Retrospective Reviews

The California 1930s Frat-Rush-Week Esthetic: On the First American Gutai Show, in 1958

Installation view of "Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino," currently on view at Dominique Lévy Gallery. PHOTO: TOM POWEL IMAGING. COURTESY DOMINIQUE LÉVY GALLERY

Installation view of ‘Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino,’ currently on view at Dominique Lévy Gallery in New York.


Gutai, the loose group of Japanese artists known for their work from the 1950s, is having a moment in America. Kazuo Shiraga, the abstract painter known for using his feet and hands in lieu of brushes, is the focus of not one but four American exhibitions in the first half of 2015. Shiraga’s work is currently the subject of a solo show at New York’s Mnuchin Gallery, and shown alongside Satoru Hoshino’s clay sculptures at Dominique Lévy (also in New York) and Sadamasa Montanaga’s paintings at the Dallas Museum of Art. In April, Chelsea’s Fergus McCaffrey will mount a show about Shiraga’s relationship with his assistant and wife, Fujiko Shiraga. With such interest in Shiraga and the Gutai movement, we turn back to our 1958 review of the first Gutai show in America ever, held at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. At the time of the exhibition, Gutai was seen as a copy of Abstract Expressionism, and Thomas B. Hess’s review of the show, which appeared in the “New Names This Month” section, was also negative. (Gutai was not reconsidered in America until recently.) Hess’s thoughts on the show are reproduced in full below.

By Thomas B. Hess

Gutai [Jackson] group, a number of Japanese artists much influenced by New York Abstract-Expressionism, and much in awe of Europe, were introduced in a fancy exhibition that was generally disapproved of as derivative and trivial. About five years ago, the Gutais sent some copies of their magazine to New York; it illustrated their extra-pictorial activities—creating earth sculpture by dancing and sliding in likes of mud, bustling through layers of paper stretched in front of a door; balloons filled with liquids, the soles of some one’s feet were painted—all highly esthetic in a California 1930s Frat-Rush-Week way. Their paintings showed no such verve, but a similar schizoid approach. The man splits himself in two—one half artist, one half Japanese intellectual. The artist half is kicked out of the personality and set to work flinging or blotting paint, after examples found in black-and-white reproductions from Paris or New York. The intellectual sits back and decides policy questions (a bit less Pollock, a bit more Still, add Kandinsky, what about Tobey… there is even a Mike Goldberg influence, I think). The artist is left to push himself through the wringers. The results are without personality. As such they will be interesting to many interior decorators who seek exactly this sort of chintz. Prices unquoted.

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