Japanese contemporary art The hot list

Japanese contemporary art: The hot list

Christie’s specialist Anastasia von Seibold on five artists with radical ideas and their impact on post-war Japanese art

  • 1
  • Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008)

Kazuo Shiraga joined Gutai — one of Japan’s most influential avant-garde movements — in 1955 and, internationally, is one of the group’s most well-known members,’ comments Christie’s specialist Anastasia von Seibold. 

Founded in Osaka in 1954, Gutai’s proponents vowed to do ‘something that’s never been done before’, rejecting conventional artistic practice in favour of large-scale multimedia and performance works in which the exploration of new methods and materials was key. 

Originally trained in traditional Japanese Nihonga and Western-style Yoga painting, by the time Shiraga joined Gutai he had begun to experiment with oils, spreading thick impasto across the canvas using his fingers, hands and feet. His unconventional approach transformed the process of painting into performance: placing his canvas on the floor, not unlike Pollock, Shiraga began to work suspended from a rope, his feet dancing paint across canvas in rapid, rhythmic and precise movements. 

Other works, such as Challenging Mud (1955), saw the artist employ his whole body to create dramatic public performances. ‘Dressed only in a pair of white shorts, Shiraga dived into and wrestled with a pile of mud mixed with stone and cement,’ explains von Seibold. ‘The resultant mass was left where it had been made, at Tokyo’s Ohara Hall, forming a centrepiece of the First Gutai Art Exhibition.’ 

In 1971 Shiraga trained as a Buddhist monk, joining the Tendai-sect temple on Japan’s Mount Hiei. The artist continued to produce foot paintings, with later works, such as 1990’s Haten, exhibiting a lyrical quality suggestive of a new-found spiritual energy. 

  • 2
  • Jiro Takamatsu (1936-1998)

Jirō Takamatsu was born in Tokyo in 1936, and by the 1960s had become one of Japan’s most influential artists, theorists and teachers,’ explains von Seibold.

As a student at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Takamatsu initially studied oil painting, expanding his repertoire upon graduation in 1958 to produce drawings, sculptures, photography, paintings and performance works. ‘His prolific output resulted in a large body of work, much of which is now held in permanent museum collections,’ von Seibold adds.

‘Early in his career Takamatsu founded the short-lived radical collective Hi-Red Centre (1963-64), working with fellow artists Akasegawa Genpei and Nakanishi Natsuyuki to create happenings and events across Tokyo,’ she continues. ‘Delivered in public spaces, the group’s satirical performances expressed anxiety at the rapid structural changes and mass capitalist society of post-war Japan.’

In 1963 the artist began what came to be his most famous series, Shadow Paintings. ‘Working in oil, enamel or acrylic paint, Takamatsu delicately depicted the shadows of human subjects — a woman, a child or himself — on wooden board. Later he represented the shapes cast by everyday objects, including keys hung from hooks, coat hangers, hairbrushes and bottles,’ explains von Seibold. ‘Although the works formed the focus of his output during the 1960s, Takamatsu would continue to focus on shadows well into later life, his ghostly images reflecting the absent and the unseen.’

The series was one of many produced across the artist’s four-decade career. Works featured in Christie’s ASOBI sale were taken from the series Point, Shadow, Perspective, Oneness, Compound and Space in Two Dimensions, created between 1960 and 1976, classified as his ‘early period’.

Highly intellectual and analytical, Takamatsu’s work is nevertheless playful, merging the refined visual language of Minimalism with the subversive elements of Surrealism and Dada. A self-proclaimed ‘anti-artist’, he also taught at Tokyo’s Tama Art University (1968-72).

  • 3
  • Kishio Suga (b. 1944)

‘Kishio Suga was a central figure of Mono-ha or School of Things, a movement that, despite its short life — from 1968 until the mid-1970s — nevertheless had a pivotal effect on Japanese contemporary art,’ says von Seibold. Born in 1944, Suga studied under Mono-ha founder Saito Yoshishige at Tama Art University, and is widely acknowledged to be the movement’s most disciplined adherent.

Mono-ha artists used raw materials such as untreated wood, stone, clay or water, viewing unaltered natural matter as significant and autonomous. These were displayed in arrangements which were often temporary, their structure requiring minimal artistic intervention. Central to Mono-ha was a desire to create a new, contemporary Asian art, free from what members considered to be Japan’s unquestioning absorption of Western Modernism. Traditional motifs, such as those associated with Buddhism, were also rejected, the group suggesting such images could be considered derivative.

