Japan Society Gallery Presents Radicalism in the Wilderness: Japanese Artists in the Global 1960s

New York, February 21 — Japan Society Gallery is pleased to present Radicalism in the Wilderness: Japanese Artists in the Global 1960s, an expansive new exhibition focusing on the rarely showcased radical experiments of Japanese artists in the 1960s. Centering on Matsuzawa Yutaka and art collectives The Play and GUN (Group Ultra Niigata), these artists worked in the remote landscape of the Japanese wilderness, reflecting their local environment in their conceptual works and keeping a physical distance from economic and cultural centers such as Tokyo. The exhibition also introduces the connections and resonances of their global contemporaries such as Gilbert and George, On Kawara, Yves Klein, Yoko Ono, Dennis Oppenheim, Kusama Yayoi, Lawrence Weiner and others.

Radicalism in the Wilderness charts their contributions toward disrupting and “dematerializing” existing artmaking conventions in the global postwar era, and showcases the artists’ revolutionary, boundary-defying conceptual works from the decade, which expanded the definition of “visual art” through unconventional practices including language, performance, mail art, land art, and political art. The exhibition draws extensively from institutional and private holdings, as well as from the personal collections of the artists, featuring rarely seen paintings, collage, personal documentary photographs, and archival materials including films, letters, and other ephemera, many of which will be exhibited in the U.S. for the first time.

The exhibition is curated by New York-based independent scholar and curator Reiko Tomii, in collaboration with Yukie Kamiya, Japan Society Gallery Director, and is developed from Tomii’s award-winning book, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (MIT Press, 2016).

“The uniqueness of Japanese postwar art movements, including the Gutai group of the 1950s and Mono-ha of the 1970s, has received attention internationally. However, the unconventional artistic practices of the 1960s that emerged between these two movements still await fuller attention. Thanks to Dr. Tomii’s enlightening study on the rich artistic and conceptual output of Japanese artists of that period, which had been long overlooked, there is now a foundation for understanding the multivalent trajectory and diverse expression of postwar and contemporary conceptual art in Japan, which was the gateway to the global art scene,” remarked Kamiya.

Throughout the 1960s, the imaginative and innovative works by Matsuzawa, The Play, and GUN figuratively and literally explored the concept of “wilderness.” From the remote landscapes and settings selected for many of their performances and conceptual works, notably far outside metropolitan Tokyo, these artists strategically positioned themselves at the vanguard of a new global movement in radical experimentalism by seeking the theoretical foundation of their work outside conventional artmaking and the institution of art. The irreverent and playful conceptual experiments of these artists were informed by and responded to the complex social, political, and cultural issues of the 1960s, such as the Apollo Space Program, Vietnam War, and international student protests.

“1960s Japan is an exciting place in the study of postwar modernism. The state of international contemporaneity was embodied by many strains of practices found not just in Tokyo but also in outside regions, which I call the ‘wilderness,’ where artists devised alternative strategies departing from the mainstream and metropolitan modes of contemporary art. Significantly, these artists achieved global relevance by drawing on their local contexts, although that was barely recognized at the time,” added Tomii.

Taken together, the bodies of work by these artists bridges national and transnational art histories, deconstructing a Eurocentric point of view, and plays a crucial role in establishing the concept of international contemporaneity as the new, post-object-based paradigm for postwar art.


Matsuzawa Yutaka (1922 – 2006), hailing from Shimo Suwa in mountainous central Japan, was one of Japan’s pioneer conceptual artists. He made a complete break from materiality in his art through his drastic proposal of “vanishing of matter,” best exemplified in his landmark exhibition Independent ’64 in the Wilderness (1964). The exhibition completely eliminated the physical presence of artworks, instead showcasing “formless emissions” by himself and other artists. Informed by his interests in contemporary science, parapsychology, and non-Zen Buddhism, Matsuzawa established his immaterial art using “kannen,” a Buddhist-derived practice of “meditative visualization” to unleash the viewer’s mental faculty to see using the mind’s eye. Using the principle of vanishing of matter and the method of kannen, he formulated Non-Sensory Painting, an attempt to make the invisible visible through a theoretical construct akin to astrophysics and quantum mechanics.

GUN (est. 1967), composed of artists from the northern Niigata prefecture facing the Sea of Japan, were best known for their ephemeral and site-specific experience of Event to Change the Image of Snow (1970), which included the group members spraying an array of bright color pigments over the isolated, snow-covered dry riverbed of the Shinano River. GUN reprised the act four days later, and each resulting work lasted only 30 minutes, as new snowfall quickly erased the huge color field abstraction. A GUN member, Horikawa Michio, also devised the Mail Art by Sending Stones series. For the series, Horikawa responded to the moon landing in 1969 by mailing 11 stones gathered along the Shinano River, critically echoing the Apollo 11 mission to collect moon rocks for scientific research, as a way of turning human attention to the tumultuous Earth.

The Play (est. 1967), an Osaka-based collective of “Happeners,” created a series of “voyages” into various landscapes—oceans, rivers, mountains. The group formulated their voyages as their annual summer project, from 1968 through 1986, beginning with the launching of a giant fiberglass egg into the Pacific Ocean off the southernmost tip of Japan’s main island. Voyage: Happening in an Egg (1968) was described as an “image of liberation from all the material and mental restrictions imposed upon us who live in contemporary times.” In these landscape-based projects, The Play often collaborated with ordinary people who provided them with necessary resources, including fishing boats (for the 1968 Happening) to Styrofoam boards for their river trip (1969). In doing so, they prefigured the contemporary movement for community-based, socially engaged art practices.

Reiko Tomii is a New York-based scholar and curator who investigates post-1945 Japanese art in local and global contexts. Co-director of PoNJA-GenKon, a scholarly listserv for modern and contemporary Japanese art history, she is a prolific writer and innovative thinker whose book Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan received the 2017 Robert Motherwell Book Award from the Dedalus Foundation.

Since 1971, Japan Society Gallery continues to be the premier institution in the United States for the display and interpretation of Japanese art and culture. Through groundbreaking exhibitions and related programs, the Gallery cultivates a broader understanding and appreciation of Japan’s contributions to global artistic heritage; explores the artistic interconnections Japan shares with its Asian neighbors, the U.S., Latin America, and Europe; and celebrates the diversity of Japanese visual expression from prehistoric times to the present day.

Founded in 1907, Japan Society in New York City presents sophisticated, topical and accessible experiences of Japanese art and culture, and facilitates the exchange of ideas, knowledge and innovation between the U.S. and Japan. More than 200 events annually encompass world-class exhibitions, dynamic classical and cutting-edge contemporary performing arts, film premieres and retrospectives, workshops and demonstrations, tastings, family activities, language classes, and a range of high-profile talks and expert panels that present open, critical dialogue on issues of vital importance to the U.S., Japan and East Asia.


Media Contacts:
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