Ay-O at his 2012, 81st birthday party wearing his signature hat.
Ay-O 靉嘔 b. 1931
Known as the "Rainbow Man" the artist Ay-O is going strong at the age of 81. Installation and performance art, painting, sculpture and prints are all part of his oeuvre. Residing for many years in New York, he was an active member of the international Fluxus anti-art movement which included avant-garde musicians, poets, composers, writers and artists. Drawn to print making in the late 1950s, it was in 1964 that he began producing his signature rainbow prints, made famous at the 1966 Venice Biennale. His subsequent work has been called "a continuing celebration of the rainbow."1
1 Contemporary Japanese Prints: Symbols of a Society in Transition, Lawrence Smith, Harper & Row Publishers, 1985, p. 27.
In 1958 he moved to New York as a way to distance himself from Japanese culture and immerse himself in the Western contemporary art scene. In 1961 he was introduced to George Maciunas (1931-1978), the founder of the anti-art movement Fluxus (see Fluxus below), by Yoko Ono (b. 1933) and he was to go on to create hundreds of works under the Fluxus banner - works that went "beyond the confines of the painting" and "appealed to the five senses,"1 notably his "finger boxes" and his pioneering installations which he dubbed "environments."
In a 2012 interview with art journalist C. B. Liddell, the artist recalled his first years in New York.
Representing Japan at the 1966 Venice Biennale, his signature rainbow style gained him international recognition and fame. In 1968-1969 he taught at the University of Kentucky, a stint that may have inspired his highly praised 1971 ten print portfolio Nashville Skyline, a rainbow adaptation of motifs from American folk art. The portfolio is dedicated to Bob Dylan.
Ay-O returned to Japan following his teaching assignment and in 1970 he constructed his famous Tactile Rainbow Room for the Osaka World Fair, "Expo '70." In 1971 he represented Japan at the São Paulo Biennale and he remained in Japan until he left for travels in England, Europe and Nepal in 1973. The mid to late 1970s were a time of prolific print-making for Ay-O with over 130 prints created during this period.
Rainbow Environment No.7:
1987 brought a series of his "Rainbow Happenings," including his best known Rainbow Eiffel Tower Project in Paris in which a 300-meter rainbow banner hung for three days from the Eiffel tower, around which Ay-O placed 150 found objects painted in the colors of the rainbow.
Left: Ay-O's sketch for the 1987 Rainbow Eiffel Tower Project
Right: 300 meter Rainbow Eiffel Tower Project, Paris, 1987 (Photo: Kenji Mizuyachi)
Over the last 25 years, Ay-O has kept up his Fluxus related activities. In 1993 his work was included in the exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis which traveled to five other museums. In 1994 his solo exhibition Some Hanging Pieces No.9 Object Mandala was held by the Kasseler Kunstverein, Museum Fridericianum Kassel. In 1998 he co-edited Mr. Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, 1931-1978 with Emmett Williams and Ann Noel. In 2001 he had a major presence in the special exhibit La fluxus Constellation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Genoa. He was also represented in various other Fluxus exhibitions around the world such as Centraal Fluxus Festival Centraal Museum, Utrecht (2003) and Fluxus & Non Fluxus Fluxus Randers Kunstmuseum, Denmark (2006).
Ay-O exhibits regularly at galleries and museums in the United States, Europe and Japan. He has had a number of solo and joint exhibitions in Japan including the 2002 Art Tower Mito (ATM) exhibition Twelve Japanese Artists from the Venice Biennale 1952-2001; the Mori Art Museum's 2005 Tokyo-Berlin / Berlin-Tokyo and its 2007 All about laughter exhibitions; the Fukui Fine Arts Museum and Miyazake Prefectural Art Museum exhibition Over the Rainbow, Ay-O Retrospective 1950-2006 (2007) and the Tsukuba Museum of Art's 2010 exhibition AY-O 1950s-2010: A Retrospective. In 2012 the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo mounted a large retrospective of his work titled Ay-O: Over the Rainbow Once More.
His works are included in the collections of numerous museums including the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and Kyoto, the British Museum, New York Museum of Modern Art; Brooklyn Museum; Cincinnati Art Museum; Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art; Machida City Museum of Graphic Art, Tokyo; Queensland Art Gallery, Australia; Smithsonian Museums of Asian Art, Freer/Sackler; Weserburg | Museum für moderne Kunst, Bremen.
1 Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo http://www.mot-art-museum.jp/eng/2012/ay_o/
Ay-O exhibition room at Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 2012
Centered in New York City, where Maciunas landed after fleeing Lithuania at the end of WWII, it drew inspiration from the composer John Cage who is credited with inspiring the "group's interest in Asian philosophy and aesthetics - especially Taoism, Zen and the I Ching."3 Fluxus courted Japanese avant-garde artists such as Yoko Ono (b. 1933), Shigeko Kubota (b. 1937), Chieko Shiomi (b. 1938) and Ay-O "as a collective manifestation of an Eastern sensibility that corresponded with such Flux-ideas as chance, minimalism, poetics, and the investigation of the simple and habitual acts of everyday life and their inherent relation to art."4
While Maciunas put forward Fluxus's objectives as "social (not aesthetic)"5 and gave it a left-wing ideological bent, Fluxus was to become an amorphous amalgam of avant-garde artists best summed up in 1990 by Fluxus artists Eric Anderson as "a good gathering of a lot of disagreement from many good individuals" and by Yoko Ono who stated "Fluxus is what you make of it."6
Lette Eisenhauer, second from left.
Ay-O and Fluxus
A Fluxus member from early on, Ay-O conceived of over 100 works under the Fluxus banner. Installation art, performance art, poetry and writing were all part of his contribution and all his contributions are imbued with irreverence and humor, as are his "Poem for George Maciunas" and "Rainbow Manifesto" reproduced below.
Beyond Ay-O's many variations of his iconic Fingerboxes, his realized and proposed Fluxus projects include Foam Room, 1963; Flux Rain Machine - A sealed clear plastic box with label. Contains moisture, 1965; Balloon Obstacle, 1966; Brush Toilet Seat, 1970-71; Mirror Floor; Rainbow Toilet Paper; Rainbow Movie; Suds in Toilet Bowl; Trapdoor Obstacle and Web Obstacle, 1976.
His first series of silkscreen prints, started in 1965, is titled Animated Rainbow and consists of 14 prints. Ay-O refers to this series as his "stain" prints which he created using "drops of lithographic ink, rainbow hues of oil paints, and lettering for collage taken almost exclusively from Life or Esquire."5
Ay-O with his printer of over 50 years Sukeda Kenryo
While much of Ay-O's work is not "Japanese" in subject matter, he has not ignored traditional Japanese motifs, witness this collection's print Sumo Wrestling, modeled after a work by the 18th century ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kunisada I (1786–1865), the below shunga print Rainbow Hokusai, Position A and his 1997 portfolio An Anthology of Shunga.
Ay-O in his studio in Namegata, Ibarki Prefecture, 2014
Prints in Collection
click on thumbnail for print details