Rediscovering a Japanese Artist’s Elegant Conceptualism


Possible career path for a woman artist: Early on, create a work so startlingly iconic that for historians it dwarfs all your subsequent productions. Think of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup; Jay DeFeo’s weighty painting The Rose; and Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress (1956). When, risking electrocution, the then 24-year-old Japanese artist wore this brightly colored tangle of wires, tubes, and bulbs, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still a recent memory. Tanaka and her cohorts in Gutai—the Osaka-based, post-war avant-garde movement—were aiming for a radical art embodying the mortal dangers and gaudy delights of a newly industrialized society.

A cross between a kimono, a Christmas tree, and the old Times Square, Electric Dress still steals the show at the Grey Art Gallery’s Tanaka retrospective, one of the first for a Gutai artist in the West. But other pleasures are also to be had there. In her early, delicate collages and paintings—inspired by a prolonged hospital stay that left her hallucinating over the days on the calendar—numbers appear to feverish, mystical effects.

Sheets of fabric hung against the wall and paintings of abstract forms marked with an X (Tanaka’s attempt to “escape prettiness”) betray an elegant conceptualism. Her later drawings and canvases—riffs on her most famous work—employ circles and lines in eye-popping colors to suggest systems ranging from electrical circuitry and the orbit of the planets to the body’s interior networks. (This vibrant septuagenarian’s more recent paintings are on view at Paula Cooper, 534 West 21st Street, through October 23.) And don’t miss, downstairs, the archival films showing Gutai members leaping through paper screens, wrestling with mud, and pouring hot tar à la Pollock. Tanaka stands out, performing an elaborate striptease with the aid of trick clothing that she sheds and unfurls repeatedly, and from which her lithe body finally emerges, as if from a chrysalis, newborn.