We look back on the life and work of a true art rebel who has influenced everyone from the Chapman brothers to Mike Kelley
When people use the word “outsider” about an artist, the image it conjures up is of someone outside of the gallery system, making work with a sense of compulsion and hidden obsession. Yet the late, legendary Tetsumi Kudo had his own completely unique visual vocabulary and approach to art. He was someone who separated himself from country and category.
The most original artist you’ve never heard of.
His work is mindblowing. Strange monstrous hands and melted faces grip aquariums filled with stripy phallus-fish and plastic crap. Acid-green cock caterpillars crawl around cages filled with violently unnatural roses. Lips, dicks, flowers and electronics are contained in odd boxes and cages exuding violent hyper colours. It’s like an alien gardening show in which human beings, supermarket shit and electrical engineering are fused together.
Kudo never showed in the US in his lifetime and is little known to the general public. Yet his legacy is huge; his influence can be seen in the work of David Altmejd, Jake and Dinos Chapman and the late Mike Kelley. “Kudo’s works looked less like sculpture than like movie props from lurid science fiction film,” Kelley wrote in 2008. “They did not resemble any other contemporary sculpture I was familiar with, and I admired them greatly.” He spoke of Kudo’s “grotesque rendering of the body, cut into pieces or dissolving into puddles of goo.” Paul McCarthy, meanwhile, has been discussing Kudo in lectures since 1968, and talked about him in his book Low Life Slow Life: Tidebox Tidebook.
According to the highly respected New York gallerist Andrea Rosen, who represents Kudo’s estate, the artist was recognised during his lifetime, but that attention faded. “It wasn’t just that it was out of fashion,” she says, “but that we actually stopped really being able to digest this more visceral work. It’s people like Paul McCarthy that allowed us to really look at Kudo’s work again. If you talk to Paul, he would say he was in Paris in the 60s looking at Kudo’s work and it was the greatest influence in his life. It’s two-sided – because of someone like Paul we’re able to really look at the works again. But it’s because of Kudo that we have Paul.”
“Kudo is a great artist because he’s complex, and that’s what great art is. Great art can transform itself through time to take on new information. And not all artists can do that” – Andrea Rosen
Kudo emerged from the radical post-war Tokyo art scene. He was born in 1935 in Osaka to parents who were painters and teachers. In 1954 he entered the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and quickly rebelled against the traditional education system, forming collectives and organising events and exhibitions. He stayed in the city after graduation in 1958, flirting with scenes like neo-dada and regularly entering the Yomiuri Independent, an annual salon show that was the biggest contemporary space for emerging art. Alongside abstract paintings incorporating found objects, he created a number of anti-art performances, in one instance creating gesture paintings with his hands and feet using splashed paint on canvases on the floor and walls.
By 1960, he was largely working with sculpture and junk materials, making scrubbing brushes that look like sea urchins and cotton gloves shaped like amoebas. In 1961, in protest at the signing of the US/Japan mutual security treaty, Kudo created his breakthrough work, the installation “Philosophy of Impotence”, which took up an entire room at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum as part of the Yomiuri Independent exhibition. He hung the walls and ceiling of the black space with penises sculpted from tape and inlaid with mini-lightbulbs that looked like pre-cum. The approach was different from the work of, say, Yayoi Kusama or Louise Bourgeois. Kudo was not making work about patriarchy or sex; he was looking for something post-sexual, working to “find the ground zero of sex, the ground zero of culture.”
This landmark work was a formative influence on young Japanese artist Yoshinori Niwa, who says: “I was so excited for the potential of art every time I saw his documentary photograph of ‘Philosophy of Impotence’. I began to make performance works. Not at opening parties of exhibitions, but always in public spaces and political stages. A self-critical performance like Kudo’s punctures a small hole through which to get out of the ordinary way of thinking.” Also included in the exhibition was a painting Kudo made with black string called “Proliferating Chain Reaction in Limited Pool”. He won a prize for the show, and immediately used the money to go to Paris.
“Kudo’s works looked less like sculpture than like movie props from lurid science fiction film” – Mike Kelley
Despite not speaking any French, when Kudo arrived in 1962 he managed to hook up with critic Jean-Jacques Lebel, who invited him to enact “happenings”. Allan Kaprow described one of these in his book Assemblage, Environments and Happenings (1966): “Kudo as sex priest makes silent sermon with immense papier-mache phallus, then screams in Japanese, caresses public with the phallus, goes into mystic orgasm then collapses.” Kudo wasn’t really the “sex priest” Kaprow thought he was, but given that other performances included giving “products” called Dry Penis and Instant Sperm to audience members like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, you can understand the assumption.
