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 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. In 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.