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 Atsuko Tanaka  (1932 - 2005)

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Lived/Active: New York / Japan      Known for: installations, wearable art, performance, sound and light, painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Atsuko Tanaka was a pioneering Japanese avant-garde artist.  Born in Osaka, on February 10, 1932, she went to several local art schools where she worked in mostly figurative mode.  The schools she had attended were the Art Institute of Osaka Municipal Museum of Art in 1950, and from 1951 on, the Department of Western Painting at Kyoto Municipal College of Art (now Kyoto City University of Arts).  There, she had made friends with a man named Akira Kanayama, who had helped her explore new artistic territories.  In 1955, she joined the Gutai group, an avant-garde artists' movement, to which she belonged until her marriage with Akira Kanayama in 1965.  In the same year, Tanaka had left Gutai with Kanayama.  She moved in with him in a house at the temple Myohoji in Osaka.  She produced most of her works at home and in the second floor of her parents' house, which was ten minutes away from where she had lived.  In 1972, Tanaka and her husband had moved from Osaka to Nara.  On December 3, 2005 Atsuko had died of pneumonia at the age of 73.

In 1955, Akira Kanayama had introduced Tanaka to his colleagues in an experimental art organization which he had founded called Zero-kai (Zero Society); she had soon joined this association.  In the meantime, a skillful easel painter named Jiro Yoshihara, had been offering private lessons in Western Oil-painting.  After being influenced by the many abstractionists in Tokyo, Yoshihara had developed a new kind of art practice that would, in his words, "create things that have never existed before."  In 1954, Yoshihara, accompanied with his young colleagues had founded the Gutai Art Association.

Gutai artists had been known to be one of the first to carry out "happenings"; the physical actions they were involved in were documents of the actions, and the actual performances of the pieces.  This brought on a new type of art, known today as performance art. Their creations weren't influenced by doctrinaire theory; they focused more on playful, whimsical inventions. Similarly, Tanaka had displayed the same type of whimsical inventions through her work.

Tanaka's pieces can be seen as abstract works that rejected conventional notions of how works of art should appear or "perform."  Tanaka's works, which include abstract paintings, sculptures, performances and installations, generally feature objects from everyday life: textiles, door bells, light bulbs and the like.

Within the Gutai movement, Tanaka had created some radiant pieces.  One of these pieces, called Work Bell, produced in 1955, consisted of a string of electric bells laid out around the border of a gallery; the piece included a button for visitors to press which consequently set off a chain of shrieking rings. In another one of her works, called Work (Yellow Cloth), executed in 1955, Tanaka had taken long pieces of plain, dyed fabric and tacked them to a gallery's walls, creating 'paintings' that removed any suggestion of human handling from their forms and surfaces.  Her piece, Stage Clothes, produced in 1956, consisted of gigantic stick-figure frames draped with fabric and light bulbs, and an immense red dress with sleeves 30-foot (9.1 m) long sleeves.  This turned out to be a multi-part ensemble that she wore at a Gutai performance.  She had peeled off each layer rapidly in a costume-changing routine.  Tanaka literally inserted her body into the work of art, making herself a part of the performance.

Her best-known work is Electric Dress, invented in 1956, a burqa-like costume consisting of electrical wires and lit-up coloured lightbulbs.  Tanaka wore the dress to exhibitions.  Her inspiration for her signature work Electric Dress was from a pharmaceutical advertisement illuminated by neon lights.  The bulky garment expresses the body's circuitry, and acts like a costume.  Here, the work lights up sporadically, giving off the sensation of an alien-like creature.  According to the Gutai artists, Tanaka's work symbolized post war Japan's rapid transformation and urbanization.  When Tanaka wore her dress for the first time, her face and hands were the only visible subject.  She had noticed the trepidation when she had worn it and flipping the switch: "I had the fleeting thought: Is this how a death-row inmate would feel?"

In the 2000s, Tanaka's works were featured in numerous expositions in Japan and abroad, including at the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art, the Nagoya Gallery HAM, the New York Grey Art Gallery and Paula Cooper Gallery as well as at the Innsbruck Galerie im Taxispalais.  The Grey Art Gallery focused on Tanaka's Gutai period and also included a video and documentation of the movement.  This gallery includes a reconstructed version of Electric Dress. Here, the work lights up periodically, buzzing with life like an alien creature.

In 2005, the University of British Columbia's Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver mounted a major exhibition of Tanaka's work entitled "Electrifying art : Atsuko Tanaka, 1954-1968".  Electric Dress and other works were on display at the 2007 documenta 12 in Kassel.

Atsuko Tanaka's work is included in a number of internationally important public collections, including that of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).  MOMA's online collection  features a large, untitled 1964 Tanaka work (synthetic polymer paint on canvas).  Nearly 12 feet (3.7 m) tall and over 7 feet (2.1 m) wide, this piece, according to MOMA's online description, "evolved from Tanaka's performance Electric Dress", and "vividly records the artist's gestural application of layers and skeins of multicolored acrylic paint on the canvas as it lay on the floor."


Biography from Museum of Modern Art, New York:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

One could say that Atsuko Tanaka is having a moment here at MoMA.  Her untitled painting from 1964 is currently one of the most visible works on view at the Museum (situated above the information desk in the main lobby), and a recently acquired drawing just went on view this week for the first time at MoMA in the exhibition Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now.

Born in Osaka, Japan, in 1932, Tanaka was a member of the Gutai Art Association, the major experimental postwar Japanese art movement founded by a group of young artists in Ashiya in 1954.  She was best known for sculptural installations made from non-art materials, such as Electric Dress (1956), a wearable sculpture made of flickering light bulbs painted red, blue, green, and yellow.  When originally worn, the sculpture both made the body the center of artistic activity and masked it in a mass of light and color.  This work, along with Work (Bell) (1955)?made of twenty electric bells connected by one hundred feet of electrical cord and a switch that viewers can press to activate a line of ringing sound?are prime illustrations of Tanaka's interest in the application of intangible materials in art, namely electricity, and Gutai's overall reaction to a modernizing Japan.

Dated the same year as Electric Dress, this recently acquired untitled drawing, Untitled, 1956, recalls the numerous studies Tanaka prepared for the iconic sculpture, and it represents a major acquisition for the Museum?not only because it is the first work on paper by Tanaka to enter the collection, but also because most of the artist's early mature works are in fact paper collages, drawings, and cloth works that indicate her initial increased interest in subverting traditional notions of fine art. I n this drawing, glowing orbs of solid color, filled with the artist's frenzied strokes, are connected by an imperfect grid of sinuous lines, reminiscent of the trail of electrical wires that make up Electric Dress.  This style of draftsmanship and color application would characterize the artist's work for the remainder of her career?after 1956 painting would become Tanaka's exclusive art-making practice, and circles and lines her sole motifs for decades?but her works on paper from the 1950s represent her initial exploration.

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