In the second “Gutai Art Exhibition” in 1956, Shimamoto Shozo made a break-through in his personal artistic investigation, as well as unveiled to the international art arena a new artistic practice. By placing a large canvas onto the floor with a rock at its centre, the artist expended the full force of his body, hurling and smashing bottles filled with colourful pigments to create vast patterns on the surface of the work. This spectacular display of innovation would not go unnoticed, catching the immediate attention of a reporter from Life Magazine. The artist subsequently received other significant invitations, such as from the BBC to be filmed in action in 1959, and to perform the “Bottle Crash” at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993—events which were the firsts in a long line of successive milestones that would propagate this signature technique on the world stage. The current sale presents Untitled, an energetic and vibrant work from the nineties featuring not only the artist’s renowned “bottle crashing” method, but also traces of Shimamoto’s other artistic developments and philosophies.
Shimamoto Shozo was born in 1928 in Osaka, Japan, and fell under the tutelage of the great master Yoshihara Jiro in 1947, first attending the studio in his late teens. Together with Yoshihara, Shimamoto co-founded the Gutai group, and was in fact responsible for coining its name, meaning “concreteness” in Japanese. Following Yoshihara’s imperative to “Do what no-one has done before!”1 and Gutai’s thematic concern with “concreteness”, Shimamoto placed heavy emphasis on “connection” with [his] media, believing that it was only upon a melding of materiality and automatism, that one could reach “a space previously unknown, unseen, and unexperienced.”2 From Shimamoto’s extensive repertoire of exhibitions it is not difficult to glean the full extent of a lifetime of talent and dedication to both the Gutai group’s concerns as well as his own. Aside from being collected by prestigious institutions such as the Tate Modern, the artist’s work has been shown in the Studio Visconti in Milan and the prefecture of Hyogo has held “bottle-crashing” rituals with the artist since 1999. With an energy that exists as much on his canvases as in his own heart—even in his late seventies the artist was being lifted by cranes to realise extraordinarily large “bottle-crashing” performances in the Piazza Dante in Naples, in 2006—it is unsurprising that Shimamoto has garnered a wide following.
Produced four decades after the establishment of the Gutai group, Untitled (Lot 1056) from 1998 is a piece that is a mature culmination of Shimamoto’s uninhibited energy, and bears the weight of the artist’s various artistic developments and ideologies. Radiating the same vitality as with his first “bottle crash” experiment in 1956, Untitled is a kaleidoscope of bright colours, evoking at once both the serene scenes of traditional Eastern ink paintings as well as the boldness of Western abstract paintings. This particular work is also a brilliant melange of Shimamoto’s numerous styles—aside from “bottle crashing”, Untitled looks back on Shimamoto’s development of shooting paint out of a self-fashioned cannon, his frottage Holes series, as well as his Whirlpool series (Uzumaki).
Writing in 1957 in “The Idea of Executing the Paintbrush”, the artist maintained that “I believe that the first thing we should do is to set paint free from the paintbrush.”3 Believing that paint and paintbrush are needlessly bound to one another as designated pairing of medium and tool, Shimamoto sought to destabilise this paradigm by bottling paint and releasing it by force. As can be seen in Untitled—with pieces of shattered glass still adhered to the canvas—the multi-layered piece is a still-life of force in motion, and is a work that physicalises Shimamoto’s performances as much as it is a culmination of them. The paradoxical relationship between destruction and creation is contended upon the same canvas, with one feeding into the other to create merging worlds. The bottling of the paint is also a metaphor in this sense. By enclosing it within a vessel, Shimamoto physicalises paint and renders it an object, thus ascribing to it “concreteness”. When one returns to Untitled, with the cluster of broken shards of glass concentrated in the centre of the work, we see the “concreteness” of paint examined in a literal sense—on the one side we have a thick, unctuous version of paint piled upon itself in layers; on the other, the paint has a lighter, aqueous quality, slowly seeping into the material, until it vanishes completely and only the bare surface of the canvas is exposed.
