One year after the beginning of World War II, Japan joined in as the collaborator of Nazi Germany. The Land of the Rising Sun led by the emperor Hirohito invaded almost all of its Asian neighbors, performed a memorable attack on the Allied base Pearl Harbor, and gained prominence for the combat severity which culminated with the Kamikaze units.
After the war ended, Japan suffered greatly from the consequences of the notorious Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb attacks and the political turmoil. During the early post-war years, however, this country was were under a great influence of the American culture. Local artists embraced the dominating tendencies present on the American art scene and an interesting aesthetics began developing.
To revisit this period and unravel the development of avant-garde art in both Japan and America in a period between 1952 and 1985, Fergus McCaffrey is hosting a grand survey aptly titled Japan Is America.
By following the emergence of American-Style Painting, which coincided with the sprawl of Americanization in Japan, this exhibition tends to underline the significance of this influence for the generation of artists willing to experiment and find new and often radical approaches to art-making.
The early years after the end of WW II were marked by the attempt by both countries to redefine the notion of aesthetics. In Japan, a country destroyed by the atrocities of the atomic bomb catastrophe especially difficult due to the American occupation from 1945 until 1952, young artists sensed the change caused by peace and democracy but were burdened by the previously experienced suffering which was then articulated through their works.
The New York audience will have a unique chance to see the works by artists such as Ruth Asawa, Yuji Agematsu, Joe Goode, Tatsuo Ikeda, Hiroshi Nakamura, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Nobuaki Kojima, Ushio Shinohara, Richard Serra, Toshio Yoshida, Kazuo Shiraga, Anne Truitt, and others.
The celebrated Tatsuo Ikeda’s photorealistic portrait of an American soldier’s wife from 1952 opens Japan Is America. This artist was among the pioneers of critical and engaged tendencies and along with On Kawara and Shigeo Ishii he formed Seisakusha Kondankai (Producers' discussion group). At around the same time, a less politically charged collective was formed – the Gutai Art Association led by Jirō Yoshihara, operating in Osaka from 1954 until 1972; the proponents of this group were interested in formal issues in a fashion similar to the Abstract Expressionists and were interested in new modes of art-making and an international cultural exchange.
From 1958 until 71, the Sōgetsu Art Center operated in Tokyo and was the most important space for experimental practices in visual and performance arts, and a hub for international exchanges between Japanese and American artists. John Cage, David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg came to Japan for the first time in the early 1960s and their visits were organized by this center.
The 1960s were also marked by the ratification of the ANPO Treaty which allowed the United States to interfere with any conflict in East Asia that might affect Japan, implying their dominance and therefore thinning the line between democracy and imperialism. At that time, a few other artist collectives emerged - the Neo-Dadaism Organizers (1960) and Hi-Red Center, active from 1963-64, and radical artists practicing anti-art presented their ideas within Yomiuri Independent exhibitions (1949 - 1963). Japan was rapidly changing especially after the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, so the artists in both nations started articulating those shifts through radical individualism in the 1970s.
Such an individualist agenda was related to the technological development best expressed with the first World’s Fair held in Japan. For instance, the first atmospheric fog sculpture for the Pepsi Pavilion by Fujiko Nakaya, the Tokyo representative for the American art collective Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), was displayed at Expo ’70. Another milestone event signifying the radicalism of the Japanese artists and their connection with the American art scene was the Tokyo Biennale ’70: Between Man and Matter, where the conceptual works by Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt were displayed alongside the works by local artists such as Jiro Takamatsu and Hitoshi Nomura.; it was a traveling exhibition and it was featured in the book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 written by the famous American art historian Lucy Lippard in 1973. Conceptual art boomed after this show and was mostly practiced by the members of the Mono-ha group of artists dedicated to "not-making,"
In both environments, the avant-garde radicalism slowly decreased in the 1980s due to the interaction of mass media, materialist culture and the formation of the art market. During that decade, Japan’s presence in the United States was becoming more visible since the country reached cultural and economic strength and became an equal rival.
The exhibition ends with Ed Ruscha’s recent work Japan Is America, according to which the exhibition bears its title. This drawing channels the artist’s perception of how fiercely Japan grew up to 1985.
Throughout the exhibition, the gallery will be hosting an exciting film program including rarely-seen films made by Fujiko Nakaya, John Cage, Shigeko Kubota, and others.
Japan Is America will be on view at Fergus McCaffrey in New York from 30 October until 14 December 2019.
Featured images: Jasper Johns - High School Days, 1964. Sculp-metal on plaster and shoelace with mirror, 4 3⁄8 × 12 1⁄8 × 4 1⁄2 inches (11.1 × 30.8 × 11.4 cm). © 2019 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Ed Ruscha - Japan is America, 2019. Acrylic on museum board, 24 x 34 inches (61 x 86.4 cm) © Ed Ruscha; Robert Rauschenberg - Gilt, 1983. Mixed media on Japanese clay, 39 1/4 x 75 1/4 inches (99.7 x 191.1 cm) © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg. All images courtesy Fergus McCaffrey.