The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art presents “Ay-Ō’s Happy Rainbow Hell,” the first museum exhibition in the United States dedicated to pioneering Japanese artist Ay-Ō, a member of Fluxus and celebrated figure of the Pop Art movement whose ideas of exploration, sensory immersion and humor have had a lasting impact on global contemporary art. The survey brings together over 80 works—74 of which are from the collection of the National Museum of Asian Art and the remainder from institutions across the country—to explore what the artist describes as his own “rainbow hell” (niji no jigoku), a compulsion to produce work that encompasses the full range of the visible light spectrum. Spanning much of the artist’s nearly 70-year international career, “Ay-Ō’s Happy Rainbow Hell” encourages visitors to enter Ay-Ō’s world and find depth beneath his prismatic surfaces. It is on view March 25–Sept. 10 in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery as a lead exhibition during the museum’s centennial.
Widely recognized as the “rainbow artist,” Ay-Ō (b. 1931, Namegata City, Japan) began his artistic career as a member of the Demokrato Artist’s Association in Tokyo before moving to New York in 1958 where he became a major figure of the group of avant-garde artists, poets and performers known as Fluxus. It was during this period that he began to experiment with tactile experiences and other forms of perceptual art, a response to the Abstract Expressionism that dominated the New York art scene in the late 1950s. Ay-Ō’s “Finger Boxes”—16 of which are on view as part of “Ay-Ō’s Happy Rainbow Hell”—embody this exploration, inviting participants to insert their finger into wooden boxes whose contents could not be seen, only touched, resulting in moments of sensory discovery. It was around this same time that Ay-Ō began to deploy colorful, rainbow-striped motifs in his work, a tactic that allowed him to break through the traditional constructs of image-making.
The artist was drawn to the rainbow for its ability to democratize the use of color and convey a sense of humor and play. Over the next six decades, Ay-Ō worked with specialist printers in a laborious silkscreen production technique that allowed him to achieve unparalleled saturation of color and push the medium to its limits. His work covered a range of subjects, from treatments of the human body and animal kingdom to reinterpretations of iconic artworks of the Japanese canon—such as “Red Fuji” from Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” among others. The rainbow progression lends Ay-Ō’s subjects a sense of structure amidst a chaos of color.
“A celebration of Ay-Ō’s work in the United States is long overdue,” said Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. “The exhibition provides an opportunity to highlight a singular artist from Japan and bring his international presence and impact on global art movements to the fore. Our commitment to sharing the stories of pathbreaking Asian artists like Ay-Ō anticipates forthcoming exhibitions the museum will host in its new gallery devoted to modern and contemporary art, set to open this summer as part of the museum's centennial celebrations.”
“By presenting Ay-Ō’s rainbow silkscreen prints together with the tactile, experiential objects that he developed during his earlier career, we hope to show these works as a continuum, expressing the same ideas of sensory exploration and boundless curiosity, in terms of both touch and vision,” said Kit Brooks, The Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the museum. “By understanding Ay-Ō’s interest in texture, we begin to see his prints as more than just two-dimensional compositions, but truly immersive rainbow surfaces that can leave you (happily) overwhelmed.”
Brooks specializes in Japanese prints and paintings of the Edo and Meiji periods. Their primary research interests revolve around the reevaluation of “eccentric” artists of the 18th century, as well as the relationship between illustrated books and paintings, and special prints that emulate the visual qualities of other media, such as surimono and takuhanga. Brooks recently co-curated the National Museum of Asian Art exhibition “Underdogs and Antiheroes: Japanese Prints from the Moskowitz Collection,” which features subjects that are not commonly associated with traditional Japanese print culture.
