Private Collection, Japan
Art U Gallery, Osaka
Private Collection, New York
Mnuchin Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Heavy layers of viscous impasto denote traces of Shiraga's forceful movements and deliver an all-over effect that is at once arrestingly dramatic and beautifully lyrical. The compositional complexity of Koujouka continually fluctuates between rhythmic calligraphic sways and the disorganised chaos of unrestrained action painting. It is raw force and energy that drives form. The work radiates with chromatic potency as sumptuous strokes of vibrant crimson and glowing ochre frolic and intersect in a mesmerising dance. The artist is continually heralded for his powerful expressive gesture; however, the present work is also a major demonstration of Shiraga's mastery of colour. Indeed, the harmony of pure colour within the virile chaos of action painting positions this work in the highest order of Shiraga's oeuvre.
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 postwar Japan, the group aimed to invigorate a society entrenched in ancient traditions with radical modern stimuli. Their revolutionary exploratory processes incorporated aspects of performance and interactive environments, anticipating later developments in conceptual and performance art.
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. 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 naked women 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 its frenzied poetic chaos and mesmerising vibrancy, Koujouka is an arresting vestige of the innovation that most defines Shiraga's achievement. His pursuit was the fluid union of material and creativity and his radical action paintings stand as exceptional milestones in the history of twentieth-century avant-garde art.
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