“I want to paint as though rushing around on a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion.”
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.
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.
An attempt to rewrite Japan’s societal constructs with a radical, visual language, the Gutai movement pulsed with Yoshihara’s mantra:
“Never imitate others! Make something that has never existed!”
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).