The Fury of Creation
I want to paint as though rushing around on a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion. – Shiraga Kazuo1
Hailing from Shiraga Kazuo’s critical early period of explosive dynamism, Work (Lot 1043) coincides with the artist’s historic inaugural solo exhibition outside Japan at Galerie Stadler in Paris in 1962. The stunning masterpiece heaves and writhes with savage tactility and fiery turbulence, exuding formidable vigour and potent visceral ferocity. Claw-like lacerations of red, orange and deep burgundy converge at thrilling points of intersection, accented by masterful finishing swipes of electric cobalt. The young Gutai master’s legendary feet-generated strokes thrash out a thrilling path of primal expression via impassioned collisions of body and paint: like no other artist before him, Shiraga’s performative abstractions are vehemently inspirited with movement—“not just the movement of his body […] but also the assertion of matter itself”.2
Shiraga’s momentous ascension to global fame dates back to humble beginnings. Originally trained in nihonga, traditional Japanese painting, the artist soon turned to oil, creating markings or scratchings with his fingers. Beginning with these early methods, Shiraga’s art form can be seen as a gradual escalation in the exercise of abjuring the brush—a process of maturation that takes its final form in his celebrated foot paintings. In the early 1950s the artist shunned the orthodox artistic stance completely: fastening a rope to the ceiling, Shiraga swung himself acrobatically across horizontally placed canvases, using his feet and body to cast, heave, kick and swirl thick slabs and layers of paint. Such aggressively uninhibited actions allowed the artist to immerse himself within his canvas as opposed to pouring or painting from above: by merging body with matter in a meteoric cathartic synthesis, Shiraga set himself apart from the mere gesturality of Western Abstract Expressionism and forged an epochal revolutionary oeuvre in the contemporary art canon.
The current lot was created in 1962, a critical year during which Shiraga’s international career took flight. Following French critic Michel Tapié and painter Georges Mathieu’s visit to Osaka in 1957, the Galerie Stadler in Paris (closely associated with Tapié) showed Shiraga’s paintings in a 1959 group show and in 1962 hosted the artist’s first solo exhibition outside Japan. In 1963 Shiraga participated in the "Exposition d’art modern" in Grand Palais, Paris, and in 1965 onwards in historic museum exhibitions such as “Nul” at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1965) and “New Japanese Painting and Sculpture” at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1965) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1967). In 1966 Allan Kaprow’s landmark anthology Assemblages, Environments & Happenings established Gutai as a forerunner of “Happening-type performances”, attributing renewed critical attention and legendary status to Shiraga’s seminal 1955 Challenging Mud performance in which the artist engaged in a violent, grotesque and almost sensual struggle with the earth.
Such violence, embodied in the notion of impassioned struggle, is crucial to a proper understanding of Shiraga’s oeuvre. While Yves Klein also utilized the body as paintbrush in his Anthropometries works half a decade later, Shiraga’s art utilized his irreducible corporeality to battle with and awaken the raw vitality of matter itself. Such an unprecedented paradigm epitomized the mission of the post-war Gutai artists who, literally uniting ‘instrument’ (gu) with ‘body’ (tai), rose fearlessly from the rubble of post-Hiroshima Japan to advocate a reinvigorating philosophy of ‘concreteness’ in their war-torn country. Shiraga once said that his art “needs not just beauty, but something horrible”;3 by engaging with, and transcending, violence, Shiraga was able to “wrestl[e] with the demons that haunted him and his generation, at the same time opening the possibility of hope for the years ahead”.4
1 Shiraga Kazuo, “What I Think”, quoted in exh. cat. Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades, McCaffrey Fine Art, New York, 2009-10, p. 59
2 Ming Tiampo, “Not just beauty, but something horrible”, in exh. cat. Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino, New York, 2015, pp. 21-22
3 Shiraga Kazuo, interview with Ming Tiampo, Ashiya, Japan, 1998
4 Refer to 2, p. 23