Possibly proof of Japan’s miraculous determination following WWII, the exhibition Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde at MoMA demonstrates a manifold of approaches to making artworks in Japan’s post-war period. A show of elusive paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and videos, the broad selection embodies radical dissent, new political visions, and revelations (though not always convincing), all of which result from an artist community’s attempt to reestablish itself in a westernized world. Though the show is a little packed, it is demonstrative of the multifarious works made during this period. While the show spans a rather small amount of time – just fifteen years – it has a rapid rate of growth, somewhat astonishing as one strolls through the space. One of the most visible progressions in Japan’s art-world would have to be their increasing proclivity towards the fantastic. As time moves on for them, the art gets weirder and more immersed in fantasy. This could be looked at in several different ways, but to say that it is a direct response to a moment of intense destruction followed by a patriarchal rebuilding by the USA does not seem to be too far off point.
The first works one encounters in the show, and arguably the strongest, are paintings that equally recall surrealism from the west and socialist realism from the east. Three works by Nakamura Hiroshi hang next to each other, titled Period of War (Sensōki) (1958), Period of Peace (Heiwaki) (1958), and Upheaval (Nairanki) (1958). They are three gritty, surreal, pseudo-landscapes, executed in a range of ochres and yellows. They suggest a period of destruction that has just occurred, as obviously one just had; but they simultaneously point towards some new vision of what will come. Just as the phoenix rises from the ashes of a fire, so too did the Japanese artists feel the necessity to rise back from the atrocious bombing they had endured. This theme is prevalent throughout the first large room of paintings – the ones that were completed in the earliest part of the exhibition’s survey. Other works competing to explicate this theme are Ishi Shigeo’s desperate paintings Acrobatics (Kyokugei) (1956), and Under Martial Law (Kaigen jōtai IV) (1956). Acrobatics shows a mass of nude figures in geometric stances, writhing against and with each other in a menagerie of despondency. The figures in Acrobatics are crushed by the sheer force of other people, just as in Under Martial Law – though in the latter picture figures are crushed by ambiguous orbs falling from above, which could clearly reference airplane attacks by dropping shells on people with no defenses.
In the second room are a selection of works that have more frequent dissimilarities, but still run the theme of Japanese artists’ aggressive progress through the 1950s and into the 1960s. The first works that really stick out are a pair of vitrines by Yamaguchi Katsuhiro, which give the optical illusion of movement in watercolor paintings on paper that are placed beneath textured glass in the vitrine. The smaller of the two is titled Vitrine: Deep into the Night (1954), and as one passes by it, the delusive vision of lines moving up and down and side-to-side can be seen. These works are certainly pointing to a more playful tone than the melancholy and anxiety that can be found in the paintings of the first room. As one moves through the exhibition, this is really the quality that becomes most apparent: a suppression of negativity in favor of the weird and the mischievous. As conceptualism is starting to be accepted (along with Fluxus, and other movements of the 1960s), many of these Japanese artists begin to take an approach towards production that is not unlike that of their Western counterparts, though they never lose those formal characteristics that make their works definitively Japanese (the qualities mentioned thus far). As the decades move past the war, the tendency to make irascible paintings starts to disappear letting more challenging works taking their place.
Towards the end of the exhibition works start to become more familiar to western audiences, with well-known artists like Yoko Ono, sculptor Lee Ufan, and photographer Daido Moriyama making a presence. This signifies the real acceptance of Japanese art into the art canon, with their works beginning to take on a wider historical importance. And in the graphic design pieces of the exhibition’s final room, it is easy to see the precursors of illustration-bound artists like Takashi Murakami, Aya Takano, and Chiho Aoshima. The moribund of intensity is replaced by a fantasy of invention in most of the later works in the show. And this ideal of the fantastic operates as a cathartic therapy for the artists who experienced life during and directly after the war. This reading of the works is non-controversial, and should be embraced in order to best understand the strictly linear narrative of art making in post-war Japan.
Tokyo 1955 – 1970: A New Avant-Garde, until February 25, MoMA, 11 West 53 Street New York, NY 10019.
1. Yokoo Tadanori. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Sōzōsha) (Shinjuku dorobō nikki [Sōzōsha]). 1968. Screenprint. 39 1/4 x 28″ (99.7 x 71.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer. © 2012 Yokoo Tadanori
2. Moriyama Daidō. Baton Twirler (Baton towarā). 1967. Gelatin silver print. 18 7/8 x 14 11/16″ (48.1 x 37.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer. © 2012 Moriyama Daidō
3. 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