If you believe that your art has a spiritual meaning and it helps you develop yourself, such art will truly be on the cutting edge of global culture.
Ferocious, visceral and charged with electrifying grace, Kanemitsu from 1961 hails from Shiraga Kazuo’s critical early period of explosive dynamism. Kanemitsu relates to the legendary 14th century Japanese swordsmith Bizen Kanemitsu from the Bizen Osafune where famous groups of sword craftsmen were active since olden times. Swords produced by Kanemitsu were said to have the longest nagasa (blade length) in Japanese sword history with swords of up to 90 cm. The title of this painting could also concern a specific fabled Samurai sword, the Takemata-Kanemitsu, which according to legend had a blade of such supreme sharpness that it could cut iron armour into clean halves. Evoking the potent formidable ferocity of its namesake, the present masterpiece heaves and writhes with savage tactility, exuding thrilling vigour combined with exhilarating elegance. The young Gutai master’s legendary feet-generated strokes thrash out an impassioned path of primal expression; like no other artist before him, Shiraga’s performative abstractions are vehemently inspirited with movement—“not just the movement of his body […] but also the assertion of matter itself” (Ming Tiampo, “Not just beauty, but something horrible”, in exh. cat. Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino, New York, 2015, pp. 21-22).
Shiraga’s momentous ascension to global fame dates back to humble beginnings. Originally trained in nihonga, traditional Japanese painting, the artist soon turned to oil, creating markings or scratchings with his fingers. Beginning with these early methods, Shiraga’s art form can be seen as a gradual escalation in the exercise of abjuring the brush—a process of maturation that takes its final form in his celebrated foot paintings. In the early 1950s, a period on par with Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, Shiraga shunned the orthodox artistic stance completely. Fastening a rope to the ceiling, the artist swung himself acrobatically across horizontally placed canvases, using his feet and body to cast, heave, kick and swirl thick slabs and layers of paint. Such aggressively uninhibited actions allowed the artist to immerse himself within his canvas as opposed to merely pouring or painting from above; by merging body with matter in a meteoric cathartic synthesis, Shiraga set himself apart from the mere gesturality of Western Abstract Expressionism and forged an epochal revolutionary oeuvre in the contemporary art canon.
Created in 1961, the present painting, stunning in composition and unrestrained in technique, features the deep crimson lake red pigment that is so iconic to Shiraga’s oeuvre – particularly his early years. Claw-like lacerations of red and deep burgundy converge at thrilling points of intersection, underlain by swathes of electric cobalt and accented by viscerally textured impasto. The year also presented a critical juncture during which Shiraga’s international career took flight: following French critic Michel Tapié and painter Georges Mathieu’s visit to Osaka in 1957, the Galerie Stadler in Paris (closely associated with Tapié) showed Shiraga’s paintings in a 1959 group show and in 1962 hosted the artist’s first solo exhibition outside Japan. In 1963 Shiraga participated in the "Exposition d’art moderne" at the Grand Palais, Paris, and in 1965 onwards in historic museum exhibitions such as “Nul” at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1965) and “New Japanese Painting and Sculpture” at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1965) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1967). In 1966, Allan Kaprow’s landmark anthology Assemblages, Environments & Happenings established Gutai as a forerunner of “Happening-type performances”, attributing renewed critical attention and status to Shiraga’s seminal 1955 Challenging Mud performance in which the artist engaged in a violent, grotesque and almost sensual confrontation with the earth.
Such violence, embodied in the notion of impassioned struggle, is crucial to a proper understanding of Shiraga’s oeuvre. While Yves Klein also utilized the body as paintbrush in his Anthropometries works half a decade later, 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” (Shiraga Kazuo, interview with Ming Tiampo, Ashiya, Japan, 1998); 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” (Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino, New York, 2015, p. 23).