The present work also exhibits hints of Shimamoto’s other series, such as the Holes series, paintings that were created by layering paper onto the canvas, and rubbed until the paint surface broke. The artist was primarily fixated by the materiality of paint, and how it could be employed in a non-traditional, unorthodox manner. In such works, the paper on the canvas is an entity that needs to be “broken” through, and is an active agent that is deployed as part of the artistic process, rather than a passive item that is merely painted upon. In Untitled, the effect achieved by the undulating paint resembles thickened paper. When coupled with the broken pieces of glass, the paint takes on a concrete quality, as if it is more than merely liquid.
The “concrete” quality that can be seen in Untitled is also similar to that of Shimamoto’s Whirlpool works. These works were created by pouring layers of enamel onto the canvas, which would create rings of colour that would harden. As with Shimamoto’s “bottle crash” experiments, the Whirlpool series was created with the goal to “set paint free from the paintbrush”, again ascribing a certain materiality to paint. In Untitled, the layered effect achieved in the Whirlpool series—where each ring of colour appears separate but together they create a cohesive image—is reproduced. Each speck of colour is distinct, and when taken separately, one can identify various strokes, or splashes, or shards; taken together, the canvas is the transmutation of paint, the full spectrum of its various forms. Untitled’s tactile quality is the very product of an approach that eschews the paintbrush—inviting close inspection, and a contemplation on the reinvention of the use of paint itself.
Speaking in an interview with Andrea Mardegan in 2012 about his “bottle crash” performances, Shimamoto recalls, “Television and papers were interested in what I was creating, from time to time, and they came to see my performances. But they didn’t [want] to publish the artworks I created in that way, rather, they wanted to report the production process…”
As Shimamoto observes, the technique involved in creating Shimamoto’s works is central to the works themselves, ones which in the Gutai Art Manifesto, Yoshihara praises as embodiments of “breath-taking freshness”4. At first glance, it is no wonder that many observers have been quick to link the artist’s technique with that of Jackson Pollock’s, and it is even perhaps telling that Shimamoto was invited to present a “bottle-crash” performance for the opening of the show, “Jackson Pollock: A Centennial Retrospective”, which was held at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya, Japan, in late 2012.
Although the two artists indeed share some similarities, their concepts of “action” were drastically different. “But if action for Pollock…had all implications of the mental and existential type, in Shimamoto it is simply the acting in itself without other reasoning. A sort of pure and simple aesthetic being.”5 Even though both artists produced works where they were not “governed” by their paintbrushes, rather, they were liberated and guided by emotions, Shimamoto’s release extended not solely to his psyche, but also to his media. Rather than disengaging entirely in order to achieve the “abstract”, dismissing all materiality or form such as with Pollock, Shimamoto was part of a group that was entirely founded upon materiality, which stressed a connection with concreteness before abstraction can even be reached. In this way, the artists were in fact completely at-odds with one another.
Untitled is a piece that studies its medium and its deployment beyond just the perfunctory glance. It is a comprehensive engagement with paint, a production that examines the various qualities it can inhabit, morphing from solid to liquid. Fully achieving his goal to relinquish the paintbrush, Untitled is a work that places the spotlight on medium, celebrating its materiality in alluring colours.
Shimamoto Shozo passed away in 2013, having produced art for half a century, never having ceased to push the boundaries of art and continually break paradigms, even in the last years of his life. As can be seen in the present work, Shimamoto’s oeuvre is one that is endlessly brimming with energy and filled with pulsating colours. The work currently on offer fully captures Shimamoto’s aims to bottle the abstract in pursuit of materiality, and is a remnant of the artist’s vigour and fervour, which will remain as a lasting image of Gutai, as well as the artist’s methodologies for years to come.
1 “Gutai Gurupu no 10 nen: sono ichi” [“10 years of the Gutai Group: part one], Yoshihara Jiro, Bijutsu Jyanaru 38 (March 1963)
2 Refer to 1
3 “The Idea of Executing the Paintbrush”, Shimamoto Shozo, From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945 – 1989, MoMA Primary Documents, eds. Doryun Chong, Michio Hayashi, Kenji Kajiya, Fumihiko Sumitomo, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012
4 Refer to 1
5 Shozo Shimamoto 1950 – 2008: Samurai, acrobata dello sguardo, Skira, ABC Arte, p.42
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