Beyond the Collection Display

Beyond the Collection Display
Reiko Tomii bio

When we think of the globalization of contemporary art, we tend to imagine the proliferation of mega exhibitions (such as ‘Documenta’ and hundreds of biennales), the escalated frenzy of the art market, and the seemingly open state of information networks. These phenomena engender a sense of contemporaneity and multiplicity that helps us to look at our world as an interconnected matrix. One task of art history is to articulate this sense by employing an arsenal of its methodological tools. This is, I believe, a vital part of what should constitute ‘world art history’.

The collection display of a museum is one such methodological tool. Granted the collection display is not perfect, because what can be shown in the galleries is customarily limited by what’s in the museum’s collection stores. Still, its public visibility and accessibility makes the collection display a significant, object-based part of our discipline. A question then arises: How well is the multiplicity of contemporary art – specifically that produced in non-Western regions – represented in Western museums? Generally speaking in my area of study, post-war Japan, the state of collection displays is mixed in Euro-American museums, notably in regard to work from the 1960s, which forms the recent past of contemporary art, and has been largely absent from such displays.

The relative absence of 1960’s Japanese art in collection displays is curious, as its knowledge base in the West has been greatly expanded through a few large-scale museum surveys. They are: ‘Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan 1945-1965’, at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (now Modern Art Oxford), 1985-86; ‘Japon des Avant-Garde’ at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, 1986-87; and ‘Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky’, shown at, among other places, the Guggenheim, New York, 1994-95. In particular, ‘Scream Against the Sky’ highlighted what I call the expanded 1960s, from Gutai to Mono-ha to Conceptualism (1954-74). At the time of this exhibition, I palpably sensed a growing interest in ‘getting’  – that is, not just ‘looking at’ but ‘acquiring’  – works from 1960’s Japan. Still, partly due to its radical nature, which is precisely what has fascinated and excited audiences globally, a good part of 1960’s Japanese art was ephemeral and not collectable as material objects. Furthermore, even in terms of those works which are conventionally collectable, namely paintings and sculpture, the pool of available objects turned out to be small by the time the West came to see their importance. In fact, in comparison to 1960’s Latin American art or post-Tiananmen Chinese art, the material presence of Japanese art from the 1960s has been disproportionately small to the level of interest expressed in it.

Before going any further let me clarify one thing: when I say “post-war Japanese art” or “1960’s Japanese art”, I am excluding photography, architecture, and design (which have been doing far better in terms of the collection display). Within art, I am referring primarily to those practices on Japanese soil, not in its diasporas, in particular New York. Indeed, the familiar presence of Kawara On – and to some extent Kusama Yayoi – in Euro-American collection displays indeed contrasts the habitual absence of the indigenous avant-garde of Japan. The development of contemporary art from Gutai to Anti-Art (Han-geijutsu) to Non-Art (Hi-geijutsu) during the expanded 1960s roughly paralleled, and sometimes preceded, the global development from gestural abstraction to the dematerialized practices of installation, performance, and conceptualism. In other words the multiplicity and contemporaneity of practices characterizing today’s art were already present in the 1960s, albeit on a smaller scale, with Japan as well as Latin America joining the ranks of the cutting edge previously monopolized by Euro-America. It is this that makes it vital to include 1960’s Japanese art in the collection display.

In light of the relative absence of 1960’s Japanese art in collection displays one may well ask “Where is post-war Japanese art?” This question can be legitimately asked of any institution, if only to raise consciousness and encourage an effort to diversify the collection display. However, even though 1960’s Japan is still mostly absent in the collection display, it is more present today than some twenty years ago, when I began my professional career. In particular, a new positive development I saw last Autumn at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in my home town, New York, prompted me to reframe my question as “Why is it here?” and “How did it come here?” The question of “why” is a matter of contextualization, of the ways in which we explore the connections and resonances of often contemporaneous practices. This is a visible part of the display on the wall. In contrast, the question of “how” concerns the history of the object and of collecting, which is not always visible on the wall. I came to realize how this latter question has a rich implication at MoMA’s recent collection displays: this question connects the present to the trans-national past of 1960’s Japanese art.