“Ay-Ō’s Happy Rainbow Hell” will be accompanied by a catalog, the first dedicated English-language publication on the artist. Scheduled for release March 21, the catalog includes an introductory message from Ay-Ō and an illustrated essay from his longtime printer Sukeda Kenryō in addition to biographical and extended catalog entries that explore Ay-Ō’s legacy and the complexity of his rainbow obsession. The exhibition will be augmented by an interactive gesture wall and digital haptic boxes designed and produced by the Washington, D.C.-based experiential art producer ARTECHOUSE that allow audiences to expand their understanding of Ay-Ō’s world.
“Ay-Ō’s Happy Rainbow Hell” is the third in a series of exhibitions that celebrate the National Museum of Asian Art’s centennial in 2023. Details on public programming will be announced in the coming months. Follow asia.si.edu and @NatAsianArt for updates.
About the Artist
Born in 1931 as Iijima Takako, Ay-Ō graduated from the Art Department of the Tokyo University of Education (Tōkyō Kyōiku Daigaku, now the University of Tsukuba) in 1954. Prior to graduating, Ay-Ō joined the Demokrato Artist’s Association (Demokurāto Bijutsuka Kyōkai), a collective founded in Osaka in 1951 and led by the enigmatic multimedia artist Ei-Q (1911–1960), who would become Ay-Ō’s mentor. It was also around this time that he adopted his own artistic sobriquet, Ay-Ō, combining his favorite vowel sounds from the Japanese syllabary. Ay-Ō was involved in other avant-garde art groups in Japan, cofounding the Jitsuzonsha (Existentialists) and participating in Sōzō Biiku (Society for Creative Aesthetic Education), before his move to the U.S. in 1958 and his participation in the New York-based Fluxus collective in the early 1960s. He was selected to represent Japan at the 33rd Venice Biennale, where he presented Rainbow Tactile Room to international recognition. He also exhibited at the São Paulo Biennale in 1971 and the World Exposition ’70 in Osaka, and he has won several awards for his prints, including at the 1970 Tokyo International Prints Biennale. Some of Ay-Ō’s most public installations have been a series of “Rainbow Happenings,” including suspending a 300-meter rainbow banner from the Eiffel Tower in 1987 (“Rainbow Happening no. 17”).
Included in many Fluxus exhibitions and numerous one-man shows held internationally, Ay-Ō has had two major retrospectives in Japan, “Over the Rainbow,” organized by the Fukui Art Museum in 2006 and “Over the Rainbow Once More,” organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT) in 2012. “Ay-Ō’s Happy Rainbow Hell” is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States.
This exhibition is made possible with support from the Getty Foundation through The Paper Project initiative.
Support for this exhibition and the museum’s Japanese art program is provided by Mitsubishi Corporation.
Additional support for “Ay-Ō’s Happy Rainbow Hell” is provided by the Jane and Raphael Bernstein Endowment for Japanese Programs.
The National Museum of Asian Art’s centennial celebration is made possible by Presenting Sponsor Bank of America.
About the National Museum of Asian Art
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is committed to preserving, exhibiting, researching and interpreting art in ways that deepen our collective understanding of Asia and the world. Home to more than 45,000 objects, the museum stewards one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive collections of Asian art, with works dating from antiquity to the present from China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. Its rich holdings bring the arts of Asia into direct dialogue with an important collection of 19th- and early 20th-century American works, providing an essential platform for creative collaboration and cultural exchange between the United States, Asia and the Middle East.
Beginning with a 1906 gift that paved the way for the museum’s opening in 1923, the National Museum of Asian Art is a leading resource for visitors, students and scholars in the United States and internationally. Its galleries, laboratories, archives and library are located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and are part of the world’s largest museum complex, which typically reports more than 27 million visits each year. The museum is free and open to the public 364 days a year (closed Dec. 25), making its exhibitions, programs, learning opportunities and digital initiatives accessible to global audiences.
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North America and European requests:
Gill Harris, Sutton New York
David Yu, Sutton Hong Kong
For more information about the catalog, contact:
Sarah Fannon, Smithsonian Books
For images or to download the press kit, link here: