In the wake of the Second World War, the revolution in painting, propelled by a move towards Abstract Expressionism by pioneers such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the West, saw a similar development on the other side of the world. Seeking innovative outlets for a new artistic freedom, a group of young Japanese painters formed what came to be known as the Gutai group. Founded by the visionary artist Jirō Yoshihara in 1954, the group’s core members included Shimamoto Shōzō, Kanayama Akira, Tanaka Atsuko, Murakami Saburō, Motonaga Sadamasa and Shiraga. Influenced by the climate of post-war Japan the group aimed to invigorate a society imbued with ancient traditions with radical modern stimuli, following Yoshihara’s mantra: “Never imitate others! Make something that has never existed!” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, McCaffrey Fine Art, Kazuo Shiraga, 2009, p. 15) Their revolutionary exploratory processes incorporated aspects of performance and interactive environments, anticipating later developments in conceptual art and performance art.
Epitomizing the Gutai group’s progressive mission, Shiraga took the traditional medium of painting as his point of departure, in order to seek innovative ways to create commanding, gestural works. Fastening a rope above the painting he swung across the canvas in energetic, gestural moves, using his feet to spread thick layers of paint across the surface. By actually stepping into the painting with this uninhibited action the artist fully immersed himself into the work. Shiraga explained: "I want to paint as though rushing around on a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion." (the artist cited in Ibid, p. 59) The uniquely physical nature of his artistic expression was closely linked to his radical performances of a similar vein. Wrestling with a mountain of clay and mud during the first Gutai exhibition in 1955, and turning his action painting into a trailblazing performance during the group’s second exhibition the following year, the artist celebrated action itself as the fundamental artwork, his painting becoming the trace of unrestrained energy and physical expression. When reflecting on his transition to foot paintings, Shiraga noted the ease with which he made the change in the early fifties, emphasizing the spontaneity of the movement. Looking back on the three-decade long transformation in 1985, Shiraga stated: “Not that I was thinking about it, but it just happened to be like that. That’s the best explanation.” (Yamamura Kazuo and Osaki Shin’ichiro, “An interview with Shiraga Kazuo, 10 July 1985”, Gutai shiryo-shu/ Docyment Gutai, 1954-1972, Ahiya, 1993, pp. 379-387) Later on, the artist would reaffirm the motif of “liberation” and freedom in discovering the art of painting by feet, noting at the beginning of the new millennium, “This act of painting with my feet feels very important to me. It felt as though the scales dropped from my eyes. I felt cheered, happy, and exhilarated.” (the artist cited in “Shojoyuki no ue o kasso suru/ Sliding over Virgin Snow,” Exh. Cat., Kobe, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Akushon peinta Shiraga Kazuo-ten/ Kazuo Shiraga [an action painter], 2001, pp. 11-13)
Shiraga’s rise to fame and mastery of the medium of oil had humble beginnings. Coming of age in post-war Japan, the artist was unable to enroll at the prestigious Tokyo School of Fine Art, which specialized in, among other styles, yoga (Western painting), and instead entered the Kyoto Municipal Special School, which taught Nihonga (traditional Japanese style painting). The artist would later recall the strict rudiments of Nihonga practice, viewing it as “unfree” and “inconvenient.” In trying to rid himself of such “constrictions,” Shiraga turned to oil, which he preferred as a means of expression, viewing it as malleable and unencumbering. Opting for the slickness of paint, Shiraga’s first paintings in the early fifties were markings or scratchings that he created using his fingers or fingernails. Beginning with these early works, Shiraga’s art form can be seen as an escalation in the exercise of abjuring the brush, and is a process of maturation that takes its final form in his foot paintings.
With the support of critic Michel Tapié, the work of the Gutai group was first introduced to the western art scene at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1958. However, despite the limited recognition first given to the group in the late 50s and 60s, their unique visual language and artistic philosophy placed them amongst a peer group of exceptional avant-gardists. With significant formative impacts on both the development of performance art, as well as radical artistic movements, such as Fluxus, the ground-breaking artistic approach pursued by Shiraga and his colleagues stood as a benchmark for artists worldwide. Shiraga's drastic act of discarding the paintbrush in favor of the human body aligned him with renowned Western artists like Yves Klein, who utilized both naked women and his own body as "human paintbrushes" in his Anthropometries of the late 1950s and 60s. Even the master of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock, who had created his first iconic action painting a few years prior to the formation of the Gutai group, showed a distinct interest in the expressive idiom of the radical Japanese artists, with a copy of the group’s manifesto being found amongst Pollock’s papers after his death in 1956.
There is certainly a sense of elation and verve in Chiyusei Byotaichu. Composed with vivacious reds amidst slashes of electric blues, cool whites, and rich blacks, the work is exemplary of Shiraga’s uninhibited grandeur. Kazuo Shiraga’s radical and aesthetically arresting “performance paintings” stand as exceptional milestones in the history of Japanese avant-garde art. An important artistic influence not only in Japan, but also in post-war Western art, Kazuo Shiraga’s art historical significance has long been underestimated. Only recently have the outstanding artistic achievements of Shiraga and the Gutai group been truly celebrated in the remarkable exhibition Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2013. With a longstanding artistic production and international influence that far outlasted the Gutai group, which disbanded after the death of Jirō Yoshihara in 1972, Shiraga is recognized as one of Japan’s most influential artists. Shiraga continued his foot paintings until his death in 2008, staying committed to his unique mode of artistic expression and ceaselessly perfecting his technique with unrelenting energy and dynamism. Embracing vitality and action as his main mode of expression, he challenged the parameters of painting as radically as any great avant-gardist of the post-war period.
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