I went to see “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for the first time in late December 2012. I found the colorful show both inviting and intimating. I could see all the scholarship that had been put into curating the show, and there seemed to be endless hours of information carefully packed into just a few rooms. I enjoyed the density of the show and learned a lot, but I felt as if I had experienced only a small part of what it had to offer.
The show is primarily about the transformation of Tokyo from the capital of war-torn Japan after World War II and the Allied Occupation, to an international center for avant-garde art. It documents the extraordinary concentration of creative individuals, artist groups, networks, and diverse artistic practices that found a place in Tokyo during this period of rapid reinvention and growth from 1955 until 1970. These new avant-garde artistic practices included Japanese-style surrealistic drawings, paintings, and prints; bizarre performances in public spaces (often by naked artists) and other happenings; abstract art, conceptual art, graphic posters, black and white photographs, film, and visionary futuristic architecture and urban design.
I was a bit uneasy last week when my 80-year-old father repeatedly suggested that he would like to see the show with me. As an artist I thought, “How am I going to explain such a range of different types of work and put it all into an art-historical context for him?” I figured that, given my dad’s difficulty hearing and his lack of interest in long explanations, I’d be lucky if I could keep his attention for more than a few minutes at a time. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to explain the artwork in an engaging way. And I was concerned that he would be bored.
Born in 1933, my father joined the United States Air Force to fight in the Korean War when he was 20 years old. A middle-class kid from a small town in California, he wanted to see the world. While he was stationed in Osan airbase and Suwon City, Korea, one of his military duties was to fly jets to Tokyo every two weeks for servicing. If he was lucky, he got four days to himself in Tokyo. He spent these days exploring the city and the outlying areas.
My father is a born storyteller, and he has always enjoyed reminiscing. I realized that whether or not he got anything out of the artwork, a trip to Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde could be an opportunity for us to spend some time together. And, of course, I hoped to hear some stories about his experiences in Korea and Japan in 1952.
When we got to the entrance of the show, I started to explain the large reproductions of some architectural plans designed by the Metabolists, a group of young Japanese architects and designers in the 1960s who wanted to create a new, ahistorical, futuristic identity for Tokyo. But my father didn’t care about a group of young Japanese intellectuals’ dreams of a new “organic” Tokyo. He had never seen that in his travels. He recognized Tange Kenzo’s sleek gymnasium complex, which had been built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, from photographs, but he was only mildly interested in it. I was already discouraged.
Installation view of Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (November 18, 2012 to February 25, 2013). Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2012 the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
But as we entered the show, my father was suddenly drawn to a wall of paintings in the first room. “Wow!” he said, quite loudly, as he studied the work of Nakamura Hiroshi. (In accordance with Japanese practice, Japanese names are written surname first.) The paintings were oil paint on plywood, and looked like dark, surrealistic landscapes. These black-and-dirty-white wastelands with yellow details are called Period of War (Sensoki) 1958, Period of Peace (Heiwaki) 1958, and Upheaval (Nairanki), 1958. As I looked closely I could see piles of dead bodies, sinister-looking tools, and technology taking over the landscape. My father was especially attracted to Period of War, with its faceless soldiers and the dead, symbolized by empty helmets and abstract, peg-like shapes.
“Wow! Wow! Wow!” My father buzzed through the exhibition looking for images he could identify. Everywhere he looked, he spotted specifics, and named them. He looked at Yamashita Kikuji’s surrealistic oil painting Totems (Oto otemu), 1951, and said, “The people are screaming as the heat burns holes in their flesh.” He knew all about Napalm from Korea.
I stood out of his way as my father seemed to ricochet from work to work. He noted Ikeda Tatsuo’s pen and ink drawing of a fishnet filled with deformed hybrid monster/human fish, called 10,000 Count (10, 000 kaunto), from the series Anti-Atomic Bomb (Han-genbaku), 1954. And he paused in front of each of Hamada Chimei’s etchings called Elegy for a New Conscript. He saw a coffin-like army bunker with a hole blown in it exposing soldiers, one with a worried face. He saw a headless pregnant woman lying on a desolate beach with a stick piercing her genitals. He saw a soldier keeping watch with a rifle pointed at his throat. And he saw a landscape of body parts pierced by, or impaled on, sticks. “Tragic,” he whispered loudly.
My father was on a roll, and he wasn’t limited to conventional media, like drawings and paintings. He was completely taken by Kikuhata Mokuma‘s installation, Slave Genealogy (By Coins) (Dorei keinzu (Kahei ni yoru)), 1961/1983. The installation consists of two semi-erect tree trunks that are presented on a platform of bricks draped with a white cloth, strewn with hundreds of five-yen coins. There is a smaller black wooden phallus protruding from the middle of one of the trunks, and a vulva-like form made out of shreds of fabric on the second trunk. “Wow! It looks like an altar. Very powerful.”
Installation view showing Kikuhata Mokuma’s Slave Genealogy (By Coins) (Dorei keinzu [Kahei ni yoru]), 1961/1983 from Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (November 18, 2012–February 25, 2013). Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
He was just as enthusiastic about another, equally mysterious, sexually charged installation by Kudo Tetsumi called Philosophy of Impotence, or Distribution Map of Impotence and the Appearance of Protective Domes at the Points of Saturation (Inpo tetsugaku – inpo bunbuzu to sono howa bubun ni okeru hogo domu no hassei), 1961. In this installation, several hundred mostly black phalli are hung from a grid-like net from the ceiling and on pegboards lining the walls. I found the work scary; my father loved it. “Best art I’ve ever seen.”
My father stood in each of the three rooms, just long enough to catch all of the images of pain, loss, violence and injustice. He seemed to be free-associating as he named the atrocities he saw: comfort women, biological weapons, birth defects, Unit 731, the Rape of Nanking (“Don’t look it up, it will break your heart”), the Death Railway, the Three Alls Policy (“Kill All, Burn All and Loot All”). I was astounded.
Installation view of Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (November 18, 2012–February 25, 2013). Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In a show that purports to show how Tokyo was transformed into an international center for avant-garde art, my father didn’t get the full story that the curators had set out to tell. I will even venture to write that he “misread” some of the artwork. But my father saw and felt the tragedy of Japan’s past through the artwork in his own way. He was in his own personal war zone, and he was clearly shaken up by the experience.
With a bit of an overly dramatic flare, my father declared: “It is sad if you don’t understand art, but it is even sadder if you can’t feel it.”
I was humbled by my father’s experience, and by his statement. I realized that my approach to looking at art was somewhat academic, maybe even elitist. Even though I often react emotionally to works of art, I had caught myself acting as if there were a right way and a “less right way” to experience art. What could have been more right than my father’s emotions? My father showed me that artwork could reconnect a person to something powerful from his past that had become a part of his identity.
My father didn’t need to read the museum signage. And he certainly didn’t need me to tell him what he was looking at.
Tokyo 1955–970: A New Avant-Garde runs through February 25, 2013, at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues), New York, NY 10019.