An impassioned explosion of jubilant primary colours, Murakami Saburo’s Work from circa 1960 is a masterful display of the artist’s gestural paintings, merging abstract aesthetics with the immediacy of the performative act of painting. As a leading member of the Japanese avant-garde movement Gutai, Murakami Saburo stood at the very forefront of the radical Japanese post-war group that redefined contemporary painting by renouncing traditional techniques of painting in favour of new modes of expression. During the seminal Gutai outdoor exhibition “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun” in 1956, an exhibition which went on for twenty-four hours a day for thirteen days, Murakami hurled himself repeatedly through numerous vertically erected paper screens. The dynamic and stunning performances constituted a critical attack on the picture plane as a two-dimensional surface and brought about a vividly physical iconography of architectural destruction into post-war representation. Ming Tiampo opines that Murakami Saburo “pushed Gutai’s challenge to the flat Abstract Expressionist canvas further than any of his peers […] transform[ing] canvas as limit into the canvas as threshold [and] opening the realm of painting to include time and space” (Ming Tiampo, Gutai: Decentering Modernism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011, p. 25).
French critic Pierre Restany would go on to cite Murakami Saburo’s iconic lacerated canvases as an example of the phenomenal Gutai performances that predated New York Happenings, writing of a “troubling coincidence: the ‘performers’ of New York Happenings would have a direct precursor in Japan” (Ibid., p. 143). During those years Murakami also created a series of renowned paintings by throwing a ball soaked in ink at paper. Central to Murakami’s oeuvre is the element of chance born out of the relationship between one’s self and one’s subject, and the act of establishing this in the form of a work; as an artist he preferred his creations and performances to be referred to as “negotiation sites” rather than artworks. Even after Gutai’s disbandment, Murakami went on to build a long and fascinating interdisciplinary oeuvre of performances, installations and paintings, continuing to perform and paint up until his death in 1996. The importance of Murakami Saburo’s oeuvre is recently receiving renewed critical attention; in April 2018, Guggenheim curator Alexandra Munroe re-enacted the performance Passing Through by the artist, throwing herself through a golden door made of paper and bursting through to the other side with a primal scream. Munroe declared: “I was shocked by the power in doing this. It was the biggest moment of invigoration that I’ve ever had; this feeling of ecstatic joy and total freedom”. Created in 1960, at the nascence of Gutai’s emergence into the international art scene, Work is a rare early painting by Murakami Saburo that encapsulates the ebullient energy and relentless innovation of Murakami’s phenomenal career.