Ryuji Tanaka @ Simon Lee London from 23/06 to 25/08 and New York from 13/09 to 28/10, 2017

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Ryuji Tanaka, Nature ’89, 1989, Mineral pigment on panel, other materials 60.7 x 72.6 cm (23 7/8 x 28 5/8 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London / New York 

It may seem odd that, no sooner had so many artists in the latter half of the nineteenth century begun to successfully assert their independence from established art institutions, such as the Beaux-Arts in France, than there was a rush to form new groupings, to gather together under new rules and with new criteria for entry. Many artists in subsequent generations would come together to form alternative collectives – the artistic movements with which we are familiar such as Dada and the Surrealists, and other later movements which are less well known, such as COBRA and Gutai. So many of these collectives were underpinned by manifestoes in which, ironically, one variety or other of artistic independence was declaimed. But they were often loosely held together communities of thought and any efforts to keep all participants on the same page failed. By the 1970s, the need for artists to identify collectively under a shared set of written principles had become the exception.

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Ryuji Tanaka, installation view of exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery London, image courtesy Simon Lee Gallery London, 2017

The Japanese group of artists known collectively as Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Concrete Art Group – formed in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara ) cited in their manifesto an artistic kinship with certain Abstract Expressionists who were working almost contemporaneously – most notably Jackson Pollock. What the Gutai artists saw in Pollock was a singular emphasis on paint itself – what they recognised as “the loud outcry of the material” – at the expense of any imagistic possibilities in the medium that the artist might be tempted, by force of habit, to explore. The hyper-individualism in American art which was emerging through the Abstract Expressionists, would reach its accelerated apotheosis in the 1980s – an acceleration which would see the focus move away from painting.

Gutai however, for the eighteen years that it was a formal movement, explored the outer limits of physical manipulation of paint, with the likes of Kazuo Shiraga and Saburo Murakami using their entire body to produce an artwork – to the extent that the movement has perhaps become more closely associated with performance art rather than painting. Some Japanese artists, including Ryuji Tanaka, who was briefly a member of Gutai from 1965 to 1967, would use such radical experiments in materiality, which may indeed have been aided by the developments witnessed in American painting, to reflect back on the vast, rich territory of Japan’s traditional painting heritage.

With nihon-ga materials like natural mineral pigments and sumi ink, I am constantly exploring the potential of the contemporary in the traditional.” – Ryuji Tanaka

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Nature ’90 (In), 1990, Mineral pigment and mixed media on canvas, 182 x 227 cm (71 5/8 x 89 3/8 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London / New York 

Tanaka’s attachment to mineral pigments, natural glues, sumi ink, and other traditional materials which were a feature of the traditional Japanese style painting – nihon-ga – first began in the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting, from which he graduated in 1948. In 1949 Tanaka became involved in the first of two significant collective groupings of artists with which he would have relatively brief official associations – the Pan-real Art Association, a movement which aimed to challenge the traditional limits of the form of nihon-ga.

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Sei ’81 (B), 1981, Mineral pigment and mixed media on canvas, 90.9 x 116.7 cm (35 3/4 x 46 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London / New York 

Whilst the Pan-real Art Association sought to expand the possibilities of traditional forms, the later Gutai movement had an eye to more radical form. By identifying a shared aesthetic with Abstract Expressionism, Gutai was marking itself as modern. It found in most art which had gone before, “a tremendous affectation” which was the result of the artist’s intervention into the material. The forms that resulted from the manoeuvers Gutai artists employed to get paint onto a surface, such as the large scale paintings Kazuo Shiraga produced while suspended from a rope and dragging his paint stained feet across the canvas, were unequivocally abstract. However, it was not so much that Gutai was aiming for abstraction, as abstraction was the necessary product of the movement’s call to “…(leave) the material as it is, presenting it just as material”.  It was the immanent tendency towards abstraction present in the enhanced physicality of Gutai’s approach to material which led to the appearance of a very definitive break from the past which the movement represents to us now. For Ryuji Tanaka however, the release of abstraction resulting from this new approach to material represented a path to a reassessment of traditional materials as much as it represented to others a way into developments leading away from painting entirely.

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Sitting on (Black 100), 1976, Mineral pigment and mixed media on canvas, 130.3 x 162 cm (51 1/4 x 63 3/4 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London / New York 

The end product of so much of Gutai artists’ experimentation was a type of abstract painting which in many cases had more in common with European Art Informel than it did with Abstract Expressionism. Colours were muddied through the exaggerated and often crude physical exertions of the artist, leading to a very formless, organic abstraction. In Gutai, abstraction was a by-product of the programmatic physicality of the execution as opposed to a willful attempt to create an anti-illusionistic space. For Tanaka, the abstract results of Gutai’s approach to material served to amplify the effect of the materials themselves, leading the artist directly back to nihon-ga. “With nihon-ga materials like natural mineral pigments and sumi ink, I am constantly exploring the potential of the contemporary in the traditional.”

Ryuji Tanaka’s work was on exhibition at Simon Lee London from 23 June to 25 August and opens at Simon Lee New York on 13 September and runs through 28 October 2017.

Ryuji Tanaka at Simon Lee Gallery

Author: Robbie O'Halloran

Artist and writer working in London

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