Lot 1070
  • 1070

Motonaga Sadamasa

3,500,000 - 5,000,000 HKD
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  • Motonaga Sadamasa
  • Work
  • executed circa 1960
  • oil, synthetic resin and gravel on canvas
signed in Japanese; signed in Japanese on the reverse, framed


Private Collection (Acquired directly from the artist)
Private Japanese Collection
Acquired by the present owner from the above

Catalogue Note

Waltz with Gravity: Pursuing Undiscovered Beauty in Nature
Motonaga Sadamasa

"Gutai art has started from the desire to create nature. […] Now avan-gardists all around the world have truly started to create on pure creation. I call this the new Renaissance.” - Motonaga Sadamasa

Motonaga Sadamasa, born in 1922 in the Mie prefecture, Japan, was a self-taught artist and a member of the eminent Gutai group from 1955 to 1971. He was invited to join Gutai in 1955, the same year that Shiraga Kazuo, Tanaka Atsuko and other well-known members of the Zero Society were invited to merge with the group. Gutai founder Yoshihara Jirō recognized and commended his talent early on, and Motonaga rose quickly in status to become one of the most important first generation Gutai artists through a series of works experimenting with rocks, water, nails and plastic.
The artist’s first piece in Gutai’s first group exhibition, the ‘Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun’ in 1955, was a simple but iconic work. The aptly named Liquid: Red was a simple group of vinyl tubes and sheets that were filled with water, coloured in a red hue and strung on trees such that they hung in teardrop-like shapes. Yoshihara, known for his unyieldingly strict mentorship, was immediately impressed by the work, calling it ‘the world’s first water sculpture’.

The idea of ‘bottling’ or ‘encapsulating’ formless natural elements would remain a constant theme in Motonaga’s oeuvre. In 1956 he staged a smoke performance for Life magazine in which he funnelled smoke through a large metallic box and tapped 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.

Underscoring Motonaga’s experimentations with water and smoke is a profound fascination with nature itself. 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, a process that he believed allowed him to “tap into the power of nature and create works that transcended my own thoughts.” By trusting in a force larger than himself, Motonaga demonstrated an ingenious regeneration of Gutai’s own mantra to connect with materiality (and medium) rather than simply creating it.

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 floor of his one room studio and adding resin enamel and turpentine successively to the layered shapes he had planned out on the canvas, the pigments began to run across the canvas surface, with colours pooling in certain areas of the painting.

The effect is highly reminiscent of a traditional Japanese technique called tarashikomi ("dripping"), which involves dripping or applying different coloured paints one upon the other before the pigment was fully dry. The resulting effect mirrors that of rivulets and ripples in water, or of flower petals. However, while tarashikomi was employed purely as a means of decoration, Motonaga’s version is a conceptual investigation of the notion of intuition. The artist states: “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, resembling stunning ripples of technicolour frozen on a canvas. To give his works a tactile quality, Motonaga also adds sand to his pieces, as can be seen in the present lot, Work (Lot 1070), painted in 1960. 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 the present lot, Motonaga’s unique approach is displayed to full and mesmerising effect. He first draws his desired forms on the canvas and then applies colours that drip in different speeds and textures according to hue and viscosity. Lighter colours quickly skim down the surface while deeper colours are more quickly absorbed. He then scatters gravel all over the canvas to create further unexpected patterns. The 360 degree streamings indicate that the artist probably tilted the canvas at many different angles, spinning it around like a globe. By inscribing his signature at the bottom left of the canvas, it is almost as Motonaga is making a statement: after his collaboration with nature, he has made the final decision on how the painting should be looked at. Ultimately, he was the conductor in the orchestra played by nature.

When asked whether his works were created solely by chance, Motonaga replied to an interviewer that he believed chance to exist as a flip side to inevitability. For Motonaga, while his works are definitely governed by chance—the direction of the dripping rivulets a result of the uncontrollable forces of gravity, they are also as much a result of inevitability, as the desired effects are achieved via a planned process of tilting the canvas at a certain angle. The tensions 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-ground 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