The curator of "Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky" (at the Guggenheim Museum's Soho branch in New York through Jan. 8 and in San Francisco next May) is of two minds about the show. In her catalog essay, Alexandra Munroe concedes that "Modernism and the concept of avant-garde art are Western ideas that Japan received from abroad." But just before the exhibition opened last week she said, "In the last 10 years, however, we've begun to reconsider [the derivativeness of Japanese modern art]. A lot of the work in the show might seem to look like American abstract expressionism and conceptual art, but it really comes out of another culture." Well, which is it -- a Japanese-dubbed version of the Euro-American story or, as Monty Python might put it, something completely different? In this case, choose both.
"Scream Against the Sky" is a succinct, surprisingly coherent survey -- of 200 wildly diverse objects by 85 artists -- that has been nicely tucked into the Guggenheim's lucidly illuminated, austerely polished galleries that were designed, coincidentally, by prominent Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. If you didn't read the labels, you might think you'd been dropped into the permanent-collection galleries of the Museum of Modern Art, uptown. There are big, squishy abstract paintings, pop conceits like a hammer wrapped in paper money, industrial-looking minimalist black sculpture and anti-nuke assemblages that seem to come straight from "Tales From the Crypt." It's all laid out in roughly chronological order.
But the exhibition is a bit more than a time-lag appropriation of Western avant-garde art works. There's a real tension trying to resolve itself here. Japan's postwar artists have hated what they see as Western cultural imperialism. They've also fallen in love with the vulgarity and excess of American culture. Consequently, they've veered between trying to resuscitate, say, traditional ceramics, and making art with dripped paint or Coca-Cola logos. Jiro Yoshihara, founder of the 1950s Gutai movement, exhorted its followers to "do what has never been done before!" So they took abstract expressionism and pushed it farther into the far-out. Gutai artists applied paint with their bare feet, from bottles broken on the canvas and even with remote-control devices. (Yoshihara himself never completely abandoned traditional Japanese painting. He used fluid acrylic colors in the Zen practice of painting circles.)
Since the Gutai explosion, Japan's contemporary art has run fender to fender with just about everyone else's. In the 1960s there were social-protest works and obsessions with the human body, raucous figurative paintings in the 1980s and elaborate video installations in the 1990s. And this emulation business is a two-way street. Many New York conceptualists were inspired by the peripatetic Yoko Ono's (yes, that Yoko Ono) 22 framed calligraphic "Instructions for Paintings" from the practically antediluvian years 1961-62. The show's title, incidentally, comes from another 30-year-old Ono conceptual ditty called "Voice Piece for Soprano," which, in its entirety, says, "Scream. 1. against the wind 2. against the wall 3. against the sky."
Ono's Eastern poetry aside, the Westernizers prevailed -- otherwise this would be a show at the Japan Society. Although some of the work in the exhibition has a deftness of touch, a lightness of materials you don't see in American contemporary art, most of it looks as though it could have been concocted a few blocks away, in downtown Manhattan. Perhaps familiarity is the price we pay for the internationalization of the art world. These days every country's artists seem to use a lot of consumer electronics to make art that criticizes capitalist societies that produce a lot of consumer electronics.
But the show has a few show-stoppers. One is Yasumasa Morimura's 1991 12-foot-high computer-manipulated photograph, "Playing with the Gods III: At Night." In this picture, with its crucified Japanese versions of Barbie, and the artist himself dressed as a couple of tweedledum tourists, Morimura creates a wealth of ironic confrontations: East vs. West, old master vs. modern, male vs. female and, implicitly, the computer vs. everything. In the end, "Scream Against the Sky" shows mostly that some Japanese postwar artists played rhythm, some played bass and some -- like Yoshihara and Morimura -- played a mean lead gutai.