KAZUO SHIRAGA (1924-2008)
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KAZUO SHIRAGA (1924-2008)


KAZUO SHIRAGA (1924-2008)
signed in Japanese; dated '99' (lower middle); titled, signed and dated 'Kaien Kazuo Shiraga 24 Feb 1999'; titled, signed and dated in Japanese (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
194 x 130 cm. (76 3/8 x 51 1/8 in.)
Executed in 1999
Important Private Collection, Asia
Annely Juda Fine Art, Kazuo Shiraga Paintings and Watercolours, exh. cat., London, UK, 2001.
Azumino Municipal Museum of Modern Art, Kazuo Shiraga: Painting Born out of Fighting, Toyoshina, Japan, 2009 (illustrated, plate 366).
The National Art Center Tokyo, Kazuo Shiraga, Yasuko Asano (ed.), Tokyo, Japan, 2009.
London, UK, Annely Juda Fine Art, Kazuo Shiraga Paintings and Watercolours, 20 September-20 October 2001.
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Lot Essay

Born in 1924, Kazuo Shiraga is one of the best-known Gutai members. He first studied traditional Japanese painting at the Kyoto Institute of Painting, then oil painting at the Osaka Municipal Institute of Art; he had a profound understanding of Japanese traditional painting. Together with Kanayama Akira (1924-2006) and Murakami Saburo, he founded the Zero Society (Zero-Kai) in 1952, and led the entire Zero Society to join Gutai. Shiraga is perhaps best known for using his feet in painting. In his opinion, using the hands for painting would only result in over-control, and would unconsciously reveal long-standing, over-cultured habits. He thus decided to use his feet. He implemented the Gutai idea of reducing the artist's handling of a work by laying the canvas flat on the floor, setting oil pigments out on it, and using a roller to spread them out more evenly; then, holding on to a rope suspended from the ceiling, he slid his own bare feet across the canvas to create different patterns. Shiraga still practiced this method of painting even at more than 70 years old. This kind of creative idea echoes the concept of 'action painting' or 'gesture painting' that was found in American Abstract Expressionism.

Intense Azure in the Depths of the Ocean

While originally Shiraga's action painting was a product of powerful historical currents moving through the art world in the 1950s, it is a concept that he held to staunchly throughout his life as an artist. From his semi-abstract, segmented color blocks in the late 1940s, like those of the Cubists (Fig. 1), Shiraga advanced to his style of the early '50s, in which he completely abandoned forms and line fragments and moved on to broad, rough lines (Fig. 2). He then moved even further on, in 1956, to strongly experimental performance works in which concept was everything (Fig. 3). Finally, in the most basic of painting elements, color, he found a creative vocabulary of his own. Shiraga once said, 'From about 1956KK I decided it was OK if [a painting] had a sense of composition and then I also started using color, and after I started using a variety of colors, I just got used to the idea that a work might have an artistic conception or that people might see it in that way.'

In the 'foot paintings' that he produced from about 1958 to 1961, Shiraga most often used the earth colors of crimson, fire brick, Indian red, maroon, sienna, and sandy brown (Fig. 4). His paintings from that period are also large in scale, to match the scope of his movements while hanging above the floor. Soon after, lighter and milder colors such as ocean blue, blue-violet, grass green, and even pink began to appear-a change signaling that the artist performed more of a planned execution of whatever vague images he had in mind, thus gradually departing from a completely spontaneous mode of composition. The artist himself once pointed out that, from this point on, his principle for painting was '60 percent physical desire and 40 percent taking a look at the painting after a certain part has been executed,' then considering what the next step should be.

Shiraga's 1999 Kaien (Lot 53) is a mature and vigorous late-period work. Its azure blue is as clear as the ocean; powerful strokes in inky black and scarlet complete the meaning of the work. In Japanese, 'kaien' means 'the depths of the ocean,' and compared with the overarching sky above, the oceans are hardly less fathomable, deep, or mysterious. Touches of white near the edges of this nearly two-meter high painting are quickly taken over by the transparent blue of water, which is then transformed into a deeper blue with touches of violet, against which powerful strokes set out in solid black aggressively dominate the center. The result is a fathomless gulf that draws the viewer deeply inside while producing a strong sense of three-dimensional depth on the canvas. Almost buried in the darkness are a few perfectly judged spots and streaks of red, like red-hot magma erupting from an underwater volcano, which add dramatic tension as they rise from the same source as the water. Such precise judgments of color not only enhance the sense of spatial depth within the canvas, but provide it with artistic value and appeal beyond a mere work of 'foot painting' by Kazuo Shiraga.

Between the Conscious and Subconscious Mind

Beyond the clear tensions and appealing textures in this Shiraga work, his action paintings appeal on another level by embodying the concept of binary opposition, or duality. During the creative process, the artist frequently felt the pull of opposing forces-the oil pigments and the use of his feet in painting; his body and the physical medium of his work (the Gutai group did not believe that artists changed material substance, but that they injected meaning into it); his eyes and his heart; and finally, the pull of both his conscious and subconscious minds.

In the discourse of 20th century art, Surrealists for the first time employed the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud in interpreting art, exploring how the human subconscious forms and develops. The Surrealists' interest in the interactions between body and mind led them to develop the completely spontaneous writing and painting techniques known as Automatism. The psychological interpretation of the term 'automatic' means 'non-conscious motion,' referring to actions such as breathing, opening our mouths when eating, or lifting our feet to climb stairs. Actions which take place without the specific direction of our conscious minds. French artist Jean Arp took this process to mean natural motion without prior consideration; he took pieces of blue and white paper cut to various sizes and dropped them from above, letting their natural arrangement after landing on the canvas determine their final placement in his completed work of art. In so doing, he completely eliminated the element of human manipulation (Fig. 5). By combining unconscious motion and the automatism of art, artists could free themselves from restrictions imposed by the nature of their source materials; creative effects became central, and they hoped through the technical process of creation to liberate their minds and thinking processes, emphasizing the importance of 'the automatic effects of the subconscious.'

In Kazuo Shiraga's process of creation, the artist's feet, body, and mind all become vehicles of the subconscious. They manifest the inclinations of the artist's intuition, spontaneous will, and heart. Those together become a powerful energy, raging to break through the limits of the painting's frame. The oil colors, physical materials, and the artist's eyes together become the totality of consciousness; they establish the rules of the composition on the canvas, reining in the energy that wants to break through it, balancing its instinctive wildness. In Kaien, it is the subconscious that guides the loops and returns of lines on the canvas to create the cyclical dynamics of motion, enticing the viewers' gaze. While, the canvas with its corner and edges, using the classical tradition of geometrical shape, create the feel of motion by pushing back against the arcs and curves of the composition with its rectangular shape. These opposing forces, together give this work its writhing energy and its profundity.

It is the pull of these two opposing elements against each other that forms the crux of action painting-that is, the creation of balance on a foundation of mutual opposition. No matter how violent the action, how innovative the medium, or how numerous the colors, if this balance were to disappear, the only thing left would be a chaotic explosion of oil pigments with no sense of unity or integration. In Kaien, two broad, powerful lines in black stand vertically to form the backbone of the work, reflecting a choice by Shiraga about the arrangement of the pictorial elements. But these two core lines bend and turn, while traces of other layered colors weave through them; these finer variations in detail result from the artist using his feet as his paintbrush. We should not assume that Kazuo Shiraga planned the composition of his work in meticulous detail-that would mean subjugating his mind and body to conscious cooperation, and a mature control over pictorial elements guided by complex, rational control over its execution. What this work represents instead is simply the finest expression of Kazuo Shiraga's genius, his eye for beauty, and his superb intuition.

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