In Paris, Kudo’s work changed dramatically. He didn’t have a proper studio, so began making smaller objects with kitchen utensils and odd plastic objects. He increasingly referenced nuclear physics with titles like “Proliferous Chain Reaction in X-style Basic Substance”. Boxes became a central motif, resulting in works like 1962’s “Bottled Humanism”, a sculpture of a bloodied plastic foetal thing in a jar labelled “Kudo Co. Ltd”. “We are born from a box (womb),” Kudo later wrote, “live our lives in a box (apartment), and after death we end up in a box (coffin).”
He developed a very personal visual language, adding moulded body parts to his increasingly grotesque sculptures – eyeballs, melted skin, brains, disembodied hands. Many saw his work as a response to nuclear holocaust and Japanese experience, but Kudo’s emphasis was actually on metamorphosis. “It is not just a question of appearance, since everything is in a state of transformation,” he said. “The body itself is changing.” In the late 60s, he made small terrariums and greenhouses filled with eyeballs, noses, penises and electronic circuitry covered in resin and soil, glowing with fluoro spraypaint. The works were proto post-humanist – a fusion of the organic and inorganic, a utopian vision of post-nuclear ecology he called “cultivation by radioactivity”.
In a 1972 solo show at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Kudo called for a rethink about the relationship between nature, humanity and technology. “Pollution of nature! Decomposition of humanity (humanism)! The end of the world!” he said. “These exclamations are fashionable nowadays but this situation is neither absolutely catastrophic nor fashionable. This is the ineluctable process for reforming ourselves. Behind this situation there is a great possibility of revolution for us personally.”
He slowed down in the mid-70s, becoming less confrontational and more introverted, working on a series of birdcage sculptures titled Portrait of the Artist in Crisis that saw melting part-figures knitting, praying and playing with string. In 1980 he was hospitalised for alcoholism, and the following year returned to Japan. He split his time between France and Japan for the rest of his life. After being diagnosed with throat cancer in 1987, he began chemo and radiotherapy.
During this period he returned to the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music as a teacher. One of his students was cult artist Makoto Aida. “That image of him – saying no to meals, sucking nutrient drinks from small glass bottles through a thin straw – is an impression etched on to my memory,” he says. “In his room he would be drinking from midday onwards, playing dated folk songs at full volume that echoed endlessly down the corridors. The sight of him, always seeming to be struggling against something, was pitiful – and he was genuine in this for sure – but at the same time one could also sense a touch of the melodramatic about it. Whether Kudo returned to Japan when he perceived that the time of his death was near, or rather whether it was Japan that reduced his lifespan – for me, to this day I still don’t know.” In 1990, at 55, Kudo died of colon cancer.
“I’m very interested in and influenced by Tetsumi Kudo’s cartoon-like or maquette-like forms. His works produce the power to neutralise oppositions such as east and west, personal emotions and universality, and kitsch and sophistication” – Teppei Kaneuji
What is so interesting about Kudo’s work is how prescient it was. His central themes of environmental pollution, deformation, utopian post-humanism and the corrupt could not be more timely for our post-technological world. “Everything is revolving in an extremely rapid cyclone of information,” he said in 1974. “Here (in Japan), humans themselves become informational bits. We become unable to see anything in the midst of the cyclone. One cannot observe oneself, nor see the world. Even the freedom to question does not exist in this place.” He saw his work as an electrocardiogram that aimed to represent the spiritual response to abnormalities of society.
Younger artists are increasingly fascinated by his approach. “I’m very interested in and influenced by Tetsumi Kudo’s cartoon-like or maquette-like forms,” Japanese installation artist and sculptor Teppei Kaneuji says, “as well as the destructive power created by the combination of lurid motifs and physical performances that contradict such forms. His works produce the power to neutralise oppositions such as east and west, personal emotions and universality, and kitsch and sophistication.”
Julie Verhoeven, a British artist who shares Kudo’s fascination with genitalia and colour, is also a fan: “I have only experienced the physical, body-curdling force of his work from books. A sense of grimace and alarm followed swiftly by desire and envy. His work is a violent reminder of what I want to achieve emotionally with my very sorry, polite, output. How to ever achieve that release of the grubby subconscious? To dig in deep and empty the hoover bag of the brain is my goal.”
The uncanny work of Kudo is increasingly being rethought into the canon of art. As Rosen notes: “He’s a great artist because he’s complex, and that’s what great art is. Great art is something that can transform itself through time to take on new information. And not all artists can do that.”