“Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life. Gutai art does not falsify the material. In Gutai art the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other, even though they are otherwise opposed to each other. The material is not absorbed by the spirit. The spirit does not force the material into submission. If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice. Keeping the life of the material alive also means bringing the spirit alive, and lifting up the spirit means leading the material up to the height of the spirit.” (J. Yoshihara, “The Gutai Art Manifesto” Geijutsu Shincho, December 1956)
Currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art, Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga’s Ougi is a chromatic tour-de-force. Though openly fascinated and inspired by the works of the Abstract Expressionists, Shiraga was not satisfied following in their footsteps. Instead he sought to push their process even further in order to create what lay beyond the boundaries of this movement. He believed this to lie in the realm of Gutai art, whose radical art making processes accentuated the relationship between body and matter. Executed in 1968 at the height of his career, Ougi serves as an example of Shiraga’s innovative and dramatic style. Upon a fiery background of rusty reds and coppery oranges rests a semi-circular blurred ring of colors, radiating out towards an intense sweep of midnight blue that slashes across canvas. Deliberately breaking just short of a complete sphere, this effervescent ring of colors seemingly abandoned mid-process illustrates the action that is both involved in the creation of the work and defines it. Thick swipes of paint combined with gentler splatters punctuate the surface of the canvas, creating additional layers of drama and tension.
By 1968, Shiraga was unanimously understood as the leader of the Gutai Art Association. Founded in 1954 near Osaka in western Japan, their mission was originality: “to destroy or recreate what is defined as an abstract picture” in their highly experimental art. The group of fifty-nine members combined painting, performance, and interactive approaches to explore new art forms and to create a common ground of experimentation. Following in the footsteps of the Abstract Expressionists, they abandoned the notion of representational significance to focus on the combination of raw material with action and performance. Indeed, the often public process by which Shiraga made his paintings, frequently using his own feet as a paintbrush, was seen as an entrancing sort of dance with “rapid, rhythmic, and precise movements” (as described by the Spanish artist Antonio Saura). His work exemplified the translation of the word Gutai – an “embodiment” or “bodily instrument” of art itself (A. Saura, “Shiraga ne peint pas avec les pieds,” in Kazuo Shiraga, exh. cat., Réfectoire des Jacobins, Toulouse, 1993).
An influential figure within the art world—his work was cherished by the artist and critic Antoni Tapies and even cited by Jackson Pollock himself as an inspiration—it is only recently that Shiraga has posthumously gained strong recognition amongst the public. He was the focus of a major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2013 entitled Gutai: Splendid Playground and was also the subject of two critically acclaimed exhibitions held at the New York galleries of Dominique Levy and Robert Mnuchin.