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Resounding with energy, action and spontaneity, BB56 embodies the avant-garde spirit of the pioneering artist Japanese Kazuo Shiraga. Painted directly with the artist’s feet as he suspended himself above the canvas from a rope hanging from the ceiling, the painting represents a unity of the central tenants of post-war abstraction with performance art. Thick swirls of intense, fiery red and sizzling yellow blend with decadent strokes of black that swathe the entirety of the pure white canvas. The direction of the paint is unpredictable but determined, reflecting the movement of the feet and the swiftness of the painting’s execution. Raw human energy in combination with the lavish amount of oil paint used creates an enhanced sense of the visceral: in texture and color BB56 is visually evocative of heat and blood, and simultaneously it is a direct portrayal of the real traces of live action, and of struggle, motion and force. Painted in 1961, BB56 dates from a highly significant time for the artist. 1962 was the year in which Shiraga was given his first solo show outside Japan, at the Galerie Stadler in Paris, where this painting was exhibited. The gallery owner, Rodolphe Stadler, had first introduced Shiraga’s work to Europe 1959, when he included his work in the collective exhibition Métamorphisme. Shiraga and Stadler continued to work together until the gallery closed in 1991, during which time Shiraga’s work became well-known and widely lauded, resonating with audiences in Europe and America as well as Japan.
The Spanish artist Antonio Saura, who was a contemporary of Shigara’s and also showed with Galerie Stadler, has recalled how memorable Shiraga’s performance and painting process was, and provides an indication of how BB56 would have been made:“After a few minutes of reflection in front of a small altar, and having separately deposited several oil colours on the white canvas on the floor, the Japanese painter Shiraga, in bare feet, attached to a rope hanging from the ceiling, began to dance on the oily material with rapid, rhythmic and precise movements.” (Antonio Saura, “Shiraga ne peint pas avec les pieds” in Kazuo Shiraga, exh. cat., Réfectoire des Jacobins, Toulouse, 1993).
Kazuo Shiraga was one of the earliest members of the Gutai Art Association and one of its leading lights. Founded in 1954, this group was Japan’s most influential avant-garde collective of the post-war era, and in 2013 the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted a show dedicated to their artworks and provocative mission.. Originating in the town of Ashiya, near Osaka, in western Japan, the group’s stated mission was to create work that was original in the truest sense of the meaning, and avoid imitation. They aimed to make highly experimental art that pushed the boundaries of contemporary art into unseen territories, emphasizing artistic freedom. Spanning two generations of Japanese artists, the group was active until 1972, and had fifty-nine members over their eighteen-year history. Together they explored these new art forms through painting, performance and interactive methods of creativity, seeking to forge a common ground of experimentation that stretched across geographical and conceptual borders. By blending raw material with action and performance, Gutai underplayed representational significance. Indeed, the name ‘Gutai’ can be translated as ‘embodiment’, ‘bodily instrument’, or ‘concreteness’, which captures the direct engagement with materials that its members were directly experimenting with around the time of its founding.
Although the group was led by Jiro Yoshihara, who funded the movement, and wrote the founding ‘Gutaï Manifesto’ in 1956, Shiraga also began to produce writings of his own, outlining his own personal understanding of shishitsu, or a person’s physical and mental disposition: “No matter how that person lives and acts, that asset, that constitution, and the sensory psyche related to it make up what I call that person’s shishitsu. That for me requires a more precise interpretation than what is commonly called human nature. The growth and development of that person is the growth and development of his shishitsu, his shishitsu evolves.” (K, Shiraga, quoted in Gutaï, no. 5, October 1, 1956). Shiraga’s emphasis here is on the complex unity of mind and body, which was an interest that he explored so effectively in developing his singular, highly physical method of painting.
In 1955, shortly after Shiraga joined Gutai, they hosted their first exhibition, which set an exuberant precedent for their later, festival-like events. It featured a performance by the artist, called Challenging Mud, where he dove into a mound of concrete and mud: kicking, fighting and wrestling with it to create a sculpture out of the intensely physical performance. In 1957 he performed Ultramodern Sanbaso in a gallery in Osaka, another highly theatrical piece, involving elaborate costumes and staging. Dressed in a red suit, he suspended himself by a rope from the ceiling, and, dangling above a piece of paper lying on the floor, began to manipulate oil paint onto it. This unity of performance, action and painting came to define Shiraga’s career – and forge a reputation that has outlasted many others in the Gutai collective. In 1956, Shiraga described the seminal moment that he discovered the expressive and dramatic potential that he found using this unusual method of painting. “When, on discovering my true nature, I decided to cast off 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 even further and that is how I came to feet. That was it! Painting with the feet” (K. Shiraga, quoted in “L’Acte Même”, in 1910-1970 Japon des Avant-gardes, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1986, p. 300).
Gutai’s pioneering agenda was pertinent to developments within the European post-war art scene, and it was around this time that the group came to the attention of several prominent members of the Parisian art world, including Michel Tapie, the influential critic and prominent proponent of L’Art Informel. Tapie saw developments in European painting also indicated a desire for something entirely new, for there was a concerted attempt by artists in this period to create a radical break with traditional ideas about composition and accepted formal conceptions of how to construct a painting. Tapie sought out and encouraged those artists who refused to conform to convention, and who valued spontaneity, freedom and innovation above any other creative quality. With Rodolphe Stadler, he was among the first to promote artists such as Alberto Burri, Willem de Kooning, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jean Dubuffet and Karel Appel. Shiraga’s gestural, expressive paintings bore a natural similarity to the work of these artists, and he soon became associated with this enduring and significant movement.
Shiraga and Gutai’s highly original project of embedding performance within the creation of art similarly inspired the admiration of early performance artists, predating the celebrated and notoriously fashionable “happenings” first orchestrated by Allan Kaprow in New York in the late 1950s. They also caught the attention of the visionary conceptual artist Yves Klein, who had spent time in Japan learning Judo, and had begun to incorporate live action into his practice with the idea of ‘living paintbrushes’, first used in creating the Anthropometries of 1958. In his seminal Chelsea Hotel Manifesto of 1961, Klein spoke with respect of how Gutai were already practicing some of his most radical ideas: “I speak of that group of Japanese painters who with great refinement used my method in a strange way. In fact, these painters actually transformed themselves into living brushes. By diving themselves in color and then rolling on their canvases, they became representative of ultra-action-painters!” (Y. Klein, The Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, 1961, cited at http://www.yveskleinarchives.org/documents/chelsea_us.html)
BB56 is a powerfully visual expression of avant-garde thinking during one of the most artistically experimental periods of the twentieth century. In being the first artist to abandon traditional tools in order to use his own body, Shiraga demonstrated a unique vision as well as an unwavering courage. As he wrote in an early Gutai manifesto: “One has to dare to imagine and undertake something senseless. A dimension in which something that now appears senseless will no longer be senseless…one will feel as if one had entered a dimension, which is neither rational nor irrational. It is a world of an endless cave, a zero space…there one enjoys all possible spiritual games and one becomes fuller and fuller. When at last rationality like emotion surpasses every human phenomenon, the difference in the quality of each person will come to light clearly.” (K. Shiraga, quoted in Gutaï, no. 4, July 1, 1956).