Kazuo Shiraga is an eminent member of the groundbreaking Gutai Art Association - a group that was founded in 1954 in post-war Japan involving two generations of Japanese artists. The Second World War brought about abrupt physical damages and trauma to Japan. Jiro Yoshihara, the founding figure of the Gutai group seeks to abandon the themes of idealization and automatism in a post-war era.
Instead, he pursues ideas about freedom and liberty that embrace the spirituality and materiality through physical embodiment, thoroughly epitomizing the meaning behind Gutai. At the heart of the Gutai corpus thus lies the aim to explore and experiment new forms of art through different media while retaining matter. Shiraga as well as other members of the Gutai group were well aware of Western art movements that prevailed at the time, including Art Informel in Europe and Abstraction Expressionism in America, which have completely shifted the traditional boundaries of art. However, Shiraga seeks to further extend such revolutionary art movements to fabricate a unique visual language of his own.
Known for his bodily intervention in painting, it is perhaps Shiraga's Challenging Mud of 1955 that brought him to international fame and attention at the time. It is a cutting edge spectacle by the artist in Japan that completely pushed the boundaries between art and performance. It not only sets a precedent for happenings, performance and conceptual art that spanned from the late 1950s to 1970s, but is also an important piece that will later inform and define Shiraga's oeuvre. The performance involves the artist using his body as a medium to crawl through and delve into mud and clay, creating an ephemeral sculptural piece. This is not the first work that Shiraga uses his body to create works of art. He started his innovative body painting as early as 1953, well before he joined the Gutai group when he cofounded the Zero Society with contemporaries Saburo Murakami and Akira Kanayama. Such early exploration of new inventive methods of art-making sees Shiraga's attempt and lifelong interest to create a radical break with traditional forms of art.
Charged with action and spiritual energy, Tenjnkai (Lot 68) is a painting by Shiraga that manifests the Japanese avant-garde movement of the post-war era. It is a stylistically distinctive work by the artist and a mature work painted in 1975, after the Gutai group disbanded in 1972. A highly abstract composition with a simple colour palette: swirls of black, blue, white and red paint blend beautifully in a spontaneous manner while emanating a fiery visceral strength akin to the principles of Gutai. Shiraga's thick layers of impasto reveal traces of action, motion and force while executing the work. Shiraga's painting exhibit striking similarities with that of American Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline's work in terms of its vivid brushwork (Fig. 1). By combining raw material with elements of physical performative act, Shiraga however emphasizes the unity of the mind and the body, interweaving philosophical and conceptual elements to his highly raw and corporeal painting. Such embedment also displays the artist transforming his body into a living paintbrush by applying paint with his body and feet, succinctly expressing the spirit of Gutai to the fullest. This not only demonstrates Shiraga and the Gutai's ultimate aims, but later also inspired other artists of this innovative method of creating artworks, such as Yves Klein (Fig. 2).
The painting exemplifies Shiraga's artistic quest to investigate the materiality in its natural form with physical human intervention, while exploring the dichotomies of chance and control, spirituality and brutality, consciousness and unconsciousness, tradition and universality. The deeply rooted performative component in the painting not only illustrates the stylistic signature amongst Gutai and Shiraga's work, but also stimulates sensory sensations, evoking a special interaction between viewers and the work. Its calligraphic and gestural strokes present a strong visual power that revitalizes and reinvigorates the post-war art scene, leaving viewers intrigued with its vigour and vivacity.