'I came to feel that doing anything with my body was a very meaningful act. Rather than painting and establishing a picture, and trying to make it remain, I got to the point where it didn't matter whether it remained or notKMore than that, by simply engaging in an action - although it might sound strange to say you get more out of itI came around to the idea that this kind of thing was more important.'1
With a career spanning over six decades, Kazuo Shiraga was from the outset one of the leading figures of the Gutai Art Association, one of the most influential groups and movements of Japanese avant-garde artists in the post-war era.
Shiraga set himself apart from other artists in the group via his unique painting method. With a canvas laid out on the floor of his studio, its surface lavishly covered in large oil paint deposits, the artist created spectacular, mysterious compositions, spreading pigments across the canvas by furrowing into the oils with his bare feet, using ropes suspended from the ceiling to position himself over the floor. His movements were aggressive, spontaneous, full of action, improvisation, intention and chance.
For Shiraga, the process of painting is inherently associated with attacking the painterly material with trance-like action-packed bodily performance. Each execution on the canvas constitutes a battlefield between consciousness and the unconscious: while the artist slides through swirls of magma-like paint by dispersing its centrifugal force in spontaneous motions that inevitably exceed the "boundaries" of the canvas, his mind is under control of the 'automatic' movement of the body. At the same time, he has to be mindful and conscious of the architectural structure and confinement of the painting. The constant tension of nullification and resurgence can be best described by Shiraga himself who described his process as '60 percent physical desire and 40 percent taking a look at the painting and making a decision.2'
Shiraga emphasized associative effect of colour and believed that the right combination should have the capacity to simultaneously invoke sublime energy, ecstasy and emanation, violence of the war, and human atrocity, an impulse that no doubt accounts for the preponderance of red in his palette, which he referred to as crimson lake. In the monumental Untitled (Lot 66) painting from 1963 featured here, we can see how adept Shiraga was in managing his palette and his composition despite the nature of his technique. The canvas is filled with a whirl of colour, dominated by a moody red that alternates between a lava-like texture and lighter washes. This is contrasted and contained by the elegant, sweeping, motion of black pigment that runs swiftly up the left side of the composition before twisting and arcing right, ultimately taking another hairpin turn, and ending in a quick flourish, contrasted by a firm swath of white. The movements of the dominant black are echoed and alleviated by unexpected flashes of Kelly green, white, and blue. The painting is visually striking and yet invokes a strong visceral feeling, and the viewer can trace the embodied gestures within the painting just as a seasoned connoisseur of ink painting can inhabit the movements of a calligraphy master's brushworks.
Unlike his contemporary Abstract Expressionists in America, Shiraga situated himself inside of his canvas instead of working around the periphery. Painted in 1963, one year after his first solo exhibition outside Japan at the Galerie Stadler in Paris, Untitled (1963) exudes energy, action, and spontaneity, revealing a moment of transcending beauty in base material, and faithfully recording traces of 'the body moving through space in dance, elegant, struggling, rhythmic, contingent, and expressive.'3 Antonio Saura, another contemporary of Shiraga's who was also featured in the Stadler show, once wrote, '(Shiraga) is simultaneously involved in two very different aesthetic universes: the existential expressiveness of Western art and the pantheist transcendence of Oriental art.4' It is through his groundbreaking technique, fusing the post-war trend towards abstraction and action painting with his own philosophical impulses and urgent desire to create a fully embodied form of art practice, that established Shiraga as one of the most important and compelling artists of the post - war era, east or west.