Take, for example, two canvases by Tanaka Atsuko, a female Gutai member, purchased by MoMA in 1965 and Walker Art Center in 2000. The Walker canvas – together with a canvas by Shiraga Kazuo, a male Gutai member that Walker acquired in 1998 – are recent purchases. In light of the scarcity of Gutai paintings on the market, their presence at Walker embodies the institution’s recent commitment to, and diligence in, diversifying its holdings. In contrast, MoMA’s Tanaka reflects a parallel effort made during the 1960s, but was long unacknowledged.

The question “How did it come here?” opens a window into the trans-national past of some works in the collection display. And, as I will now discuss, the internationalization in the 1960s prefigures the globalization of today, not only in terms of the multiplicity and contemporaneity of practices but also the material transfer of objects.

At MoMA, Tanaka’s canvas of 1964 was included in ‘What Is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection’, shown in the summer of 2007. A collection display in the top-floor space assigned for special exhibitions, ‘What Is Painting?’ trotted out many works usually ensconced in storage. The geometry of Tanaka’s huge, colourful canvas resonated with two American paintings that flanked it, those of Al Held (on the left) and Gene Davis (on the right).

A year later, in the summer of 2008, another purchase from the 1960s emerged in MoMA’s collection display. This time it was Compact Object,1962, by Nakanishi Natsuyuki, a member of the Anti-Art collective Hi Red Center. It was displayed, together with small objects that seem to defy easy stylistic classification, in a rotational collection display of the prints department, entitled ‘Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities’.

These two works connect the present to the past, as both were acquired at the time of the landmark exhibition, ‘The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture’, which MoMA organized and toured throughout the US in 1965-67. The exhibition was shown in New York in October 1966. Curated by Dorothy Miller and William Lieberman, the exhibition included 47 Japanese artists who resided both in and outside Japan. The catalogue’s checklist indicates that altogether twelve works had already entered the museum’s collection, including Tanaka’s canvas and Nakanishi’s ‘object’.

MoMA’s engagement with contemporary Japanese art at the time was part of the internationalization of vanguard art in general, and an ongoing Japanese infusion into New York in particular. The Japanese infusion began with the pre-war modernist Okada Kenzō, who came to New York in 1950 and quickly earned his reputation with his style of orientalized abstraction that he called yūgenism. He was followed by a number of pre-war and post-war generation artists. The younger set included, among others, Kuwayama Tadaaki, Kusama Yayoi, and Arakawa Shūsaku, who were associated with the vanguard Dwan and Green Galleries. Their activities, together with news from Japan, especially about Gutai, stoked New York’s interest in modernist Japan. This interest was also informed by America’s flirtation with Asian culture, reinvigorated by its Japanese occupation as well as its curiosity with Japan’s newly assertive economic power, much like the attention China receives today.

The internationalization of Japanese art is a rich topic. We may look into other museums’ collection displays (e.g. a gestural canvas from 1958 by Yoshihara Jirō, the leader of Gutai, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pennsylvania). The trans-national networking was not limited to museums, but also had an individual and governmental dimension. The former is represented by the Roland Gibson collection, now at State University of New York, Potsdam, and the latter by ‘Japan Art Festival’, which was brought to New York in 1966 (seven months before MoMA’s Japanese exhibition) and in 1970.

However, there are important differences between the internationalization in the 1960s and today’s globalization. The worldview of New York was Euro-centric, even New York-centric. From Gutai’s 1958 exhibition at Martha Jackson to MoMA’s exhibition in 1966, the collective enterprises of Japanese contemporary art were, in essence, condemned as either derivative or not Japanese enough (a charge that requires re-examination today). Entering the 1970s, New York’s interest in the contemporary art of far-flung Japan apparently fizzled out.

