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Alexandra Munroe: Japanese Art after 1945 Scream Against the Sky

Japanese Art after 1945 Scream Against the Sky : VIDEO

by Alexandra_Munroe on September 13, 2016

It was 1990, and I was making a stop to see the new Yokohama Museum of Art on my regular rounds as an American curator of Japanese art. To my surprise, I was ushered into the vast office of the Director General and invited, point blank, to propose an exhibition for the museum like my recent Yayoi Kusama retrospective in New York. I paused. I was deep into researching a history of postwar Japanese avant-garde art, a topic so unknown in the west that I was rejected from graduate schools in art history before landing in the East Asian history department at NYU. The new museum, designed by Kenzo Tange, was advertised as the largest space for contemporary art in Japan. “I have an idea,” I heard myself saying. “How about a survey of the Japanese avant-garde, from Gutai to Dumb Type?”  Taro Amano, who, in his early thirties, was a little older than me, jumped ahead of his elders with a prophetic, “Subarashii.  Let’s do it.”  I saw the galleries in my mind’s eye. “I would just like to be sure of one thing,” I said. “We will need to use the entire museum.”

Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky opened at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 1994 and toured Guggenheim SoHo and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through the following year.  The largest survey ever mounted of Japan’s postwar and contemporary art — then or since — the exhibition examined the major avant-garde tendencies and thinking that developed in Japan from the beginning of the American Occupation until the post-Hirohito era. Including such internationally-acclaimed groups as Gutai, Hi Red Center, Ankoku Butoh, and Mono-ha, the exhibition featured some 200 objects by seventy artists working in painting, ink, sculpture, photography, video, film, performance, and installation art.  With a final section on Japanese art of the 1990s, the exhibition spanned nearly five decades of spectacular and subversive activities by Japan’s most creative opposition. 

In Yokohama, the show was a controversial landmark because no one had ever attempted a multi-media thematic survey that spanned Inoue’s blotchy ink diaries of Tokyo’s firebombs to Nam June Paik’s antics in Hi Red Center’s Shelter Event to Mono-ha’s stacks of paraffin or one ton ring of charred wood that upended minimalism’s rigid geometries with nature’s unruly materiality.  That I was an American girl with a Chinese boyfriend who spoke Japanese with a Kyoto accent did not help clarify the picture.  NHK did a feature documentary, I won some awards, and my contemporaries went to work to sort out their own versions of the history I had just upset.

In the U.S., the show met with indignation from some critics — “Target practice,” Hilton Kramer wrote – and recognition from other critics that we were shaking things up. Holland Cotter’s New York Times review ended this way:

Scream Against the Sky” raises at least as many questions as it answers, but it confirms beyond doubt that any reading of contemporary Japanese art in purely Western terms will not do. If it is an art of assimilation, as it is often said to be, it is also one of transformation based on philosophical positions distinctly its own. The historian Kakuzo Okakura (1862-1913) once wrote that Westerners love to “search out the means, not the end, of life.” In “Scream Against the Sky” it is the end — awful, serene or ineffably empty — that is explored over and over and by means that are often marvelous.

But artists loved it and for many young scholars and curators, seeing the show inspired a leap into this barely charted but amazingly rich field of study. The catalogue, published as a stand-alone book by Abrams, became the textbook on postwar Japanese art for the next two generations. More important than creating the foundation, Scream Against the Sky challenged the entrenched rules of modern art history because it showed that artists from outside Europe or America had every bit as much stake in the avant-garde enterprise as their western counterparts, and that their reasons for making subversive works — like Tetsumi Kudo’s fragments of an Ionesco figure melted by atomic radiation — were shaped by the searing intelligence of their individual postwar experience, related but distinct from their own.  This is why the show is now remembered as catalytic; it was one among a few important events at the time that anticipated the arrival of a global art history.

The title comes from a 1961 instruction in Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. “Scream against the Sky” encapsulates the conceptual and visceral poetics of Japan’s avant-garde, whose culture of opposition to the wartime military, to Americanization, to stifling social conformism produced a certain extremism, the kind Susan Sontag famously called “styles of radical will.”

Voice Piece for Soprano

        Scream.

                    1. against the wind
                    2. against the wall
                    3. against the sky

Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky
From the new video series: Eyes on Fire with Alexandra Munroe

Photo credits and copyright notices:

Produced by: Sartorian Ventures
Photographed by: Amy Khoshbin and Matt Stanton
Edited by: Amy Khoshbin, https://tinyscissors.com
Music by: http://theadversarymusic.com

MORIMURA Yasumasa
Playing With Gods III: At Night, 1991
Computer-manipulated color photograph
141 ¾ x 98 3/8 in.
Yokohama Museum of Art
Courtesy of the artist and Yoshiko Isshiki Office, Tokyo

TOMATSU Shomei
Protest, Tokyo, 1969
Gelatin silver print
11 3/8 x 16 in.
Collection of the artist
© Shomei Tomatsu – INTERFACE

YOSHIHARA Jiro
Red Circle on black, 1965
Acrylic on canvas
71 ¾ x 89 ¾ in.
Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe

SHIRAGA Kazuo
Untitled, 1959
Oil on canvas
70 7/8 x 110 in.
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
T.B. Walker Acquisition fund, 1998

Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park
Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956
Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, GA 10

HIJIKATA Tatsumi performing Hijikata Tatsumi and The Japanese – Revolt of the Flesh at the Seinen Kaikan hall, Tokyo, 1968
Photo: Nakatani Tadao
Courtesy of Butoh Laboratory Japan

YANAGI Yukinori
Hinomaru Illumination, 1993
Neon and painted steel, with ceramic haniwa figures
Neon flag 118 1/8 x 177 1/8 x 15 3/4 in.; each haniwa approx. 39 3/8 in. high
Installation at Artec’93, Nagoya City Art Museum, Nagoya
Courtesy of Yanagi Studio
YANAGI Yukinori
Hinomaru Illumination, 1993
Installation at Guggenheim Museum Soho, New York for Japanese Art after 1945: Scream against the Sky, 1995
Courtesy of Yanagi Studio

Atsuko Tanaka wearing her Electric Dress suspended from the ceiling at the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition, 1956
© Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association

Atsuko TANAKA
Electric Dress (DenkiFuku), 1956/1986
Painted light bulbs, electric cords, timer, and controle console
65 x 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in.
Takamatsu Art Museum
© Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association

Various Artists
Fluxkit, 1965
Vinyl-covered attaché case, containing objects in various media
13 3/8 x 17 1/2 x 4 15/16 in.
Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift

Saburo MURAKAMI making Six Holes before the opening of the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition
Ohara Hall, Tokyo, October 19-28, 1955
©Makiko Murakami, Courtesy of the Estate of Saburo Murakami and ARTCOURT Gallery

YOSHIMURA Masunobu advertising the third exhibition of Neo Dada Organizers in Tokyo streets, 1960
Photo by Takeo Ishimatsu
Oita Art Museum, Oita

Yayoi Kusama
No. F, 1959
Oil on canvas, 41 ½ x 52 in.
Museum of Modern Art, New York, Sid R. Bass Fund
© Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.

Yoko Ono
“Voice Piece for Soprano”, Autumn 1961
Yoko Ono. Grapefruit. A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.

Special thanks to artists, institutions and individuals for their assistance.

Alexandra_MunroeJapanese Art after 1945 Scream Against the Sky : VIDEO

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