Kazuo Shiraga, the Abstractionist Who Revolutionized Painting in Post-War Japan

Kazuo Shiraga, the Abstractionist Who Revolutionized Painting in Post-War Japan

A highlight of the Contemporary Art Evening Auction, Untitled by Kazuo Shiraga displays the artist's painterly ingenuity.
A highlight of the Contemporary Art Evening Auction, Untitled by Kazuo Shiraga displays the artist's painterly ingenuity.
“I want to paint as though rushing around on a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion.”
Kazuo Shiraga quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, McCaffrey Fine Art, Kazuo Shiraga, 2009, p. 59

 

S o said artist Kazuo Shiraga, in discussing his seminal series of abstract paintings. A key member of Japan’s post-war collective entitled The Gutai Art Association, Shiraga created dynamic abstractions that serve as the group's talismans – each canvas exhibits the group’s formal search for a novel and radical artistic expression. And among his abstractive masterworks, a singular piece emerges: Untitled.

Kazuo Shiraga, Untitled, 1964. Estimate $1,800,000–2,500,000.

In the wake of World War II, the Gutai movement was gaining traction in Japan – directly concurrent to the artistic revolution heralded by Abstract Expressionists in the United States. Founded by the visionary artist Jirō Yoshihara in 1954, the group’s core members included Shōzō Shimamoto, Atsuko Tanaka, Saburō Murakami, Sadamasa Motonaga and Shiraga.

Kazuo and Fujiko Shiraga pictured in front of Untitled at the opening of Shiraga’s solo exhibition at Tokyo Gallery in 1964. Photo Courtesy Tokyo Gallery and BTAP. Art © 2019 Kazuo Shiraga

An attempt to rewrite Japan’s societal constructs with a radical, visual language, the Gutai movement pulsed with Yoshihara’s mantra:

Kazuo Shiraga painting in his studio, 1963. Image courtesy of Amagasaki Cultural Center Art © 2019 Kazuo Shiraga
“Never imitate others! Make something that has never existed!”
Jirō Yoshihara quoted in Ibid., p. 15

Therefore, from 1954 on, Shiraga painted with his canvases secured to the floor, and a rope suspended above – thereby abandoning the convention of the painter in front of an upright canvas. Shiraga would jump, barefoot, into different pools of paint he had poured onto the canvas. He would hold the rope to keep his balanance, swinging and twisting across the piece, using his feet to pull the paint into arcs, which then culminated into viscous accumulations.

In Untitled, a sea of crimson, yellow and black pigments both melt together and separate, tracing the movements of the artist’s body – and manifesting his painterly gesture as a result.

Shiraga’s oeuvre can be compared to that of Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, an artist that also enacted performative dances around the edges of his canvases. However, Pollock composed his drip paintings across the world from Shiraga; and yet, the artists were conceptually connected – a copy of the Gutai group manifesto was found among Pollock’s papers after his death in 1956.

Untitled is an early and lyrical example of Shiraga’s physically exacting practice. Which is only fitting, as the word Gutai translates to instrument (gu) and body (tai).

Contemporary Art

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