Norio Imai’s Eulogy to a Postwar Japan
Whether the work is a painting or a sculpture, it goes without saying that the only part that people can actually see is the surface. Starting in 1963, I made a huge number of white reliefs."
Excerpt taken from the unedited version of a Norio Imai interview that originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Artforum.
Norio Imai was born in Osaka in 1946. He graduated from the Osaka City Kogei High School Fine Art Course and caught Yoshihara's eyes when he was only 17 years old. In the mid-1960s the new generation of artists including Norio Imai joined the Gutai Art Association and transformed Yoshihara's commitment to originality with their works that experimented with technology and cutting-edge industrial materials. Imai joined them on the occasion of the 15th Gutai Art Exhibition held at the Gutai Pinacotheca in 1965, where a large group of artists was welcomed to Gutai as new members. Sadaharu Horio also joined Gutai at this stage. The new members of this 'third generation' can be divided in 2 groups: A) the accomplished young artists who showed their work in the Ashiya City Exhibition, the Gutai Newcomers Exhibition and the Gutai Art Exhibition as non-members and then afterwards recognized by Jiro Yoshihara; Imai and Horio are both part of these young artists. B) consisted of people who had already established themselves as abstract artists in the Kansai art scene.
This third generation of Gutai used new plastics and metals manifesting a futuristic aesthetic and took the issues raised by Tanaka's Electric Dress in a different direction. As one of the younger generation, Imai brought to Gutai a new industrial sensibility that would be further developed in the following years. Imai's white minimalist canvases featured bulbous forms stretching out of the picture plane. According to Atsuo Yamamoto, Imai and Yoshida Minoru were the most successful of the younger Gutai generation. Imai received his first prize at the 10th exhibition of the Shell Art Competition in 1966.
Introduction to the exhibition Norio Imai - White Event at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp (14 March - 21 April 2013)
Out of almost nothing, Gutai artist Norio Imai (°Osaka, 1946) creates a monumental, monochrome white silence in space. He considers white to be the ultimate colour, a non-colour combining all colours in perfect harmony. White is a full emptiness.
Imai's work reflects one of the most important changes that are taking place in our culture. The dimension in which we live today is increasingly shifting towards the feminine. Fluid, matrixial qualities are gaining importance over unambiguous masculinity. Imai's work can be described as maternal. In its complete pureness it is pregnant with possibilities.
In that way Imai has incorporated the principle Jiro Yoshihara imposed on all Gutai artists the most: the leader of Gutai insisted on the fact that every work needed to be something that had never been created before - an artist needed to be completely original. This is exactly what Imai does. Even more so, with his pure and still whiteness, he incorporates the true concepts of originality and creativity. He creates a fertile soil. Imai's work is the birth of a new beginning.
Norio Imai joined the Japanese avant-garde movement Gutai in 1965 and became their youngest member. Gutai was the most influential artists' collective and artistic movement in postwar Japan and among the most important international avant-garde movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
Just like Zero art in Europe, Gutai carries the message of a new start and holds the promise of a rehabilitated society, yet unknown. Both groups want to return to the essence of life. They are on a quest for the source where it all began and begins all over again, a big bang where spirit and matter converge.
After the Second World War had thrown an atomic bomb on humanity, people all over the world were left scarred, with a mixed up identity composed out of the debris of a forgotten past and a destroyed present. The destructions of the war had made people crave for a new beginning and many artists of that period had sensed this urge very clearly. They knew that the only relevant thing that could be done at that point was to start anew and to put aside the past, tradition and the dogmas it carried along with it. They knew they needed to dive into the void, the unknown, and to search for a point zero, an essence they could hold onto and which they could use as a starting point.
When Lucio Fontana made a precise cut into the canvas in order to open space, he also opened the way to a new dimension in art that reflected upon society. This void, so full of hope and meaning, is the dimension that connects us all as human beings. This universal concept, which is understood in every culture and crosses the boundaries of time, is the concept that is rooted in the unconscious of art.
In this exhibition Norio Imai considers White to be an Event, an ultimate blank placed into time and space for spectators to connect with and to meditate on. Norio Imai's sculpted white surfaces incorporate Gutai's hope and believe in a new beginning of a pure world, to the fullest.
On the occasion of the exhibition we have published the catalogue Norio Imai, containing many historical images as well as an interview with the artist. The catalogue is available at the gallery and on our website.
Last year Norio Imai's work was also on show at The Guggenheim Museum in New York in the retrospective exhibition Gutai: Splendid Playground (15 February - 8 May 2013).
1965: 18th Ashiya City Exhibition, Ashiya City Museum of Art and History, Hyogo.
1966: Galerie 16, Kyoto.
1996: Back and Fourth - 8 Norio Imai 1964-1966, Galerie 16, Kyoto.
2012, The Time of Gutai University (solo show), Seian University of Art and Design Gallery, Shiga.
Norio Imai (exh. cat.), Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Ghent: AsaMER, 2013: p. 110 ill. 14.
As part of the avant-garde Gutai Art Group, Norio Imai’s diverse practice has spanned painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, video, and performance. Beginning with monochromatic, minimalist works that explored the sculptural possibilities of painting, he created swells, indentations, and voids in an effort to push the bounds of the two-dimensional surface. To challenge the widespread assumption in postwar Japan that rapid technological innovation would lead to growth, Imai’s forms embodied negative forms of growth such as mutation, dehiscence, and collapse. Working primarily with white, he explored its status both as color and non-color; white paint as present on canvas but also indicative of absence. As his career progressed, Imai extended his explorations to video, often in combination with live performance and photography.
Japanese, b. 1946, Osaka, Japan, based in Osaka, Japan