This brings us back to MoMA today. Last Autumn, the rotational display of contemporary art on the 2nd floor, which opened in September, was entitled ‘Here Is Every. Four Decades of Contemporary Art’. This collection display revealed a conscious effort to expand its geographical coverage within the parameters of a generally conceptualist selection. Among more than 70 artists on display, five were Japanese. The inclusion of Japanese works resulted from a renewed institutional interest in post-war Japan. In general, this interest can be seen to resonate with a broader trend toward multiplicity and globalization. In particular, this interest took the form of a curatorial research trip last summer by the drawing department’s chief curator, Connie Butler, followed by a consultation visit to New York last November by Japanese curators, complete with an evening symposium.

A surprise inclusion was Matsuzawa Yutaka’s My Own Death, 1970, displayed alongside Euro-American Conceptual works. Simultaneously with, but separately from Yoko Ono, Matsuzawa pioneered Japanese Conceptualism by making a complete break in 1964 from object-based art making in favour of language-based practice. Mostly he worked locally, but his international connections were far-reaching, including Art & Project in Amsterdam, with whom he published three bulletins and one brochure and had a few exhibitions. My Own Death was among the gifts from Art & Project to MoMA by in 2007.

The inclusion came as surprise because as with most works by Matsuzawa, My Own Death is essentially an instruction piece, thus not intended to be a valuable object for collection. Its physical presence, as a panel mounted photostat, amounts to no more than a reproduction. In fact, when a version of My Own Death was shown in ‘Japan Art Festival’ in 1970, the artist did not request the return of his work (perhaps thinking it not worthwhile to have it sent back across the Pacific Ocean). This kind of disregard was not unusual in 1960’s Japan: Matsuzawa’s denunciation of material objects was extreme but the obsession with art as a commodity was generally weak, partly due to the state of the market for contemporary art which was, at best, nascent. My Own Death must have been kept in Amsterdam under similar circumstances and has survived some four decades in the hand of an organization that knew the value of the valueless.

Matsuzwa’s inclusion points to a critical area of 1960’s Japanese art that must be dealt with in terms of collecting and display: ephemera that captures conceptualism, performance, and other time-based practices such as avant-garde music. In this area, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles conducted pioneering work and amassed an extensive archive-based collection of post-war Japanese art.

The recent collection displays at MoMA and other institutions, as examined here, indicate the international nature of 1960’s Japanese art, both in terms of its practice and its circulation. An ongoing concern with world art history and its mandate to expand the list of canonical works certainly feed into the trend toward diversification of institutional collecting, as well as collection displays. Just as Western art historians aspire to discover and integrate non-Western modern and contemporary art into their hitherto Euro-centric narrative, Western museums endeavour to do the same, whether by looking into their stores or filling in gaps in their collections through new acquisitions. At the same time, non-Western art historians also benefit from these efforts as the collection display helps us uncover the forgotten trans-national past of their object of study. Such inquiry is a necessary part of world art history, keeping the collection of non-Western art of the 1960s fresher and making it more relevant than can be understood from the collection display alone. 

This text was first presented at the College of Art Association’s 2009 annual conference at Los Angeles, in the panel ‘Cultures for Display: Practices of Exhibiting Non-Western and Latin American Contemporary Art in Euro-American Institutional Networks’ (Chairs: Francesca Dal Lago and Miriam M. Basilio).

Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners.

Reiko Tomii is a New York-based independent scholar and curator who investigates post 1945 Japanese art in global and local contexts. In her publications and projects, including her contribution to 'Century City' (Tate Modern, 2001) and 'Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art' (Getty Research Institute, 2007), she explores 1960s art by looking at international contemporaneity, collectivism, and conceptualism. She is co-founder of PoNJA-GenKon (, a scholarly listserv group for contemporary Japanese Art.


Mon, 1 Jun 2009

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