Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 3, 2017
Reiko Tomii Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. 320 pp.; 18 color ills.; 81 b/w ills. Cloth $36.95 (9780262034128)

Reiko Tomii’s Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan is an impeccably researched and well-written contribution to the modernist art history of Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. It also presents a challenge to an art history of modernisms beyond Euramerica. The research deals via case studies with a particular Japanese conceptual artist, Matsuzawa Yutaka (1922–2006); a performance and happenings group called The Play centred in the Kansai; and a regional collective called GUN (Group Ultra Niigata) that staged art events and other vanguard practices from Niigata on the north coast of Japan. Tomii’s challenge to art history is in understanding the way in which modernisms from the periphery within a cultural continuum coordinate with international and transnational tendencies to constitute contemporaneity. To this end she mobilizes two approaches devised by Ming Tiampo in a book on Gutai (Ming Tiampo, Gutai: Decentering Modernism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; chapter 2, “The Interpoetics of Distance,” 45–73) (click here for review). Tomii calls these “connection,” a type of weak but present formal aetiology between art centers, and “resonance,” a resemblance which is not happenstance but more of an atmosphere of common development than a causal interconnection between styles and practices across different and distant centers.

The importance of Tomii’s work cannot be too highly stressed. The shifting spatial perspectives of regional, national, international, and transnational location can be identified with some clarity up to the end of the 1980s, because the flows of artists, curators, critics, and exhibitions from the mid-1950s are physically identifiable as art-historical subjects in texts, images, and institutions. Tomii identifies these for one country, Japan, where the textual records and physical works survive with some range and security. She has also very diligently assembled and analyzed records from less public artist and group personal archives, and in a number of extremely clear presentational tables shows how the series of works and activities by each is constructed.

But after the mid-1990s we enter a digital world with image-capable personal computers and the opening of the world-wide web. This revolution in informational circulation was accompanied by biennale fever and the international hyper-circulation of artworks, artists, and curators/art brokers. The era coincided with radically cheaper air fares which made transnationality a mode of lifestyle and career choice as much as a changed situation of formal transfer between differentially located artworks and their makers. These causal elements not only increased the permeability of national borders, they also made identifying the informational base of any art activity much more problematic. After, say, 1995, the art history of the contemporary is forced to concentrate on the siting or cultural construction of the present because the habitual objects of examination are no longer stable or in physical series. Art’s future disappeared with its pasts, and perhaps one function of present art history is to reconstitute both of them. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is, after all, one hundred years old.

Tomii has two goals: “to narrate an aspect of local history in 1960s Japan that I call the ‘wilderness,’ and to link it to world art history” (11). She aims to foreground the local and the presumed periphery and build the global from the bottom up. (10) This is the counter to strategies that attempt to see modernity and modernism as central developments of Euramerican art and then build them down to the local. Most commentators on these histories have privileged the Euramerican as primary and seen any semblances elsewhere as mere secondary derivatives. Because the local is culturally and linguistically embedded, Tomii devotes a sensible few pages to a discussion of how the Japanese terms for the modern (kindai) and the contemporary (gendai) have arisen in the postwar period. In fact the distinction goes back to the late Meiji period before World War I, but she has so much to cover which has not hitherto been treated in English in the period of 1960s and 1970s Japanese art that there is little space to take the art history back further. Her study could only have been written by someone fully conversant with the sources in Japanese, and it is a tribute to her own knowledge as well as to the critical community of several other scholars in the Ponja-Genkon group that this fluent control of sources in English and Japanese is made accessible to many who may not be (see; fortunately, and to name only a few, the contributions of Chelsea Foxwell, William Marotti, Aya Louisa McDonald, John Szostak, Tiampo, Miwa Tezuka, Alicia Volk, Gennifer Weisenfeld, and Bert Winther-Tamaki are now widely available in English).

Of course for an art world besotted with self-appraisal against external criteria of lateness it is an art-historical fact that the Japanese art world of the 1960s may have felt “we are contemporaneous with them at this point” (14). In this the short-term appraisal takes precedence over the long-term one. Art historians can now consider the modern art developed in Japan from say 1912–34, as well as in littoral Chinese cities in roughly the same period, as having been developed out of a particular interaction and temporal contiguity with some partially appropriated external art movements and institutions, and a long enough domestic specialization in the art world to have produced the institutional positions for a mainstream, anti-mainstream, and avant-garde. But defeat in war pushed aside the local historical contingencies, a defeat that was as much cultural as military. Appraisal comparison was given to overseas centers, initially in the 1950s still to Europe and France with the Venice Biennale as a showcase, and then to New York, after the turning point in 1964 when Robert Rauschenberg was awarded the grand prize in Venice, an event widely observed in Japan. The 1960s therefore represents a reconfiguration of the Japanese art world with newer comparators but also with a further and differentiated internal dynamic after the suspension of the Yomiuri Independent exhibitions, also in 1964. These changes are thoroughly detailed by Tomii.

