A Living Gutai Legend in the Spotlight

Artsy Editorial
Mar 21, 2014 6:09PM

Throwing glass bottles of paint at canvases, wearing a dress made of light bulbs, and painting with one’s feet are among the performative art practices undertaken by Japanese artists of the avant-garde, post-war Gutai group. Years before the American artist Allan Kaprow staged his first Happenings—multidisciplinary performance works inspired by Dadaism, Futurism, and the dynamic nature of Jackson Pollock’s process—Gutai artists, led by Yoshihara Jirō, had already pioneered action-based artworks, and even developed a manifesto in 1956 to cement their purpose. The group has figured prominently in museums, galleries, and private collections in recent years, notably in the Guggenheim’s “Gutai: Splendid Playground,” the Rachofsky Private Collection, and at this year’s Armory Show, in a comprehensive presentation at Pier 92. This trend continues with Tsuyoshi Maekawa, a member of Gutai’s second generation in the 1960s, who was featured at the Armory Show and is currently exhibited at shows in New York and Antwerp. At Axel Vervoordt Gallery, the artist is celebrated in a solo exhibition, featuring his works from the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Born in Osaka in 1936, Maekawa’s interest in art developed after seeing works by Picasso and Miro during elementary school. While studying drafting in high school, he first experimented with burlap, which would later become his material of choice. Following encounters with Gutai artists in the late ’50s, he met Yoshihara Jirō, who became his mentor, and in 1962 he was initiated into the group. Maekawa went on to exhibit at every Gutai show thereafter, until its dissolution in 1972; his art practices continue to this day.

Despite the lack of performance involved, Maekawa’s works, focused on materiality and tangibility, are embodiments of Gutai, which is the Japanese word for “concrete.” The artists recently said, “Like some of the other Gutai artists, once I found the basic techniques and materials that really seized my attention, I stuck with them and experimented with them over time to see how much I could find in and coax out of them.” Through various activities including stretching, ripping, gluing, folding, and painting, Maekawa manipulates burlap in such a way that process, medium, and texture become intertwined. Playing with burlap’s inherent qualities—its rough, interwoven threads, tendency to unravel, and endless pliability—he applies it to canvas and activates it through energetic strokes, splashes, and drips of paint, boldly saturating the surface in black, white, and primary colors. The resulting works, best described as objects, are dramatic composites that serve as testament to an intuitive and spirited practice.

Maekawa - The Gutai Works” is on view at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, Mar. 12th–May 2nd, 2014.

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Artsy Editorial