[Shiraga] is simultaneously involved in two very different aesthetic universes: the existential expressiveness of Western art and the pantheist transcendence of Oriental art. – Antonio Saura
Hailing from Shiraga Kazuo’s fully mature period in the late 1980s, Taera (Lot 621) and Dattan (Lot 622) are magnificent maelstroms of ferocious energy resplendent in fiery electric red and yellow and deep crimson red. Exhibiting a sublime heroic dynamism, the spectacular masterpieces exude a charged virtuosic flair that attests to the matured perfection of Shiraga’s renowned feet-painting technique that originated in the early 1950s. Three decades ago in 1955, a young Shiraga stunned audiences at the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition by hurling himself into an arena of mud and engaging in a violent, almost sensual struggle with the earth. The epic performance, pre-dating Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings”, laid down a ground-breaking paradigm for performance art, action painting, and the entire stage of post-war abstraction, representing an extraordinary artistic breakthrough that epitomized Shiraga’s radical painting methods. Shunning the orthodox artistic stance, Shiraga fastened a rope to the ceiling and swung himself acrobatically across horizontally placed canvases, using his feet to cast, heave, kick and swirl thick slabs and layers of paint. Such uninhibited actions allowed the artist to fully immerse himself within his canvas as opposed to merely pouring or painting from above, merging body with matter in a meteoric cathartic synthesis.
Over the next decades, Shiraga’s feet-generated strokes thrashed out a thrilling path of primal expression via impassioned collisions of body and paint: like no other artist before him, Shiraga’s performative abstractions were vehemently inspirited with movement—“not just the movement of his body […] but also the assertion of matter itself”. While Yves Klein also utilized the body as paintbrush in his Anthropometries series, Shiraga’s art utilized his irreducible corporeality to battle with and awaken the raw vitality of matter itself. Such an unprecedented paradigm epitomized the mission of the post-war Gutai artists who, literally uniting ‘instrument’ (gu) with ‘body’ (tai), rose fearlessly from the rubble of post-Hiroshima Japan to advocate a reinvigorating philosophy of ‘concreteness’ in their war-torn country. Shiraga once said that his art “needs not just beauty, but something horrible”; by engaging with, and transcending, violence, Shiraga was able to “wrestl[e] with the demons that haunted him and his generation, at the same time opening the possibility of hope for the years ahead”.
With its fiery, scorching palette, Dattan refers at once to religious, metaphorical, and literal catharsis. First, Shiraga references the Buddhist deity Fudo, to whom the artist chanted and entrusted himself before diving into each new painting: “with his back embraced with impetuous flames… Fudo wants to extinguish the flames of hate and of human anger”. Enshrined in the artist’s studio, Fudo and Buddhism became crucial elements in Shiraga’s post-Gutai creation, contributing to a purified lightness and enlightened emancipative spirit. Second, in the 1970s Shiraga received intense training as a Tendai Buddhist monk in Mount Hiei in Kyoto, where he was required to endure sleep deprivation, long hours of kneeling, marathons hikes and runs, and the austere ritual of “Burning Fire” – in which candidates faced a raging fire in an enclosed room. The flames of the present lot thus represents Shiraga’s evolution in psyche and heightened monastic consciousness following his monastic training. Third, the title Dattan refers to the eternal flame inside the Enryakuji temple and the Buddhist ritual where monks danced and wielded a large torch of burning fire as an act of renewal. Emanating from the swirling flames of the present lot is thus an exuberant, regenerative, and triumphant flourish – one proclaiming that the demons of war, trauma, and defeat had been exorcised.
The jubilant Taera, on the other hand, recalls another pivotal Shiraga performance – his 1957 Ultra-Modern Sanbasō. The 1957 Gutai Art on the Stage exhibition opened with Shiraga emerging alone on a lit stage, donning a theatrical red costume with a pointed hat and performing dramatic bodily movements. Accentuated by elongated wing-like sleeves, Shiraga’s arm actions created slashes of undulating color against the stage backdrop, constituting an homage to and parody of Japan’s oldest celebratory dance, Sanbasō (“divine dance”). With its deep crimson red palette, Taera echoes both the signature raw blood-red of Shiraga’s early 1950s works as well as the festive undertones of Shiraga’s iconic performance. As Alexandra Munroe notes, while Euro-American Happenings fused art with life as a critique of commoditized culture, Shiraga’s Ultra-Modern Sanbasō was an “affirmation of art in life after [the country’s] near annihilation of culture”. With its consummate choreography, centered balletic tension and balance, Taera is thus celebratory and triumphant, communicating the artist’s spiritual mastery of his passions: in it we witness Shiraga raised from his angst, reveling in the formidable authority of matter, body and spirit. Unbeknownst to many, Shiraga took up training in traditional ink and brush calligraphy in his later years to complement his technique and breadth of style. Such a re-embracing of his oriental roots lends Shiraga’s feet-strokes the essence and soul of masterful ink brushwork, gracing his by-then universally acclaimed canvases with transcendent traces of his Eastern origins.
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