With its vigorous impasto surface, stunning chromatic range and spontaneous composition, Yugi captures the spirit of the pioneering Japanese artist, Kazuo Shiraga. A founding member of the influential avant-garde Japanese art collective, the Gutai Art Association (1954-1972), Shiraga’s work embodies the group’s aesthetic strategy: to break with the conventions of traditional materials in search of innovation and originality. Spiralling uncontrollably outwards from the centrifugal vortex in deep midnight blue, majestic purple and umber, in Yugi swathes of oil paint intermingle, coursing up into waves of densely impastoed pigment in vivid marbled colour. In translation, ‘yugi’ becomes ‘play’, encapsulated in the gestural dance performed by Shiraga in the making of the present work. Since 1954 Shiraga has painted with his bare feet; propelling himself across the canvas, suspended from a rope, the artist traces deep furrows in the surplus of paint that proliferates the canvas. With the advent of his bare foot technique he claimed, ‘forms were smashed to smithereens, techniques slipped off my palette knife and broke into two’ (K. Shiraga, ‘Action Only (1955)’ in R. Tomii, F. McCaffrey (eds.), Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades, New York, 2009, p. 60). Recently Shiraga and his contemporaries have made a significant re-entry into the public consciousness with a major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2013 entitled Gutai: Splendid Playground and their inclusion in the exhibition, Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962 in the same year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
First introduced to contemporary Western art practices in 1951 when the third Yomiuri Independent Exhibition travelled to Osaka, Shiraga was fascinated by the work of Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Yet, Shiraga sought to create work that moved beyond the vocabulary of pre-existing art forms and his compelling oeuvre went on to become an enormous influence on the landscape of Post-War art. In his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, Yves Klein spoke with respect of ‘a group of Japanese painters … [who] in fact transformed themselves into living brushes. By drowning themselves in color and then rolling on their canvases, they became ultra-action painters!’ (Y. Klein, ‘Chelsea Hotel Manifesto’ in K. Ottmann (ed.), Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York, 2007, p. 197). Initially an apprentice in nihonga, Shiraga found the traditional Japanese technique oppressive, later revealing, ‘I wanted to create paintings with no composition or no sense of colours, no nothing’ (K. Shiraga, quoted in ‘Osaka Action Talk: From an Interview by Haryu Ichiro (1973)’ in R. Tomii, F. McCaffrey (eds.), Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades, New York, 2009, p. 62). In abandoning traditional tools in favour of his own body, Shiraga literally embeds himself in his painting, an act that powerfully connects with the concept of shishitsu, a philosophy that reflects a deep self-awareness. In 1971, Shiraga entered the Buddhist priesthood from which time his work became increasingly esoteric. Concerned with shishitsu, Shiraga’s innovative method reconciles body and spirit, the conscious and the unconscious.