Lot 1054
  • 1054

Motonaga Sadamasa

2,000,000 - 4,000,000 HKD
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  • Motonaga Sadamasa
  • Work
  • oil, synthetic resin, and gravel on canvas mounted on board
signed in Japanese; signed in Japanese and English, titled in Japanese and dated 1964 on the reverse, framed


Private Asian Collection (acquired directly from the artist in 1964)
Acquired by the present owner from the above


This work is generally in good condition. There is minor soiling on the surface especially on the white background. Having examined the work under ultraviolet light, there are circular spots of restorations most visibly along the right edge and top left corner which are done by the artist himself.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Between Chance and Control: Motonaga’s Technicolour Ripples

 "I am unknown to others. Through colours and forms, I make the unknown known.” - Motonaga Sadamasa

The history of the imminent Gutai group, formed by the grand master Yoshihara Jiro in 1954, has taken the contemporary art world by storm. Its members were responsible for some of the most pioneering artistic concepts in the Japanese post-war era, and can be counted among the most influential groups in the global post-war contemporary artistic sphere. Among its most important members is Motonaga Sadamasa, an artist who is best remembered for his preoccupations with water and fluidity; but equally as important were his investigations of the notions of ephemerality, chance, and nature. Captured in the mesmerising Work, painted in 1964, is the very essence of Motonaga’s creative development, and features key aspects of Motonaga’s signature style after having spent nearly a decade in the Gutai group. Painted at the mid-point of Gutai’s some twenty-year long history, Work (Lot 1054) is a piece that potently captures the evolving concepts of the artist himself.

Motonaga was born in 1922 in the Mie Prefecture, and was invited to join Gutai in 1955, the same year that other well-known members of the Zero Society, such as Shiraga Kazuo and Tanaka Atsuko, were also invited to merge into the group. At the time, the artist was receiving training and education in painting in Nishinomiya, Ashiya, and exhibited his work in the Eighth Ashiya City Art Exhibition in June 1955. He was swiftly invited to join Gutai, and soon found himself among the most important artistic figures in contemporary Japanese art. Motonaga’s works would go on to be exhibited in renowned institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, and Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2013, a monumental work of his, Work (Water) (fig. 1) was recreated in the Guggenheim’s groundbreaking show, Gutai: Splendid Playground.

The artist’s first piece in the Gutai group’s first group exhibition, the ‘Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun’ was a simple but iconic work, the aptly named Liquid: Red: a simple group of vinyl tubes and sheets filled with water, coloured in a red hue, and strung up from trees to hang in teardrop-like shapes. This would later on be praised by the Gutai founder Yoshihara as ‘the world’s first water sculpture’. The idea to ‘bottle’ or ‘encapsulate’ formless natural elements would remain a constant in Motonaga’s oeuvre, as he staged a smoke performance for the Life magazine in 1956. By funnelling smoke through a large metallic box and tapping its reverse to create rings of smoke lit up by coloured lights, this second performance was a commentary on transience—the “encapsulated” smoke would eventually disperse into thin air despite its initial confinement in the metal box. Between his experimentations with water and smoke likewise rests an interest in nature itself, as a larger, more dominant force is at play when it meets manmade formations.

Turning to oil painting, the artist had a similar trust in nature—also perhaps a desire, again, to trap it. Motonaga was highly interested in allowing paint to naturally flow and drip, which he believed could, “tap into the power of nature and create works that transcended my own thoughts.” By entrusting a force larger than himself, Motonaga was showing an ingenious regeneration of Gutai’s own mantra to connect with materiality (and medium) rather than simply to create it.

To create his works, Motonaga filled endless notebooks with little shapes that would then be translated into larger pieces. After picking his desired shape, the artist would begin to construct his canvases. One constant motif was the fluidity of water—perhaps preempted by Liquid: Red, Motonaga was greatly interested in the malleability of the element. In the late fifties, the artist became particularly guided by the studies of a Soviet biochemist named Alexander Oparin, who, posited that all life form began in a biochemical "ooze or soup" form. This idea was deeply engrained in the young Motonaga, prompting him to write a paper entitled "The Oparin Theory and Gutai Art" in 1957. Thus, that water for Motonaga took on a deeper meaning, of the origins of life, or a liquid’s viability as sustenance, can be read into each of his works.

In 1959, while creating other works that depicted shapes resembling water puddles and ponds, the artist had a break through. By placing a canvas on the slightly tilted surface of his studio floor, and adding resin enamel and turpentine successively to the "shapes" that he had previously planned out onto the canvas in alternating layers, the pigments began to run across the canvas, creating a visual effect akin to rivulets, with the colours pooling in certain areas of the painting.

This is highly reminiscent of a traditional Japanese technique called tarashikomi ("dripping"), which involves dripping or applying varying coloured paints upon others before they are wholly dry. The effect created mirrors that of ripples in water, or of flower petals. However, while takashikomi was employed purely as a means of decoration, Motonaga’s version heavily investigated the notion of intuition. As the artist remembered, “I consciously used this approach as a way of making my pictures distinctive…I entrusted it to the power of nature.”1

The results are beautiful works that mirror the natural process of a river or large lake carrying residue or matter across its surface; of stunning ripples of technicolour frozen on a canvas. To give his works a tactile quality, Motonaga would also add sand to his pieces, as can be seen in the present work. He once explained, “If you stream the paint slowly, you can create a stream like a river on the surface of the canvas…Once when I was watching a river flow, I had the thought that I could use that approach in my painting. 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.”2

In Work, various hues are used to create a bold and captivating scene. Featuring a deep vermilion immediately reminiscent of Liquid: Red, Work showcases two of such “riverbeds” with different pooling techniques. While the shape on the left has crevices filled with colour, akin to the rivulets in streams, the darker shape on the right seems more controlled and round, showcasing a swirl of bright yellows and blues. The two shapes juxtapose one another: one is organic, while the other more similarly resembles control, with a fixed form. They are presented against a background of a crisp white colour, which bears the marks of various areas where colour has seeped in to form dark colourful shadows. The over all effect is one that cannot be duplicated; one that has been created in part by instinct, in part by careful planning.

When asked whether his works were created solely by chance, Motonaga replied to an interviewer with the remark that he believed chance to exist as a flip side to inevitability. To Motonaga, his works, while definitely governed by chance—the direction of the dripping rivulets of course a result of the uncontrollable forces of gravity—are also as much a result of inevitability; the planned result of having tilted a certain canvas at a certain angle to achieve a certain result. The contraries held in tension, between fate and control, between nature and the encapsulation of it, are all at the heart of Motonaga’s oeuvre. Perhaps it is not too bold to believe that his canvases are the sole powerful middle-grounds in which the master finally consolidates these contraries in perfect harmony. 

1 Motonaga Sadamasa in an interview conducted by Osaki Shin'ichiro and Yamamura Tokutaro, August 21, 1985

2 Refer to 1