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


KAZUO SHIRAGA (1924-2008)
signed in Japanese (lower left); signed, titled and dated in Japanese (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
130 x 161.5 cm. (51 1/8 x 63 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1990
Private collection
Anon. Sale, Christie’s New York, 18 September 2002, lot 375
Private collection
Anon. Sale, Christie’s Paris, 11 December 2007, lot 46
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Japanese Abstraction, Tokyo, Art Museum Ginza, 1991 (illustrated, p. 33).
Kazuo Shiraga : Painting Born Out of Fighting, Azumino Municipal Museum of Modern Art, Amagasaki Cultural Center, Yokosuka Museum of Art, Hekinan City Tatsukichi Fuji Museum of Contemporary Art, 2010 (illustrated, unpaged)

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡)

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Lot Essay

“When action becomes an expression of consciousness, anything is possible.” —Kazuo Shiraga, Establishing the Individual, 1955.

With its surface encrusted with vigorous impasto, stunning chromatic range and spontaneous composition, Henge captures the spirit of the pioneering Japanese artist, Kazuo Shiraga. A founding member of the influential Avant-Garde Japanese art collective, the Gutai Art Association, Shiraga’s work embodies the group’s aesthetic strategy: to break from the conventions of traditional materials in search of
innovation and originality. Spiralling outwards from the centrifugal vortex in deep blood red, deep purple, bright yellow and midnight blue, swathes of oil paint intermingle, coursing into waves of densely impastoed pigment in vivid marbled colour against a snow white ground. Shiraga often titled a painting after the work’s completion, after its character had been fully revealed. In translation, “Henge” becomes “change”, encapsulated in the gestural dance performed by Shiraga in the making of the present work, transforming performance into artwork.

In 1954, Shiraga began painting with his bare feet. Propelling himself across the canvas suspended from a rope, the artist traced deep furrows in the surplus of paint that proliferates the canvas. With the advent of this unique technique he claimed, “forms were smashed to smithereens, techniques slipped off my palette knife and broke into two” (Kazuo Shiraga, “Koi koso” [Action only], Gutai 3 (1955): n.p, translated and reprinted in Reiko Tomii, Kazuo Shiraga, New York: McCaffrey Fine Art, 2009, p. 60). First introduced to contemporary Western art practices in 1951 when the third Yomiuri Independent Exhibition travelled to Osaka, Shiraga was fascinated by the work of Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Yet, Shiraga sought to create work that moved beyond the vocabulary of pre-existing art forms and his compelling oeuvre went on to become an enormous influence on the landscape of post-war art.

In his 1961 Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, Yves Klein spoke with respect of “a group of Japanese painters … [who] in fact transformed themselves into living brushes. By drowning themselves in colour and then rolling on their canvases, they became ultra-action painters!” (Y. Klein, “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto” in K. Ottmann (ed.), Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York, 2007, p. 197). Initially an apprentice in traditional Japanese painting nihonga, Shiraga found the rigid technique oppressive, later revealing: “I wanted to create paintings with no composition or no sense of colours, no nothing” (Kazuo Shiraga, quoted in ‘Osaka Action Talk: From an Interview by Haryu Ichiro (1973)’ in R. Tomii and F. McCaffrey (eds.), Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades , New York 2009, p. 62).

In abandoning traditional tools in favour of his own body, Shiraga literally embedded himself in his painting, an act that powerfully connects with the concept of shishitsu , a philosophy that reflects a deep self-awareness. Throughout his life Shiraga focused on the body in space with the attentiveness of a religious adherent, and he continued to explore the relationships between materiality, body, and spirit. In 1971, a year before Gutai disbanded, he became a Buddhist monk at the Enryakuji-Temple at Hieizan Mountain, and received a Buddhist name, Sodo Shiraga. He was a member of the Tendai order, which emphasizes the realization of enlightenment through physical experience. His style after that point became more lyrical, more spiritual, though his works maintained their same high level of energy and vitality. Having found the freedom he sought for so long, his once violent gestures became clean, more mature, with fluid arcs and waves. The change, or henge , the title refers to could be quite literally the changes of colours, merging into one another in a marbled effect, introducing a wider range of colours.

The rich gestural quality of the sinuous lines and the intermixing of their colours demonstrate the wonderful flexibility of his technique as well as how, at a deeper level, his practice of highly physical methods extends from the physical to the spiritual plane. The intense colour of Henge and its unparalleled creative power show Shiraga reaching yet another great peak in his creative development.

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