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.
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