Avant-garde art thus revolutionizes the perspective of what beauty means, and at the same time shows what human existence is like. 1
– Shozo Shimamoto
Active in Japan and the international art scene since the 1950s, Shozo Shimamoto was one of the founding members of the avant-garde art group, the Gutai Art Association. The unique methods behind his original 'bottle-crash' performances of the 1950s (fig. 1) and his original Whirlpool from 1965 made him a pioneer in contemporary art. His philosophy of art is closely related to the existence of humankind and physical materials. Believing that art should transcend visual experience, Shimamoto overturned traditional, pre-set creative methods. His artwork is recognized and housed by the Tate Modern in the UK and other major museums. During the 1960s, the Gutai Art Association in Japan and other groups of artists throughout the world, including Art Informel, CoBrA and Arte Povera in Europe, and Abstract Expressionism in the USA, were injecting new vitality into painting.
Shimamoto believed that art is not merely a matter of using one's eyes for admiration, and proposed instead that art is a personal experience. He continually pondered the meaning that art has for humanity, and asked, Can art can bring a different feeling to daily human and social life? Does art attest to human existence? Does color itself have life force? Shimamoto's art is an answer to all these questions.
Beginning with his 1956 Please walk on top (Fig. 2) and his bottle-crash performances, Shimamoto attempted to create art that would transcend visual experience. His bottle-crash works not only embody great energy, but also release the life force within the pigments themselves. His large-scale 1965 Whirlpool is a monumental avant-garde work that liberated the life force within pigments in just this way.
Effects that a Brush Cannot Express
'I believe that the first thing to do is free colour from the paintbrush,' he wrote. 'If we do not cast aside the brush in the process of painting, there is no hope of liberating color. Once separated from the paintbrush, colors achieve their own freedom and life.' 2
Shozo Shimamotos' bottle-crash performances is the first experiments in liberating pigments. 'I think throwing bottles as a method of painting is a way of delving into the unknown,' Shimamoto once said. 'More than any other method of painting, I find intense stimulation in the materialization of an unpredictable expression.' 3
Shimamoto's 'bottle crash' performances were manifestations of energy, including Shimamoto's own kinetic energy, acoustic energy, and the energy of free will. Shimamoto projected bodily energy, via his arms, by throwing glass bottles or plastic cups filled with liquid pigment through the air. At that moment, the pigments became joined with Shimamoto's physical energy, and intervention was then no longer possible. The liquid pigment acquired its own "time" (the interval between the bottle being thrown and landing), and "space" (the distance between the artist throwing it and the canvas), in which it made its own independent life journey. Shimamoto's fatigue after finishing a performance attests to the large amounts of energy transferred and depleted in such performances.
Canvases spread out on the ground documented various forms of energy, including the artist's spiritual energy and physical energy, and the pull of gravity. In Untitled (Lot 463 in Asian 20th Century Day Sale, fig. 3) and Untitled (Lot 464 in Asian 20th Century Day Sale, fig. 4) a bloom of vitality and energy sprays out in all directions, with splashes of red, white, dark green, oxide yellow, and blue and pink-coloured paints. The canvas captures the speed of the paint's flow, its direction and strength. The textures that appear on the canvas, with such details as elongated drip effects, spots that splash outward, and the heavy accumulation of pigments, were formed by Shimamoto throwing the paint in different ways. Broken fragments of glass document the force with which the pigments hit the earth. These two works challenge traditional ideas of pictorial space, composition, colour and light, and the visual effects achieved through their drips and their swirls of random, semi-automatic color effects could never be expressed by a brush.
In 1965, Shimamoto created his startling, large-scale Whirlpool, which received its first showing at the 15th Gutai Art Exhibition in July 1965. Another public event, the 17th Gutai Art Exhibition of September 1966, featured the work on offer here, Shimamoto's Black Whirlpool (Lot 16). In creating this more than two-meter long canvas, Shimamoto added pigments of different colors through a funnel-like implement, creating a self-made stream of colors flowing like water, which he directed onto the canvas from the air above. Immediately upon contact, the pigments would automatically spread toward the outside, their streams of red, yellow, blue, and green weaving together in intriguing patterns, and while seemingly uncontrollable, the flowing pigments nevertheless appeared in organically shaped concentric forms like the growth rings of a tree. This deep whirlpool of intertwined colors, combining the controllable and the spontaneous with the uncontrollable, projects the life force within the colors to their utmost. Appearing along with other works by Gutai artists, who during the same period were also involved in explorations of color, Shimamoto's Black Whirlpool remains an original, unmatched creation and a hallmark of his creative art.
'Document Gutai, 1954-1972,' compiled by the Ashiya City Cultural Foundation, contains photographs in which we can glimpse Shimamoto's Whirlpool on display at the 15th Gutai Art Exhibition (Fig. 5). In photos from the 17th Gutai Art Exhibition, however, we see only the Black Whirlpool offered here (Figs. 6, 7). Based on currently available published information, Shimamoto produced fewer than 10 large-scale works on the 'whirlpool' theme.
Shimamoto's philosophy of art derives from his complete focus on humanity's heaven-sent senses, feelings and energy. Graduating from the Philosophy Department of Kansai Gakuin University in 1954, Shimamoto, together with Jiro Yoshihara and 18 other artists, established an avant-garde group called the 'Gutai Art Association.' Shimamoto named this association 'Gutai,' '"Gutai" – a word made up of two ideograms, the first of which means "implement,"' and the second meaning "body/form." The link between matter and the body is the energy that passes through it: life."4 The 'bottle crash' performances that Shimamoto began developing toward the end of the 1950s were avant-garde events that joined art with the artist's physical energy, making him one of the post-war pioneers in 'performance art as he continued to try to expand 'the artistic experience.'
Since the 1950s, world art has been in transition from a focus on the beauty of the image to a concern with expressing the subconscious and emotions that the physical eye cannot see. Shimamoto entered into investigations of energy reflected in and recorded by his artistic methods, through which he subverted convention and conveyed the meaning of human existence. Even after the dissolution of the Gutai Art Association, Shimamoto continued to expound the Gutai worldview and to deepen his artistic philosophy. He became an early proponent of Mail Art in Asia, encouraging the public to take part in art by breaking through its high-end image. Shozo Shimamoto never wavered in his attitude as an avant-garde artist.
1 Gabriella Dalesio, '5th Chaos, Ugly is beautiful', Shozo Shimamoto, Between East and West-Life, the Substance of Art, editioni Morra, Napel, Italy, 2014, p. 115.
2 Shozo Shimamoto, The Execution of Paintbrushes, Gutai, Osaka, 1 April 1957.
3 Bonito Oliva, Achille, Shimamoto Shozo, Samurai, acrobata dello sguardo 1950-2008 (exh. cat.), Genova: Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, organized by ABC-ARTE, Milan: Skira, 2008, p.26.
4 Gabriella Dalesio, 'Introduction', Shozo Shimamoto, Between East and West-Life, the Substance of Art, editioni Morra, Napel, Italy, 2014, pp. 10-11.