KAZUO SHIRAGA (1924-2008)
signed in Japanese (lower right);
signed and dated ‘Kazuo Shiraga 1965’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
32 x 41 cm. (12 5/8 x 16 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1965
Fergus McCaffrey Gallery, New York, USA
Private Collection, Canada

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Sylvia Cheung
Sylvia Cheung

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Lot Essay

The Gutai group was founded by Jiro Yoshihara in the Hyogo Prefecture, Japan in 1954. Its formation was motivated by a group of young artists who wanted to pursue a kind of modern art that would put post-war Japan on the same avant grade trajectory as Europe and the United States. The founding members include Kazuo Shiraga, Atsuko Tanaka, Yasuo Sumi, and Sadamasa Motonaga. As demonstrated in the early works of Gutai, the group was determined to detach itself from the traditional expressions of art objects. They challenged the conventional categorisations of art such as genre, form, medium, technique, and other boundaries. Everyday mundane materials such as old newspapers, metal scrapes, fabric scrapes, timber, plastic bags, light bulbs, water, soil, sand, and glass are all acceptable art materials for Gutai artists. Using everyday life as a creative point of departure, there were no limits to their choices of subject matters. They attempted to shatter the boundaries between different artistic disciplines and encourage collaborations between different art forms, such as integrating performance, theatre, and other artistic formats into the creative production of paintings and sculptures. The resulting art work would be considered a record of the artist's creative process. No rules, no embellishments, primitive, and raw, these qualities became the unique aesthetics of the Gutai movement.

Born in Amagasaki city in 1924, Kazuo Shiraga is one of the most important members of the Gutai group. He shattered the assumption that art-making must be done with hands. Using his feet as painting instruments, he doused paint on his feet and suspended himself by holding onto a rope with his hands. As his body dangled midair, he kicked and swept paint with his feet across the canvas. As he executed this performance piece, Shiraga investigated the relationships between the body and the medium as well as body autonomy and control. Different pressures and gestures exerted on the canvas resulted in different colour combinations interacting with one another. This outcome documents and reenacts the conflict between the body and the medium experienced by the artist as he executed the work. The two Untitled works (Lot 376 and Lot 377) offered in this auction were both executed in 1965. It was a period when the artist had reached the pinnacle in his artistic development. Confronted with two different colour combinations, the artist applied different treatments to each set resulting in drastically different visual experiences. It is evident that he reacted in an idiosyncratic manner according to different canvas sizes and colours. This intuitive yet layered execution is thoroughly demonstrated in the expressive power of these works.

Another prominent founding member of the Gutai group is Shozo Shimamoto. He was best known for his Bottle Crash and Whirlpool series. His artistic concept is inextricably tied to the materiality of the medium itself. He was especially concerned with the painting medium, "I must first liberate paint from the paintbrush. Once it leaves the paintbrush, the paint is free". Untitled SHIM-46 (Lot 380) is an exemplary work from the Whirlpool series. The artist utilised an apparatus that is similar to a funnel in which he poured a variety of different paints. As the mixture of paints poured freely from the funnel onto the canvas, a pattern that is similar to tree rings was formed. This treatment truly fulfils Shimamoto's vision of liberating the paint and demonstrating its vitality. Punta Campanella 27 (Canvas 20) (Lot 381) and Magi 916 (Lot 382) are two major works from the Bottle Crash series. Shimamoto filled glass bottles with paint and broke them on the canvas. As the bottle exploded, the canvas recorded the flow and motion of the colours. These works embody a perfect marriage between the kinetic energy of the body and the creative power of the mind.

The Gutai art movement entered the second stage in 1962. It was a period when the group put even more emphasis on the materiality and textures on the works. At the same time, Japan was experiencing unprecedented technological advancement as well as population growth, and dehumanising conditions were beginning to emerge in the society. In turn, Gutai artists incorporated in their works many discussions concerning the relationship between art, humanity, and the environment. Takesada Matsutani, Yuko Nasaka, and Tsuyoshi Maekawa were prominent members of the Gutai group during this period. They were also contemporaries with many abstract painters from other art organisations that were active in the Japanese art scene at the time. They include Natsuyuki Nakanishi, Domoto Hisao, and Toshimitsu Imai. Their bold subversion of traditional arts has a lasting influence in the development of contemporary art, and its reach that can still be felt in Japan and the world to this day.

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