Lot 27
  • 27


1,800,000 - 2,500,000 USD
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  • Kazuo Shiraga
  • Untitled
  • signed in Japanese; signed and dated 1964 on the reverse 
  • oil on canvas
  • 63 3/4 by 51 5/8 in. 161.9 by 131.1 cm.


The artist 
Tokyo Gallery, Tokyo
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1988 


Tokyo, Tokyo Gallery, Kazuo Shiraga Exhibition, September - November 1964 (not illustrated) 
New York, Dominique Lévy Gallery, Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino, January - April 2015, p. 138,  illustrated (installed in the exhibition Kazuo Shiraga Exhibition at Tokyo Gallery, Tokyo in 1964), p. 139, no. 47, illustrated in color, and pp. 140-141, illustrated in color (detail) 


Exh. Cat., Kobe, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Kazuo Shiraga, 2001, n.p., no. 168, illustrated 

Catalogue Note

An exceptional example of Kazuo Shiraga’s seminal series of abstract paintings, Untitled epitomizes the dynamism, power and physicality that define his oeuvre. A pivotal member of Japan’s iconic post war collective, The Gutai Art Association, Shiraga’s commitment to action painting as the dynamic synthesis of the artist and his work epitomized the group's quest for a radical new artistic expression. Abandoning the convention of the painter in front of an upright canvas, from 1954 Shiraga painted with the canvas secured to the floor, and a rope suspended above. Having poured a variety of different pigments onto the surface of the canvas Shiraga would jump, barefoot, into the paint. Holding the rope to keep his balance he would swing and twist across the canvas, using his feet to pull the paint into arcs which culminated in thick, viscous accumulations. Swirls and eddies of crimson, yellow and black combine and separate, tracing the movements of the artist’s body and lending the works a powerful indexicality to his gesture and motion. The abandonment of traditional tools in favor of his own body sees Shiraga at once break free from convention and literally embed both himself and the evidence of his physical effort in his canvas. In the artist’s words: “I want to paint as though rushing around on a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion.” (Kazuo Shiraga quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, McCaffrey Fine Art, Kazuo Shiraga, 2009, p. 59) In the wake of the Second World War, the revolution in painting heralded by the Abstract Expressionist painters in America found its counterpart on the other side of the world with the Gutai movement. 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. Attempting to reinvigorate a society imbued with ancient traditions using radical modern stimuli, the Gutai movement took as its point of departure Yoshihara’s mantra: “Never imitate others! Make something that has never existed!” (Jirō Yoshihara quoted in Ibid., p. 15) Their revolutionary practice, although incorporating elements such as action painting that are familiar to a Western audience due to work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, also anticipated later artistic developments, particularly in their emphasis on concept and performance.

For Shiraga, painting was inseparable from performance, action indivisible from object. Prefiguring the Anthropometries of Yves Klein, which saw the French master use naked women as human paintbrushes, Shiraga’s abandonment of the brush had far reaching consequences. Even Jackson Pollock, to whose performative dances around the edges of the canvas Shiraga’s process has often been compared, showed a distinct interest in the expressive idiom of the Gutai group; indeed, a copy of their manifesto was found amongst Pollock’s papers after his death in 1956. Two years after the American master’s death, works by Shiraga and other members of the Gutai collective were shown alongside European and American artists including Antoni Tàpies, Karel Appel, Robert Motherwell, Klein and Pollock in the important exhibition, The International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai at the Osaka International Festival.

Typifying Gutai’s conceptual bent – the word Gutai literally translates as as instrument (gu) and body (tai) – Untitled is an early and lyrical example of Shiraga’s practice. Heavy layers of viscous impasto convey an echo of past motion that is at once dramatic and beautiful, and the work stands as an arresting testament to the physical and psychological energy that lent Shiraga’s raw materials a life of their own. As Ming Tiampo has written: “Sexual energy, the violence of the hunt, of war, and of man’s encounter with nature are embodied and repeated by [Shiraga’s] works, which are always inspirited by movement–not just the movement of his body, however, but also the assertion of matter itself.” (Ming Tiampo, ”’Not just beauty, but something horrible: Kazuo Shiraga and Matsuri Festivals,” Exh. Cat., New York, Dominique Lévy and Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Kazuo Shiraga, 2015, p. 22) Representing a fusion of body and art, unmediated by the intercessors of Pollock’s brush or Klein’s women, Untitled stands at the apogee of Shiraga’s illustrious praxis, a site of primal bodily action that represents one of the most significant undertakings of the post war era.