Only six years younger than Yoshihara Jiro, Masanobu Masatoshi was one of the earliest members of Gutai who joined in 1954 and participated in all 21 Gutai exhibitions until the group dissolved in 1972. Compared to other members of Gutai who were preoccupied with performance and theatrics, Masanobu remained dedicated to the art of painting throughout his life. Although his presence outside of the group has been modest, owing to his less aggressive and dramatic methods, Masanobu was granted a solo exhibition at the Pinacotheca by Yoshihara in 1965 – an honour bestowed only to a select few Gutai members. Work by Masanobu is humble in spirit yet quietly spectacular in its deftly executed all-over composition – an archetypal creation by the unassertive yet artistically pivotal artist. His distinctive style is characterized by expansive all-over compositions comprising simple shapes that resemble clumps of yarn, hand-written scribbles or illegible exotic symbols, invoking an aesthetic of primitivism within the lineage of Cy Twombly’s scrawls. However, whilst Twombly’s works alluded to writing as a conceptual foundation, Masanobu’s works engage with the logic of concrete materiality that defines Gutai’s pivotal experiments in the 1950s and 1960s, evoking the pulse of physical matter. Masanobu is recently receiving revived international attention; in 2015, he was honoured with a large-scale retrospective at the Kochi Museum of Art which travelled to the Otani Memorial Art Museum in Nishinomiya City; as the catalogue text reads: “[Masanobu] captures the very essence of eternal, limitless transformation […] a world of unchanging, utter silence that hides this within itself”.
Masanobu first began to submit works to invitational exhibitions around 1946; during this early period he painted representational paintings. Yoshihara served as a judge at one of the events, and he recalls: “Just after the end of the war, at a time when shortages were rife, Masanobu, with the look of a peddler of that era, arrived at my studio with a large furoshiki (‘wrapping cloth’) filled with paintings. As I remember it, the majority of the dozens of works he brought, mostly painted on about size-3 canvases, were pictures of morning glories, showing groups of two or three, round red or blue flowers seen from head-on […] the critical comments I made proved to be of no use. He simply brought back the same heap of morning glories, which he had retouched to an imperceptible degree” (cited in Kawasaki Koichi, ‘Wriggling Paintings: The Art of Masatoshi Masanobu’, 2017). From such dedicated explorations on the flower motif, which continued well into the mid-1950s, Masanobu moved on to become inspired by everyday materials such as, as he listed in a memo in 1955: “cloth, linen, handwoven fabric, knitted material (necktie) … the surface of quartz trachyte, rough sandy soil … bark … the surface of an unglazed vessel … materials that convey something human” (Ibid.).
Significant changes in Masanobu’s style could be observed starting from around 1957, around which time his signature style emerged: eloquently executed ‘wriggling’ signs or symbols applied by a tube of paint, scattered across the canvas like traces of his beloved morning glories. Such unfathomable symbols converge to form enigmatic canvases with an aesthetic reminiscent of ancient pottery or the primitive elements of Japanese art, which unite sign and matter and reach towards the depths of the cosmos. Masanobu wrote: “I want to bring my work closer to a place where you can sense the unutterable depth of the spirit and life that truly conveys a sense of life” (Ibid.). Through repeated hand movements, dexterously executed with calculated, focused spontaneity, Masanobu created a fresh visual and conceptual aesthetic that departed from the more volatile methods of his fellow Gutai colleagues. In particular, Gutai scholar Kawasaki Koichi observed a distinctive ‘methodical’ dimension in Masanobu’s works, writing that the artist worked at the interplay between natural expression and calculated composition – an approach “underlined by the methodical character that he had developed as a teacher” (Ibid.).
Combining Gutai’s devotion to matter with a uniquely methodical, minimalist approach, Masanobu’s art was advanced, individualist and pioneering even in the context of the ground-breaking post-war scene at the time. Executed in 1961, the current lot is archetypal of Masanobu’s unique aesthetic and was produced at the very apex of the artist’s career and standing within the Gutai group. In 1957 Masanobu exhibited at New World of Paintings, the Gutai exhibition held in New York, and in 1959 at the 15 Contemporary Artists Presented by Tapie exhibition in Gendai Gallery in Tokyo. A few years later in 1965, Masanobu was honoured with a solo exhibition at the Gutai Pinacotheca – a testament to his importance within the group and in the wider context of post-war Japanese art. Yoshihara praised the artist’s work, writing: “More than symbols, they seemed like properties that might emerge when the logical structure of the ground was magnified and reproduced” (cited in Exh. Cat. Masatoshi Masanobu Solo Exhibition, Gutai Art Association, Osaka, March 1965). The density of his scribbles, loosely and confidently executed, ebbs and flows organically throughout the canvas, at times surging in the direction of specific vectors guided by lines that streak diagonally across the painting. Exceptional amongst his Gutai contemporaries, Masanobu was consistently occupied throughout his life with the inherent potential of painting, steadfastly committed to igniting and nurturing the quiet enigmatic radiance of his canvases.