She also notes the resemblances between the notion of “not making” which underpinned monoha (the school of objets) and the North American rise of the notion of “de-materialization” which formed the context and in many ways the intellectual base from which conceptualism was emerging (30). Here Tomii prepares the ground from her first case study, noting in one of the succinct summaries with which her text is studded that makes it of permanent reference value, “If mono-ha envisioned involving the viewer in phenomenological experiences through their works, the pioneering conceptualist Matsuzawa Yutaka decisively eschewed any materiality in his work from 1964 onward in order to facilitate the development of the viewer’s latent mental faculties” (30). Mono-ha’s great artist and theorist Lee Ufan in a way directly sets the stage for understanding Matsuzawa on Tomii’s terms because of his 1972 critique of the lack of a close match between the vocabulary of international art criticism and the actual Japanese artworks that were supposed to be mapped by them (43). Lee wanted Japanese critics to derive a new vocabulary from the art produced in Japan in order to handle it better, rather than their habitual lazy and slipshod application of terms like “Informel,” “Minimal art,” or “Pop art” (173).

Perhaps it is of little surprise that the conceptualist Matsuzawa, like Lee, derived much of his intellectual background from Buddhist ideas, although in Matsuzawa’s case from Esoteric Mandalas. This also led to his gradual evacuation of the materiality of the artwork itself, preferring to use language alone, invoking the conceptualism of diagrams and ritual lists of procedures to produce “non-sensory” paintings. These seem only a few stages removed from esoteric meditation instructions. And while they are illuminating when approached as markers of non-material art practices, they demand patience in a viewer uninterested in instruction manuals or quasi-mathematical procedures (Matsuzawa lived by teaching high-school math).

Tomii’s next two case studies treat the happenings group The Play and the outdoor conceptualist group GUN. Tomii’s analysis indicates the collective aspect of much of incipient avant-garde practice in Japan, where the notion of a good rave in the wilderness of nature cannot at first have been far from these artist’s minds. She also subtly indicates the way group pressures to adhere to a semi-conventional notion of the artwork or to push for far more evanescent and eventually self-destructive activities can create forces that cause some to follow one leader and others to secede. The psycho-dynamics of small societies within most cultures have specific traits and organizational tendencies: it might have been useful for Tomii to have introduced other work on the establishment of Japanese social groups, their maintenance or breakdown, in relation to new religions and political parties. She is, after all, dealing with the 1970s, which was the peak period of internal violence within student movement groups against recalcitrant members (uchigeba), and there may be some parallels to be found with inherently unstable avant-garde art groups.

Her last two chapters deal in the comparative areas of connection and resonance. There is no doubt that beginning in the 1960s with increased travel and the residence of Japanese artists abroad, particularly in New York, together with the shift in domestic survey art exhibitions to a sort of curated annual or biennial, that many more artists came into contact with the work of non-Japanese contemporary artists. This included artists who travelled to Japan, such as Yves Klein in 1953 as a judo player or Sam Francis in the late 1950s. As Japanese artists, critics, and curators became better connected, they could seek “international” criteria to appraise artworks and self-regardingly evaluate the relative significance of Japanese works. Seen in this perspective the significance of more marginal groups like The Play and GUN increases: they appear more like those anti-establishment heterodox figures found on the fringes of the Edo art worlds in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In her analysis of resonance Tomii compares the virtual closure of the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris for Klein’s exhibition in 1958 with Matsuzawa’s empty gallery in 1964, preceded in May 1964 by Hi Red Center’s closure on the opening day of the Great Panorama Exhibition and its opening on the closing day (178). Tomii also notices the resonances between Land art and dug holes in works by The Play and GUN. She sets American single authorship and use of construction equipment to produce monuments against the Japanese practitioners who “stand their ground with their collective and performance strategies to material ephemeral outcomes” (192).

Of course linguistic knowledge, an accessible archive, and the survival of works or their reproductions allow for many different takes on what modernism could have been in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. We are all greatly in Tomii’s debt for showing how autonomously local, but also how intricately interrelated with the international, these tendencies were in Japan. Radicalism in the Wilderness stands as something of a model for how this kind of decentering art-historical work could be done for other non-Euramerican modernisms elsewhere, such as PERSAGI in early 1940s Dutch Indies, the Progressive Artists in 1948 Bombay, The Stars in early 1980s China, Social Installation in 1990s Chiang Mai, etc.

John Clark
Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney