“When, on discovering my true nature, I decided to cast off all the existing uniforms and be naked, figuration shattered into fragments and I dropped my painter’s knife which broke in two. [...] One day I swapped my knife for a piece of wood which I rejected out of impatience. I tried with my bare hands, with my fingers. Then, convinced I needed to be even bolder, I went even further and that is how I came to feet. That was it! Painting with the feet.”
Kazuo Shiraga’s radical and aesthetically arresting “performance paintings” stand as exceptional milestones in the history of Japanese avant-garde art. A pivotal member of Japan’s significant Gutai group, Shiraga’s work epitomizes the mission to break with the artistic conventions of the past in favor of an expressive, gestural abstraction. An important artistic influence not only in Japan, but also in post-war Western art, Kazuo Shiraga’s art historical significance has long been underestimated. Only recently have the outstanding artistic achievements of Shiraga and the Gutai group been truly recognized and celebrated in the remarkable exhibition Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2013. Commissioned circa 1964 for a private patron in Shiraga’s hometown of Amagasaki, Untitled is a striking example of the artist’s unrelenting commitment to action painting as the dynamic synthesis of the artist and his work.
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, literally meaning instrument (gu) and body (taï). 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: exh. cat., 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.
Epitomizing 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)
Central to Shiraga’s work is the concept of shishitsu, meaning “innate characteristics and abilities”, which serves as the driving force behind the shaping of the self. For Shiraga, the act of making art was a way of fully connecting with one’s own shishitsu; his paintings are an expression of the movement, spirit and intimate energy of his own time. The uniquely physical nature of his artistic expression was closely linked to his radical performances of a similar vein. In 1955, during The First Gutai Exhibition in Tokyo, Shiraga performed Challenging Mud, wrestling a mountain of clay and mud into sculptural shapes. The following year in the group’s second exhibition, Shiraga celebrated action itself as the fundamental artwork, his painting becoming the trace of unrestrained energy and physical expression.
The present painting belongs to the artist’s groundbreaking body of work from the early 60s. Set against a terracotta orange ground with heavy layers of crimson red accented by sweeps of deep black, peacock blue, and butter yellow, Untitled's dense strokes represent traces of the artist's vigorous movements. Despite the visual tension of contrasting colors seemingly enthralled in a visceral struggle, the wide, loose strokes hold a natural elegance, reminiscent of the classical Japanese tradition of calligraphy and the controlled combat of a Samurai hero. However, devoid of any conventional notion of composition, in Untitled 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 groundbreaking artistic approach pursued by Shiraga and his colleagues stood as a benchmark for artists worldwide. Shiraga's drastic act of discarding the paintbrush in favor of the human body aligned him with renowned Western artists like Yves Klein, who utilized 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 recognized 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.
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