I take inspiration from nature; that way I have an enormous stock of several billions of years.
– Motonaga Sadamasa1
New beauty always comes in strange forms. It is not enough to merely imitate something from nature but to actually create it.
– Motonaga Sadamasa2
The name “Motonaga Sadamasa” signifies two highly distinct, but equally iconic, aesthetic styles. Executed in 1963, Work (Lot 605) epitomises the magnificent worlds Motonaga created in the late-1950s onwards that evoke stardust, cosmic planets, quiet riverbeds and searing volcanic magma. The rich visuals of this early period involve a highly specific method in which the artist first sketched out his desired forms, then laid his canvases on the floor and tilted them in different angles to allow poured mixtures of pigment, resin and enamel to “flow” and “pool” in different speeds and textures according to viscosity and gravity. Motonaga favoured rich vivid primary colours in this period, which stream in organic rivulets and coalesce in bulb-shaped embryonic forms, resulting in mesmerising compositions that seem to divulge secrets of some primitive life force. His pioneering method, developed in parallel to American painter Morris Louis’s Veil paintings, is an avant-garde take on the traditional Japanese technique tarashikomi (“dripping”) which involves applying different coloured paints one upon another before the pigment is fully dry to achieve a rippling effect. While tarashikomi was employed as a means of decoration, Motonaga’s method was a rigorous conceptual investigation – that of the delicate balance between intention and intuition, control and chance, accident and calculated manoeuvre. The artist states: “I consciously used this approach as a way of entrust[ing] it to the power of nature”.3
Motonaga’s preoccupation with the intrinsic artistic properties of nature earned him instant acclaim in Gutai’s debut exhibition “The Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun” in 1955. In a pine grove park in Ashiya, Motonaga strung liquid-filled vinyl tubes and sheets on trees, creating an ethereal ‘light’ installation that sparkled as the water shapes caught rays from the sun. Gutai leader Yoshihara Jirō immediately and rightfully declared it “the world’s first water sculpture”, and in 2011 the Guggenheim commissioned the artist to recreate the iconic work for the museum rotunda (Work [Water], 1956/2011). In 1956, Motonaga staged a performance for Life magazine in which he funnelled smoke through a large metallic box, tapping the reverse of the box to create rings of smoke lit up by coloured lights. The common theme observed from these early experiments is a desire to “capture” or “encapsulate” formless elements from nature – in so doing allowing and nurturing the rebirth of organic form and texture. Such authentic and “concrete” engagements with material and matter form the critical precursors to the artist’s ensuing pouring technique.
Notably, although Motonaga’s pioneering technique developed concurrently with Louis’s Veil paintings that similarly employed gravity-pulled streams of colour, Motonaga was not at all concerned with the flatness of the picture plane but instead with giving life to paint. Both artists dispensed with Abstract Expressionism’s gestural stroke and allowed paint to flow without interference of brush or gesture; however, Motonaga’s intense hues, palpable tactility and organic forms contrasted starkly with Louis’s uniform bands of translucence superimposed colour. Central to Motonaga’s method is his intention to awaken the life of paint through nature; in his own words, his pouring method allowed him “to tap into the power of nature and create works that transcended [his] own thoughts”. The resulting creations mirror the natural processes of rivers and lakes that carry residue or matter across its surface. He explains: “If you stream the paint slowly, you can create a stream like a river on the surface of the canvas… With a river, after the rain stops and the sky clears, the water also clears up, and deposits of sand create beautiful patterns in the riverbed. I’m doing the same thing with paint”.4
Motonaga travelled to New York in 1966 to take part in a yearlong residency. During that year he mastered techniques in airbrush and spray painting and revolutionized his visual vocabulary. Exemplified by Work - Two Colours (Lot 606), Motonaga’s post-1966 era, which brought him fame as one of the most prominent artists of Japan, is defined by hard-edged tumescent shapes rendered in saturated hues and polished colour gradations. The fantastical shapes, cheerful and nonsensical, invite both amusement and intrigue with their iconic morphing forms – at times recalling a bud or tree pushing out from the ground, or floating balloons carrying cartoon-like creatures in bizarre dream worlds. While drastically different in aesthetic, these late paintings carved out a distinctive universe of their own and are a continuation of the artist’s lifelong ruminations on fluidity versus concreteness, intuition versus control, and the life of matter. The vibrant forms emanate a potent buoyant movement that defies the immobility of painting: what was inherent in the entirety of Motonaga’s oeuvre, whether in his early performances, installations or paintings, was movement. As Kawai Hayao comments, in a personal conversation with Motonaga: “According to my intuition, earlier stages of your work give me the feeling of going down and the [later] style gives me a feeling rather of going up”.5 The mystery emanating from Motonaga’s paintings can thus perhaps be summed up by the sublime balance achieved between “up” and “down”, movement and non-movement, and the consciousness required for art-making. Commenting precisely on such a consciousness, Motonaga mused: “Suppose you fly pleasantly in the sky while dreaming, and as soon as you doubt how long you can fly, you will immediately fall. [It’s] a consciousness which only works in a dream”.6
1 Motonaga Sadamasa, quoted in Sadamasa Motonaga: Works 1955-1989, p. 40
2 Ibid, p. 57
3 Motonaga Sadamasa in an interview conducted by Osaki Shin'ichiro and Yamamura Tokutaro, August 21, 1985
5 Refer to 1, p. 39
6 Ibid, p. 38
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