In 1954, Jiro Yoshihara founded the Gutai Art Association in the town of Ashiya, near Osaka, just two years after Japan regained its independence. The country’s postwar renewal as a democratic state provided the perfect backdrop for the experimental environment Yoshihara urged his protégés to explore. The members of the group consisted of young artists, including Shozo Shimamoto, Kazauo Shiraga and Atusko Tanaka. Gutai remained active over the next 18 years both in Japan and abroad until it dissolved in 1972 following Yoshihara’s death at his age of 67.
Yoshihara championed making art as an act of liberation, or rather as gesture of individuality. This belief was deeply rooted in his earlier experiences as a modernist painter, and further reinforced during the war by oppressive Japanese military regime. He passionately believed in a shared community of interests among different nations.
Yoshihara drew inspiration from Art Informal, a group advocated by a French critic Michel Tapié that included artists Jean Fautrier and Jean Dubuffet. The movement was characterized by the effective use of a material’s specific characteristics and the expressive means of violent actions.
Considering Yoshihara’s emphasis on global engagement, it is fitting that the signature element in his iconic paintings is a circle, a ubiquitous glyph throughout history and across cultures. Close visual ties can be drawn between the composition of Circle (Lot 33), which shows a white irregularly shaped circle against a black background, form from the jade bi disk of China’s Neolithic Longshan culture to American abstract expressionists Franz Kline’s Untitled. (Fig. 1) In Yoshihara’s work, the circle is usually rendered as a single oblong form floating on a flat, matte surface; in Circle, the variation in width of this dominant form suggests a single continuous stroke, evocative of Japanese calligraphy and painting. In the tradition of Japanese Zen painting, a circle was brushed in a single act of ink on paper or silk to signify the highest expression of a clear and empty mind—a paramount example of this is Zen Buddhist master Ekaku Hakuin’s painting Hotei. (Fig. 2) Hakuin did not have any formal artistic training beyond basic skills in handling a brush, ink and paper—the tools for writing during his time, however, his spontaneous, yet masterly paintings and calligraphy solidified his place as one of the most important Zen Buddhist masters not only during his lifetime but also of the past 500 years. Just as the Gutai artists sought to free themselves from the “pretense of production by the mind” in creating their work, the spontaneity of Hakuin’s paintings are equally unfettered by the restrictions of the past.
The elementary components and elegant simplicity of Yoshihara’s composition recalls Song Dynasty painter and Zen monk Mu Qi’s famous painting Six Persimmons. (Fig. 3) In Mu Qi’s work, ink lines and washes of varying intensity are used in their most stripped down form to represent six fruits floating against an undefined background, a parallel dichotomy to Yoshihara’s composition of form against non-form. The resulting image is simple but impactful. When painting, Yoshihara would dilute his oils to make them as fluid as ink, in turn, appropriating a typical Western medium to be used with an Eastern sensibility. However, in this work, the resulting composition is a visual inversion of the traditional black ink on white paper, standard in Asian calligraphy and painting; the artist, thus, manages to upend canons of both Western and Eastern art.
In Zen Buddhism, meditation provides not only the means but also the end. The same philosophy can be applied to Yoshihara’s circle—not only does it serve as a means for the medium to speak but also lends the work a spiritual depth, which is, however, unintended. The circle at once signifies a minimalist object that celebrates materiality, yet contradictorily also represents “zero” or emptiness. It is through this aggressive pursuit of linking the diametrically opposed elements of material and the human spirit that Yoshihara “bid farewell to the hoaxes” and forged a path that was clearly his own.