Grafted Garden. On the exhibition “Your Portrait: A Tetsumi Kudo Retrospective” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

— John Beeson


Tetsumi Kudo, “Your Portrait : A Tetsumi Kudo Retrospective”
The National Museum of Art, Osaka
November 2–January 19, 2013
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
February 4–March 30, 2014
The Aomori Museum of Art
April 12–June 8, 2014

Even in his home country of Japan, Tetsumi Kudo is regularly being rediscovered. He just hasn’t been securely inscribed in the canon of the postwar avant-garde—neither there, nor in his adopted home in Europe, nor in the United States.[1] In a way, Kudo’s legacy isn’t unlike that of Paul Thek’s (until recently) or Alina Szapocznikow’s. Their work has quite a bit in common as well. In each, we see the body—dismembered, dissolving, encased, substituted for with a surrogate. For his part, as a Japanese artist populating fluorescent, dystopian landscapes with resin or plastic skins, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki naturally serve as a backdrop to his production. But, as he once stated, his work was not “intended as a simple protest against the atomic bomb, but something indicating the impasse that humanity [had] reached in Europe.”[2] His is a visionary’s account of a rapidly changing world, where impotence, disembodiment, mutation, and the mechanization of the body and language and interaction represent reality’s covert face.

Like his contemporary Yayoi Kusama—and much of the Japanese avant-garde—Kudo started out making Abstract Expressionist paintings. Like the Gutai group, he developed performances out of this practice. He later became deeply involved with Happenings, working together with Jean-Jacques Lebel and Férro (later Érro) in Paris in the early 1960s. Kudo and Kusama were also included alongside Atsuko Tanaka and some thirty other Japanese painters in French critic Michel Tapié’s 1961 book Avant-garde Art in Japan. In his essay in the book, Tôre Haga frames avant-garde art by referring to an image from third-century Buddhist scripture: the net that hangs over the palace of the god Indra. Anachronistic as this reference might seem today, its substance is surprisingly relevant. As Haga explains, “An infinite number of crystalline gems, each attached to a mesh of the netting, reflect and penetrate one another, so that every gem, reflecting all the others, is reflected by all the others, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, a given gem contains within itself all the others, including itself, and at the same time is contained in all the others, including itself.”[3] In an attempt to relate the complex, perhaps even fractal, latticework of Jackson Pollock’s drips—or the gestures of Mark Tobey, or Wols—Haga unknowingly offers a primitive portrait of cybernetics, a telling framework for Kudo’s work of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The catalogue for “Your Portrait” signals Kudo’s work Distribution Map of Impotence and the Appearance of Protective Domes at the Points of Saturation, 1961–62, as a turning point. The work fills a medium-size room. It consists of a net stretched across the ceiling hung at points with black phalluses, with pegboard lining the walls also hung with phalluses, and two bunches of multicolored phalluses—some encased in clear plastic domes—that extend down to the floor. In the original version of the work, udon noodles spilled across the ground from the tip of a much larger phallus. Among the noodles, Kudo placed a series of pictures, including photos of works by Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns—one of the latter’s target paintings. It’s worth noting that Johns’s Target with Plaster Casts, from 1955, incorporates casts of body parts—a face, a foot, a nipple, a penis—painted different monochrome colors and placed in wooden boxes. Both replica body parts and wooden boxes were important formal devices in Kudo’s work in the years immediately following.

There’s a lot to say about the formal devices that Kudo used in his work. Not only do they relate to, even reveal things about, his philosophy, they’re also supporting evidence of his centrality within the history of postwar and contemporary art—if not evidence of his direct influence. In Kudo’s hands, cast and replica body parts are mostly disembodied, and often enlarged. As the artist Mike Kelley pointed out in his essay on Kudo, “Cultivation by Radiation,” published in 2008, the body parts are specifically sense organs. What’s more, they’ve been contained, put on display. Kelley continued: “These postnuclear representations of the New Man[4] are of impotent mutations, cut off from body and nature. They are the result of the transgressions of science and can survive only through reliance on prosthetic technology.”[5] For example: In Kudo’s L’amour (Love, 1964), that prosthesis takes the form of a mechanism to which two overgrown heads with touching lips are hooked up via wires, allowing them to transmit the words “Je vous aime” (I love you) in Morse code. Later on, with the series Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit, 1967-70, those prostheses take the form of tiny electronic components—such as resistors and transistors—sticking out of the base of variously shaped, fluorescent-colored hothouses inhabited by sense organs, plant life, and insects.

These works are an excellent companion to Paul Thek’s series of Technological Reliquaries—oozing, severed hunks of meat, bone, and skin (made of wax) housed in plexiglas cases often colored neon yellow. Thek’s Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box, 1965, from the same series, literalizes an important aspect of Kudo’s work as well. Kudo’s technicolor palette, thoughts of technological innovation, and references to popular entertainment and consumption (his earlier wooden boxes were painted on the outside to look like dice and contained bottles of brand-name food and drink) are containers for the beating heart behind Pop: mechanized pieces of meat.