‘Suga’s work places an emphasis not on its material components but on their “situation”, or arrangement in space,’ von Seibold explains. Produced in 1970, Unnamed Situation I featured two rectangular wooden blocks of different lengths, used to prop open two adjacent windows. Listing his materials, Suga cited not only ‘wood’ but ‘window, air, landscape’ and ‘light’, the artwork dependent not simply on its component parts, but its entire context.

Produced in 1988, Untitled is formed of wood, metal and stone, its natural materials and notions of minimal artistic intervention clearly evoking the Mono-ha approach. Other works by the artist are held in the permanent collections of Museums including the Tate, London, The National Museum of Art, Tokyo, and The National Museum of Art, Osaka.

  • 4
  • Saito Yoshishige (1904-2001)

‘A leader of the Japanese abstract art movement, Saito Yoshishige influenced a generation of artists,’ says von Seibold.

Born in Tokyo in 1904, the young Yoshishige was inspired by the social and political potential of European art movements such as Futurism and Dadaism, as well as the formal tenets of Russian Constructivism. The latter would influence works including the 1930s plywood relief sculptures, a series of three-dimensional forms that adhered to the Constructivist principles of ‘real materials’ in ‘real space’.

‘Recognised neither as sculpture nor paintings, these new forms were initially received with scepticism when they were displayed in public for the first time. Yet they set the stage for a career characterised by great freedom of expression, leading directly to the artist’s painted, gouged and drilled panels of the 1960s,’ von Seibold explains. Produced from 1960-63, the ‘electric-drill paintings’ are among Yoshishige’s most recognised works, capturing the artist’s belief in the importance of process. In 1964, Yoshishige stated: ‘To me, what’s necessary is not the result, but the cause — making impressions of acts and the process.’ 

A professor at Tokyo’s Tama Art University from 1964 to 1973, Yoshishige encouraged his students to create art that was modern yet unconstrained by Western formulations. ‘His teachings during the late 1960s lead, in part, to the development of Mono-ha, a movement which placed Asia at the centre, rather than on the fringe, of contemporary artistic practice,’ says van Seibold. A number of Yoshishige’s students became central figures of Mono-ha, including Sekine Nobuo, Suga Kishio and Koshimizu Susumu. 

Yoshishige continued to make art in his later life: in 1998 he was the subject of an exhibition at Japan’s Nizayama Forest Art Museum, and he produced work right up until his death in 2001 at the age of 97.

  • 5
  • Hisao Domoto (1928-2013)

Hisao Domoto was born in Kyoto in 1928 to a family of artists and connoisseurs,’ says von Seibold. His uncle was the painter Insho Domoto (1891-1975), who received Japan’s Order of Cultural Merit in 1961.

Part of Domoto’s upbringing consisted of long stretches spent travelling through Europe. ‘In 1954 Domoto travelled to Italy, France and Spain with his uncle, moving to Paris in the same year, where he lived until his return to Japan in 1965,’ says von Seibold. The period was followed by a brief stint in the US: Domoto spent December 1958 and January 1959 in New York, meeting artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

‘Domoto was at the forefront of Abstract art,’ adds the specialist. ‘While in Europe he became a member of the Art Informel movement, working with European artists whose concerns were similar to those of the Gutai in Japan — namely, a conviction that paint could be shaped to convey energy and meaning.’

In 1957 influential French art critic Michel Tapié featured works by Domoto in the historic exhibition L’art mondial contemporain à Tokyo. ‘Held in Paris, the show forged an important link between Japanese and European art of the period, and it was at this time that Domoto introduced Tapié to the Gutai movement,’ von Seibold says. ‘Untitled, which was created in 1959, clearly demonstrates the painterly abstraction central to Art Informel.’

In 1958 works by the artist were featured alongside pieces by both Art Informel and Gutai artists as part of the Osaka International Art Festival, its title — The International Art of a New Era: USA, Japan and Europe — capturing a moment of international artistic exchange. Since then, he has been the subject of retrospectives at Ikebukuro Seibu Museum, Tokyo (1987), The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto and Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo (both 2005).