Our exploration into the unknown and original world bore numerous fruits in the form of objects. Above all, Gutai's objects differ from those of the Surrealists in that ours eschew titles and significations. Their appeal lies solely in the strength of their material properties, their colors and their forms. - Jiro Yoshihara, "The Gutai Manifesto"
Jiro Yoshihara was born in Osaka, Japan in 1905; he was an avant-garde artist of deep insight who helped push forward the development of Japanese art. In 1954 he formed the Gutai Art Association in Osaka, leading the 17 ambitious and forward-looking artist who would become known as the Gutai group. Eighteen years later, the group included a second generation of artists, and the movement continued, with a total number of 59 participants, until 1972, when Yoshihara passed away at the age of 67.
Yoshihara early on developed a close association with Michel Tapie, the French art critic linked with the Art Informel movement. This allowed the Gutai group of post-war avant-garde artists Yoshihara led to become known internationally, and the group remains highly acclaimed today. It is known that the American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock had volumes II and III of the Gutai Art Association magazine in his studio, an indication not only of the frequent international exchanges involving the group but its strong influence as well. As the leading member of the Gutai group, Yoshihara's creative work received widespread attention. As his work reached maturity, he explored a variety of expressive modes in his painting, including Surrealist-Impressionist work, linear abstraction, and Informel, with subjects ranging from fish to birds, faces, and the human figure. These explorations led him to personally realize the truth of what Fujita Tsuguharu (Lot 35 of this sale, p. 158) had once said to him - that aside from not imitating the painting of others, it was also necessary to have your own unique, distinctive, and original creative principles. In the early '60s, he devoted himself fully to works on the 'circle' theme, producing the work Untitled (Fig. 1) in 1962, which would later be exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1966. That same work also became an icon of the Gutai Pinacotheca, the group's exhibition space that opened in 1962, symbolizing the way in which Yoshihara had reconnected with the uninhibited circles he once drew on his walls as a child, and that he was now entering a new era of creativity centered around the circle.
A parallel can be drawn between the spatial depth in Yoshihara’s depictions of circles and the work of Italian artist Lucio Fontana, whose concept of spatial aesthetics revolutionized the development of Post-War Art. The energetic puncture in Fontana’s work, for instance, Concetto spaziale (1962) (Fig. 2), captures the viewer’s attention at first glance. It is noteworthy that the puncture is in fact enhanced by the thick application of impasto surrounding the hole. The relationship between hole and impasto in Fontana’s work is quite similar to the juxtaposition of positive and negative space in Yoshihara’s painting. In Untitled (Lot 11), the red ‘background’ does not subordinate to blue lines which viewers generally notice first. It is the illusionary depth of the red colour, which Yoshihara constructed on a completely flat surface with the aid of curved lines and contrasting colours, that leads our eyes to penetrate the two-dimensional surface and experience a visual tunnel, full of uncertainty, mystery and infinity.
The Untitled offered here dates from 1970, and is one of the series of works Yoshihara produced from the '60s up to that year. The series explores all types of images of circles, figures which, completed in one sweep, with no beginning and no end, are vehicles for many philosophical meanings. Any such paintings in the shape of a 'ball' had always been held in high esteem in Japan; they were regarded as representing the realm in which personal cultivation is complete, and were particular favorites of Japanese Zen monks. Sengai Gibon, a Zen master during Japan's Edo period, once painted a calligraphic circle in ink (Fig. 2), though interestingly, the inscription at the side is completely unrelated to Zen thought. Possibly, by abandoning the meaning of completion associated with the shape, he was indicating a continuing search for even higher levels of attainment. Yoshihara indicated in a statement in 1967 that what drove him to paint was the nature of the circle: he was unable to ever paint a satisfactory circle, which gave him unlimited freedom but at the same time presented serious challenges. Nevertheless, we can see in his various circular images a very high degree of artistic and painterly skill. To ensure a simple, lively presentation, Yoshihara used only five colours - black, white, blue, red, and gold (or yellow), choosing only two among them from which to form a vivid circle in any particular painting. While his canvases look spontaneous, he strove to obtain stable, smooth painted textures by means of finely controlled dripping, spreading, or light and heavy pressures on the brush, and he planned meticulously how to produce a sense of overall balance within the pictorial space. This Untitled shows Yoshihara guiding a fluctuating circle shape around the four borders of the canvas; like a voice speaking in low tones it tremulously expands toward unknown possibilities, while still remaining concealed and hidden within this space of bottomless depths.