Besides boxes, plastic domes, and plexiglas hothouses, Kudo also framed his material narratives in aquariums, terrariums, and birdcages (as in the brilliant series often titled Your Portrait, 1965-81) as well as vertically standing posts (as in Portrait of Ionesco, 1970-71) and chairs. In a group of works shown together in his solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1972, pieces of skin lie next to oversized heads atop lawn chairs. And outsized brains and a cocoon are paired with pieces of skin in baby carriages. In effect, Kudo’s chairs are more than a receptacle for substitute body parts, since they’re a psychic placeholder for the viewer. Some of Isa Genzken’s work has been described as relating to viewers in a similar way. And one of her projects—from Skulptur Projekte Münster, 2007—seems to owe Kudo a real debt. Like Kudo’s Your Portrait May, 1966, included in that grouping at the Stedelijk, her project was a multipart arrangement, where each unit combined a chair, an umbrella, and a surrogate body part (Genzken used dolls).

Even without proof of direct influence, it’s sometimes hard not to think of Kudo as a highly influential artist, given that so much work by young artists today exhibits formal similarities. Of course, it’s not insignificant that they’ve inherited the world Kudo saw on the horizon. Though any number of recent exhibitions or texts could be a case in point—so it’s arbitrary to choose one—a recent essay by Michele D’Aurizio, titled “Prisoner of Flesh,” nevertheless frames the work in a fitting way. He makes reference to cyberpunk imagery, calling it a “pop [version] of the more daring post and trans-human theories” and describes the human body as “the terrain on which the future will be played out: a modifiable technology, ready to accept grafts of software and hardware that boost its physical and mental capacities, to outlive itself, to become more human than the human.”[6] A primary concern among young artists, he argues, is the relationship of power between humans and technology. As examples, he looks to Andrei Koschmieder (whose works have focused on the disembodied hand, an emblem of sensory experience with touchscreen technology), Stewart Uoo (whose post-apocalyptic, amputee cyborgs hang off of vertically installed posts), Nicolas Ceccaldi (who in the past has used both clear plastic domes and birdcages exceedingly like Kudo’s), and Jana Euler (whose paintings often depict disembodied sensory organs, the arrangement of which is dictated by the picture frame). Though not included in D’Aurizio’s essay, Mathis Altmann’s pole-mounted body parts mixed with consumer trash as well as Veit Laurent Kurz’s table-mounted model landscapes (complete with overgrown flowers) just as well could have been.

After Kudo had grown ill from the cancer that ultimately killed him in 1990, he titled one of his very last works For the Souls of Young Art Students,1986-87. By that point, his work had changed substantially. It was reduced almost entirely to yarn spun into various organic—that is to say abstract, not bodily—forms. It had become contemplative and transcendent, abandoning the edge that he had achieved with sculptural arrangements of familiar, if grotesquely mutated, forms. As Atsuhiko Shima, the curator who initiated this retrospective and who authored the majority of the catalogue, reveals in his text, his conversations with Kudo’s widow, Hiroko Kudo, influenced his understanding of the artist’s work immensely. Surely following her direction, Shima describes Kudo’s late work according to the symbolism of knitting, where a single piece of yarn is knotted around itself to form fabric. If nothing else, that gesture might remind us that—in the crystalline mesh of today’s networked world—a Kudo retrospective in Japan can leave a trace elsewhere. Despite its fabric being hideously knotted in some places and threadbare in others, our history of art is all of a piece.

  1. [1] This retrospective follows one at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, in 1994; a solo exhibition at La Maison Rouge, Paris in 2007; and a retrospective at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis in 2008-09.
  2. [2] Toshi Ichiyanagi, Tetsumi Kudo, Hayao Kawai, and Yujiro Nakamura, “Expressions of Space And/Or Spaces of Expression,” symposium transcript, Japanese Association for Semiotic Studies, Gendai Shiso (July 1982), 101-105, in Atsuhiko Shima (ed.), Your Portrait: A Tetsumi Kudo Retrospective, (Osaka: National Museum of Art, Osaka/Daikin Foundation for Contemporary Arts, 2013), 128.
  3. [3] Michel Tapié and Tôre Haga, Avant-garde Art in Japan (Turin: Fratelli Pozzo, 1961), n.p.
  4. [4] This is a reference to the utopian concept of the creation of an ideal human being.
  5. [5] Mike Kelley, “Cultivation by Radiation,” in Doryun Chung (ed.), Tetsumi Kudo, Garden of Metamorphosis (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2008), 52.
  6. [6] Michele D’Aurizio, “Prisoner of Flesh,” Kaleidoscope, no. 16 (Fall 2012).