Among Japan's avant-garde art movements, the Gutai Group of Osaka, extolled by Allan Kaprow as the "forerunner of happenings," is well known. But another group that came into being several years later in Tokyo, called the Neo-Dada Organizers, has an importance that cannot be overlooked in considering the postwar art of Japan. This group was formed by some of the young artists who were showing their works in the early 1960s in the Yomiuri lnd'ependante Exhibition, a newspaper-sponsored annual art show that was open to all,not judged. It is interesting that Shusaku Arakawa and Tetsumi Kudo participated in this movement before leaving Japan, and that On Kakawa had show his works in the lnd'ependate Exhibition during the 1950s. The chief conspirators of the Neo-Dada movement, however, were Tomio Miki (who died in 1977 and is known for his series of "ear" sculptures), Ushio Shinohara, Shintaro Tanaka, and Mananobu Yoshimura. Of them, Shinohara in particular was regarded, for his seemingly idiosyncratic conduct and work, as the enfant terrible of Japan's art world.
The members of the Gutai Group, after staging destructive happenings at the outset in the1950s, had transformed themselves under the influence of l'art infomel and Action Painting into aesthetic, "nice" abstract painters. In contrast, the Neo-Dada Organizers, younger by a generation, stuck to more everyday life-like things: common junk, mass media, and other symbols of modern society. While rejecting "picturesqueness," they produced expressionist objects, rough action tableaux, and staged destructive Dadaist events.
Shinohara, then flaunting a Mohawk haircut, splashed paint on Canvases with boxing gloves to create what he termed a "boxing painting" and, on another occasion, came up with The Largest Self-Portrait in the World, a vast painting with a face visible in it. He also made public "actionsculptures" and "thunder sculptures," which were really collections of junk that retained marks of slashing ferocity.
Shuzo Takiguchi, surrealist poet who then had an art column in the Yomiuri Skimbum, wrote of Shinohara's gigantic junk sculpture shown at the lnd'ependante Exhibition in 1959 in an article "It's Come to This: The Hell with It!":
Though used to this sort of thing, this reviewer too was put off. The piece surely is worth recording as an incomparably 'bad sculpture,' but no one can predict this artist's future. I'm not making fun of it. what I'd like to say is that the lnd'ependante Exhibition won't be able to disregard this.
What Shinohara makes are not, so to speak, 'works of art' (He once went so far as to sculpture his hair). The things he has made certainly make no distinction between beauty and ugliness. For all this, Shinohara has an angelic aspect. He picks up or drops the most negligible thing, while managing to reduce the act to something genuine. It may be said that he is making use of this Exhibition to propound the actions of the young.
Shinohara was so accomplished in realistic and academic skills that one professor at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts is said to have told him, "I have nothing more to teach you." This is legend, but it was from this point that Shinohara rebelled against commonsensial beauty and aeademism by consciously producing "incomparably bad sculptures," thereby ehdlenging the conventional art world. His pieces renflected a perception of the devastation, chaos, and smoke of postwar Japan brought to ruin by the atomic bombs\neither tradcally nor pesshistically, but in a way that suggested a reality of intense brightness.
That Shinohara had a highly rational, critical mind behind his seemingly idiosyncratic conduct and work is illustrated by the "imitation art" series he began in 1963. What he did was to make pieces which imitated in a unique fashion the Pop Art masterpieces of the 1960s, such as Jasper Johns's Three Flags and Robert Rauschenberg's Coca-Cola Plan. In that series Shinohara expressed his sympathy with Pop Art's stress on the originality of the time, rather than on an individual artist. At the same time, by copying foreign artworks in a startling way, he suggested that those Japanese artists who had been following in the wake of artistic movements abroad had been simply pretending to be original. What they did in fact was "adapt."
Shinohara was also criticizing the avant-garde myth that art is forever new. In basing his own avant-garde work upon references to someone else's style or a particular mode of expression in the history of art, Shinohara was showing how the avant-garde was not really doing anything new. This view of avant-garde art may be said to have preceded the currently fashionable New Wave painting by twenty years. It is a well-known story that Jasper Johns, upon looking at Shinohara's Three Flags that used colors different from his original, painted American flags in complementary colors.
