Against a stark white canvas, liquid swathes of canary yellow contend with calligraphic sweeps of black. Exuberant in execution and bold in colour, Kousen (Battle) (1992) is a beautiful example of Kazuo Shiraga’s unique and daring action paintings. The title captures the clashing energies on the work’s surface: a battlefield of impulses, with western Abstract Expressionist existentialism coming into conversation with the pantheistic transcendence of eastern art, and the interplay between conscious and unconscious drives of composition creating a stunning convocation of spirit and material. As Ming Tiampo has written of Shiraga, ‘Sexual energy, the violence of the hunt, of war, and of man’s encounter with nature are embodied and repeated by his works, which are always inspirited by movement – not just the movement of his body, however, but also the assertion of matter itself’ (M. Tiampo, ‘”Not just beauty, but something horrible”: Kazuo Shiraga and Matsuri Festivals’, in Kazuo Shiraga, exh. cat. Dominique Lévy and Axel Vervoordt Gallery, New York 2015, p. 22).
Shiraga’s energetic, intensely physical abstracts exist in a vibrant space between performance art and expressionist painting. A member of the infuential Japanese Gutai group, among the artist’s earliest works were performances beginning in the mid-1950s, in which he used his whole body to shape and churn vast piles of mud. His painterly practice evolved from this direct totality of gesture and engagement with material. Holding onto a rope suspended from the ceiling of his studio, Shiraga would move viscous slicks of oil paint across the canvas with gestural sweeps of his feet. He recalled a miraculous moment of realisation and self-discovery when he alighted upon this technique, which dominated his output for the following fve decades. ‘When, on discovering my true nature, I decided to cast of all the existing uniforms and be naked, figuration shattered into fragments and I dropped my painter’s knife which broke in two ... One day I swapped my knife for a piece of wood which I rejected out of impatience. I tried with my bare hands, with my fingers. Then, convinced I needed to be even bolder, I went evenfurther and that is how I came to feet. That was it! Painting with the feet’ (K. Shiraga, quoted in ‘L’Acte Meme’, in 1910-1970 Japon des Avant-gardes, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1986, p. 300).
Yoshihara Jiro, the founder of Gutai, wrote that ‘Gutai Art does not alter the material. Gutai Art imparts lift to the material. Gutai Art does not distort the material … In Gutai Art, the human spirit and the material shake hands with each other, but keep their distance. The material never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates the material’ (Y. Jiro (Gutai Manifesto 1956), quoted in A. Munroe, Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, New York 1994, p. 84). Indeed, despite the overtones of violence or conflict in Shiraga’s work, his distinctive methods resulted in an absolute creative synthesis between ‘spirit’ and ‘material’; rather than disharmony, he found an ideal alliance between the two. Bodily action and spontaneity were married perfectly to the reactive movement of paint, and Battle results in a glorious explosion of transcendent beauty.