‘A Visual Essay on Gutai’ Sees Japan Reborn


‘A Visual Essay on Gutai’

In 1954, the year a radiation-born monster named Godzilla first stomped across movie screens in Japan as a symbol of atomic catastrophe, a number of the country’s young artists vowed to get beyond defeat and destruction. They called themselves the Gutai Art Association, issued a manifesto rejecting everything traditional, and began an expressive, experimental free-for-all, often prefiguring celebrated Western impulses in abstraction, conceptualism, and performance. A kind of preview for the Guggenheim’s major Gutai retrospective in February, this engaging exhibit—mostly paintings from the 1950s and ’60s—attests to the group’s bold invention.

Although Gutai members declared the past off-limits, it’s not difficult to discern the influence of the Bomb. Two pieces by Saburo Murakami (perhaps best known for giddily running through sheets of framed paper) suggest detonation. In one, a dark red flame and a snaking smoke-like line rise from a smoldering black heap, while in the other a messy red circle sits underneath a field of rich blue like the fireball on that clear Hiroshima day. Supporting the references, plaster heaped on the canvases makes it appear that things have melted.

The mushroom cloud, too, is unmistakable in abstractions by Sadamasa Motonaga. From 1963, an eerie black plume pushes upward over blank space, trailing tendrils you can imagine as ash, and carrying a debris of attached stones. Upstairs, Yasuo Sumi’s muddy chaos, much of it in the color of dried blood, brings to mind the void of ground zero: parallel striations, scratched into the thick surface, radiate outward from the center like blast marks. There’s cathartic fury from Gutai co-founder Shozo Shimamoto, famous for art involving extreme physical action; splattered colors and glass shards spread across his 1962 Bottle Crash, a piece he created by hurling jars of paint.

But there were calmer, forward-looking efforts, too. Shuji Mukai’s black, blocky construction displays a grid of primitive symbols, a communication guide for a world that must start from nothing. In Takesada Matsutani’s minimalist wall relief, two shiny gelatinous forms gently bulge out from a white background; the upper one, clearly an egg, sits above a yellow shape that hints at that iconic atomic cloud—the triumph, it seems, of rebirth over doom. Norio Imai offered a similar sense of regeneration in his stark series of plastic molds titled White Ceremony; smooth, blank plateaus swell here and there into perfectly formed mounds—metaphors for the technology-based growth that would revive a moribund postwar Japan. Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, 212-794-4970, Through October 27.

Sabrina Gschwandtner: ‘Sunshine and Shadow’

As an editor of film, Sabrina Gschwandtner might be one of a kind: She takes apart movies and reassembles them as quilts. For this wonderful little show, she cut out sequences from 16mm footage—mostly old documentaries on art, craft, and science—and then, on a sewing machine, stitched the pieces together into large, carefully arranged squares. Hung in wall-mounted lightboxes, the work glows with the softness of stained glass. Stand at a certain distance and you can see the shapes of diamonds alternating between light and dark borders, the traditional Amish pattern of Sunshine and Shadow. Up close, in individual frames, you can make out moments from the films Gschwandtner combined into various textile-related themes—a dress from Peruvian Weaving, an explanatory cartoon about industrial dyeing, and, in ironic juxtaposition, clips of shadow puppets on cloth next to scenes demonstrating the production of military camouflage. LMAK Projects, 139 Eldridge Street, 212-255-9707, Through October 21.

Alice Attie: ‘Class Notes’

For Alice Attie, drawing is an intellectual act, a real-time visual interpretation of what she hears in lectures on physics and philosophy. In her sketches (most of them turned into prints here), the notes she takes in each class become spontaneous gestures. In a series inspired by quantum mechanics, dense and tiny words flow as a sinuous line, creating delicate tangles that often resemble interstellar formations. Elsewhere, bounded by various shapes—a cloud, a triangle, a profiled head—the ideas of Hegel and Heidegger swirl and tumble. For Kant, who wrote such impenetrable stuff, Attie’s text is marvelously chaotic, filling the page to its edges, as if she’d been driven to the anxious state of horror vacui. LeRoy Neiman Gallery, 310 Dodge Hall, 2960 Broadway, 212-854-7641, Through October 12.