Following World War II, Japan regained a liberal atmosphere that was conducive to the pursuit of Modern Art; it was during this time that the Gutai Art Association emerged. Founded by Yoshihara Jiro in the summer of 1954 with 17 other like-minded artists in Ashiya City, Gutai sought to re-invent Japanese art using the vocabulary of Modern art. Their aesthetic was based on the holistic use of the materiality their media, colour, and form; the distinctive use of these elements reveals the versatility of the beauty intrinsic to abstraction.
Sadamasa Motonaga was, for the most part, a self-taught artist—while he took some private painting lessons, he never received any formal training in fine art. Soon after officially joining the Gutai Art Association in 1955, Motonaga was inspired by the group’s leader Jiro Yoshihara, to “create what no one has ever seen.” Early in his career, with little money, Motonaga opted use inexpensive materials; his efforts resulted in one of his most iconic works Work (Water) which was exhibited for the first time later that year. (Fig. 1) The piece consisted of several plastic bags filled with colored water; the concept had been recreated in several variations throughout the years, exhibited finally in 2013 in New York as clear plastic tubes stretching across the expanse of the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda, each filled with a jewel-like puddle of colored water. Planned and conceived just before he passed away in 2011, it was deeply symbolic that this was the concept Motonaga both started and ended with.
There is a clear visual congruence between Motonaga’s water sculptures and his paintings. In the early 1950s, Motonaga started to depict cartoon-like forms in dense oil paint, but by 1957, at the suggestion of French art critic Michel Tapié, he began experimenting with abstractionism. Motonaga was inspired by the tarashikomi, the traditional Japanese painting technique of dropping one color on to another while the first was still wet. (Fig. 2) He poured and dripped pigments directly onto canvas, utilizing the properties of turpentine and resin to allow the colors to flow freely into delicate patterns, forming complex shapes and textures. This style of painting, which Motonaga practiced from the 1950s to the mid- 1960s sits at the core of his body of work. Of this period, Motonaga reflected, “One idea after another came to me. I used oil paint, and so if I mixed [in a lot of] oil, the paint became very water. I poured it [on canvas]. So I discovered that heavier pigments sink more quickly, and that lighter pigments flow father…Each color has its own weight. Red is rather heavy, for example. By trial and error, I discovered, ‘Oh, this color is light.’”
Work (Lot 13) painted in 1966 is exemplary of this period, with its simple shapes, almost cell-like in their structure. Colors spread with a dynamic directionality in the absence of imposed limits and, blending and transforming, they brim with a spirit of organic allure. It is important to note though, that while the composition may appear to have been arranged by chance, in fact Motonaga had a definite idea of the end result he hoped to achieve and carefully controlled the process. The same concept is expressed in the works of American Artist Sam Francis who would lay down a ‘water drawing’ on his primed canvas before applying pure pigment to the wet and dry areas, sometimes rewetting and painting areas over again. The result was a carefully conceived composition with the unrestrained aesthetic levity of a fortunate accident.(Fig. 3)
In 1960, Motonaga signed a contract with Martha Jackson Gallery, a New York gallery specializing in Abstract Expressionism, also at Tapié’s recommendation; the following year, the gallery held a solo exhibition. Several years later in 1966 Motonaga finally traveled to New York for a year-long residency at the invitation of the Japan Society. When he arrived, Martha introduced him to a large art supply store allowing him to buy materials on the gallery’s credit. It was there, in the store that Willem de Kooning and Sam Francis (both also represented by Martha Jackson Gallery) purchased their materials, that Motonaga discovered acrylic paint. This new material opened up many possibilities and allowed him to begin experimenting with airbrushing techniques that ultimately had a dramatic impact on his style. His previous amorphous poured canvases evolved into more defined shapes with hard edges, playful colour and gradation allowed by this new technique. Lot 75, painted in 1975 after Motonaga returned to Japan, demonstrates this style in its matured form. With its two anthropomorphic forms that appear to be jubilantly raising their fists in the air, this humorous composition recalls the artist’s earlier interest in painting cartoon-inspired forms prior to joining Gutai.
In the 1980s, Motonaga began creating compositions by pouring and splattering paint on canvas in a manner reminiscent of earlier works from the 1960s. Lot 30, painted in 1994, is one such example of a return to this earlier method of creation, however just as he reinterpreted his Work (Water) installation in various forms, he has reimagined his earlier method of painting as well. Motonaga has superimposed a floating, glowing orb which appears hyper-flattened atop the depth of the celestial backdrop splattered with brightly colored paint. This form is rimmed in graduated green tones, recalling the spray-painted works of earlier decades. There it floats like an extraterrestrial, surrounded by twelve symbol-like appendages, lending it the appearance of an otherworldly zodiac calendar. This work is full of interesting propositions and a visual vocabulary similar to graffiti and cartoon art that is the most common motif in Motonaga's later works. This emphasis on two-dimensionality recalls traditional Japanese woodblock prints or ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world.” (Fig. 4)
Sadamasa Motonaga’s ability to continuously re-explore and reinvent his signature style of painting marks him as one of the most versatile artists of his generation. While he sought to reinterpret the foundation of his work many times over, there is a certain sense of harmony one can sense in considering his work over the span of his career. His devotion to allowing the materiality of his media speak with its own voice is apparent from his early days as a poor young artist in pursuit of creating “what no one has ever seen” through the display of his work as a widely renowned artist at the some of the world’s most prominent institutions.