- Kazuo Shiraga
- signed, titled and dated 1992 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
In the wake of the Second World War, the revolution in painting, propelled by a move towards Abstract Expressionism by pioneers such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the West, saw a similar development on the other side of the world. Seeking innovative outlets for a new artistic freedom, a group of young Japanese painters formed what came to be known as the Gutai group. Founded by the visionary artist Jirō Yoshihara in 1954, the group’s core members included Shimamoto Shōzō, Kanayama Akira, Tanaka Atsuko, Murakami Saburō, Motonaga Sadamasa and Shiraga. Influenced by the climate of post-war Japan the group aimed to invigorate a society imbued with ancient traditions with radical modern stimuli, following Yoshihara’s mantra: “Never imitate others! Make something that has never existed!” (Jirō Yoshihara quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, McCaffrey Fine Art, Kazuo Shiraga, 2009, p. 15). Their revolutionary exploratory processes incorporated aspects of performance and interactive environments, anticipating later developments in conceptual art and performance art.
Epitomising the Gutai group’s progressive mission, Shiraga took the traditional medium of painting as his point of departure, in order to seek innovative ways to create commanding, gestural works. However, the conventional artistic stance of the painter in front of an upright canvas proved too restricting. Instead Shiraga placed the canvas flat on the floor. Fastening a rope above the painting he swung across the canvas in energetic, gestural moves, using his feet to spread thick layers of paint across the surface. By actually stepping into the painting with this uninhibited action the artist fully immersed himself into the work. Shiraga explained: "I want to paint as though rushing around on a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion" (Kazuo Shiraga quoted in: ibid, p. 59). The uniquely physical nature of his artistic expression was closely linked to his radical performances of a similar vein. Wrestling with a mountain of clay and mud during the first Gutai exhibition in 1955, and turning his action painting into a trailblazing performance during the group’s second exhibition the following year, the artist celebrated action itself as the fundamental artwork, his painting becoming the trace of unrestrained energy and physical expression.
Entitled Kosha, meaning ‘expert’, ‘skilful’ or ‘ingenious’ in Japanese, the present painting is a mature and dexterous example of Kazuo Shiraga’s venerable visual exploration. Created almost forty years after the artist first swung across a canvas, Kosha remains as striking and powerful in its dynamic gesture as the artist's earliest examples of abstract expression. With heavy layers of radiant yellow and deep black Kosha's dense strokes represent traces of the artist's vigorous movements. Despite the visual tension of two contrasting colours seemingly enthralled in a visceral struggle, the wide, loose strokes hold a natural elegance, reminiscent of the classical Japanese tradition of calligraphy. However, devoid of any conventional notion of composition, in Kosha it is raw force and energy that drives form.
With the support of critic Michel Tapié, the work of the Gutai group was first introduced to the western art scene at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1958. However, despite the limited recognition first given to the group in the late 50s and 60s, their unique visual language and artistic philosophy placed them amongst a peer group of exceptional avant-gardists. With significant formative impacts on both the development of performance art, as well as radical artistic movements, such as Fluxus, the ground-breaking artistic approach pursued by Shiraga and his colleagues stood as a benchmark for artists worldwide. Shiraga's drastic act of discarding the paintbrush in favour of the human body aligned him with renowned Western artists like Yves Klein, who utilised both naked women and his own body as ‘human paintbrushes’ in his Anthropometries of the late 1950s and 60s. Even the master of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock, who had created his first iconic action painting a few years prior to the formation of the Gutai group, showed a distinct interest in the expressive idiom of the radical Japanese artists, with a copy of the group’s manifesto being found amongst Pollock’s papers after his death in 1956.
With a longstanding artistic production and international influence that far outlasted the Gutai group, which disbanded after the death of Jirō Yoshihara in 1972, Shiraga is recognised as one of Japan’s most influential artists. Shiraga continued his foot paintings until his death in 2008, staying committed to his unique mode of artistic expression and ceaselessly perfecting his technique with unrelenting energy and dynamism. Embracing vitality and action as his main mode of expression, he challenged the parameters of painting as radically as any great avant-gardist of the post-war period.