I should also mention an incident in late 1964 when Robert Rauschenberg, then artistic advisor to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, came to Japan for the first time. It happened at the "event" I conducted, "An Opening Interview with Rauschenberg," at a theatre called Sogetsu Hall in Tokyo. I addressed a variety of questions to Rauschenberg but he did not utter a single word in response as he, on stage, kept working on the combine Gold Standard, which in the end took him four hours. In the middle of this event, Shinohara jumped up on stage and predepicted a life-size papier-mach'e figure he had made, Thinking Marcel Duchamp. The figure depicted Duchamp in Olympic unifom, holding a Coke bottle in one hand and a monograph on himself in the other, with the head electrically spinning with an amazing speed. Rotating this doll,Shinohara threw questions at Rauschenberg one after another: "What do you think of my imitation of your Coca-Cola Plan?", "In some ways your pieces inherit the power of Picasso's brush,but shouldn't modern art deny the originality sought in the power of the brush?", and so on. Rauschenberg did not once respond to Shinohara's questions, but kept at his work in silence. Shinohara ran out of patience and had his questions written in English on a piece of paper. Thereupon, the American artist pasted it on the tableau and covered it with paint. But after he completed Gold Standard and the event was over, Rauschenberg is said to have held Shinohara's Coca-Cola Plan in his arms and exclaimed with delight, "My son! My son!"
The Neo-Dada Organizers dispersed around 1965, and Shusaku Arakawa, Tetstmi Kudo, and Masonobu Yoshihara left for New York and Paris one after the other and began anew in each place. Shinohara, on the other hand, stayed on in Japan until 1969 when he went to New York with a grant from the JDR 3rd Fund. One of the more notable works he produced during those years is the Oiran (Courtesan) series, on which he began work in 1965.
Oiran is the apellation given to the highest ranking geisha. However, instead of basing his work on the beautiful, high-style image of the oiran in the woodblock prints of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro, Shinohara used her grotesque, lurid, fin de si'ecle image in the prints of the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868). To illustrate this outlandish work, Shinohara used plastic and flourescent paint, and jaxtaposed Cowboys of the American West and courtesans bathed in blood. He spelled out his rebellion against the traditional emphasis on elegance and subtletly in Japanese art by dragging into glaring daylight the kind of grotesque beauty that had been ignored in the history of art and by transforming it into a straightforward Pop Art style expression. At a time when many Japanese artists had fallen into the trap of borrowing from Japanese tradition, Shinohara presented the tradition as a form of kitsch, something cut off from himself. The same year he began work on the Oiran Series, he was awarded a prize by the William Copley Foumdation - some say, at the recommendation of Duchamp, who heard about the story of Rauschenberg and the papier-mach'e figure.
It is now 31 years since Shinohara went to the United States. During this time the artworld, in New York and elsewhere, has undergone a series of precipitous changes from Minimal Art to Conceptual Art to Photo-realism. But Shinohara has refused to redecorate himself in accordance with such movements, consistently maintaining the non-aesthetic attitude of his Tokyo years. One may say that he has been slapping the chaotic, dynamic energy of Tokyo upon New York. The Motorcycles that he energetically made in the 1970s are rough, tough sculptures made of cartons held together with polyester resin. Solidified in these, like volcanic lava, are the despair, the romanticism, and the eroticism of the machine culture of the United States.
Since the late 1970s, Shinohara has been working on tableaux, such as the set entitled Miami Eros. These represent the blossoming of Shinohara's effort not to abandon his "image" - the effort that he maintained through the season of intellectual sophistication of art in the 1970s. In this he may be positioned as a forerunner of the current New Wave art. In his gigantic canvases, expressionist, violent, ritualist images explode like innumerable thunderbolts, which will make the viewer feel the powerfull life force at the origin of human existence-as well as an eerie emptiness.@