a small group of young photographers—including Moriyama Daidō—formed Provoke, with the aim of seeking a new photographic language that could adequately respond to the chaotic social and cultural changes exploding through urban Tokyo in the late 1960s. Works by these artists are drawn from MoMA’s extensive collection of Japanese photography.

Graphic design, another traditionally strong discipline in Japan, experienced a breakthrough in the 1960s. A new generation of graphic designers, including Sugiura Kohei, Awazu Kiyoshi, and Yokoo Tadanori, were motivated to rebel against modernist aesthetics and its harmonious compositions. Drawing liberally and creatively from mass culture as well as folk cultural iconography, they experimented with techniques of collage, montage, and superimposition, reflecting the hybridity of their visual languages. In addition to these designers, painters such as Nakamura Hiroshi and Tateishi Kōichi (Tiger Tateishi) produced a large number of illustrations and graphic designs, further contributing to creating a vigorously boundary-crossing cultural landscape, where the high and the low intermingled fluidly.

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