The first large-scale retrospective in Tokyo of seminal Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga (1924–2008) presents rarely-seen drawings and some 90 paintings.
TEXT: Julia Tarasyuk
IMAGES: Courtesy of Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery
It is a rare treat to see the works of Kazuo Shiraga in his native Japan. After the “Water Margin Hero Series” exhibition shown in 2018 at the artist’s hometown of Amagasaki in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Shiraga’s death and a solo show at Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo in 2019, the Japanese capital is finally having its first ever large-scale retrospective of Kazuo Shiraga at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery.
The Tokyo retrospective showcases an unprecedented number of works from private and public Japanese collections spanning through the entire career of the artist. The exhibition features around 90 paintings, including early works, Gutai period highlights and later esoteric works, experimental sculptures, photographic and video documentation of legendary performances and his tools. Shiraga’s rarely seen drawings and designs for Gutai’s Pinacoteca building are also displayed. An impressive number of over 130 items on view provide an astounding overview of Shiraga’s activities.
Shiraga’s artistic legacy is rooted in post-war Japan when people were full of energy and there was excitement in the air pushing to try new things. This aspirational spirit, which reined in the society, led to the appearance of new art movements including one of the most famous and highly acclaimed groups, Gutai, of which Shiraga became one of the most renowned representatives.
Gutai Art Association, the first radical, post-war artistic group in Japan was founded in 1954 in Osaka under the leadership of Jiro Yoshihara. Yoshihara’s motto was simply to do what no one had done before and not to imitate others. The group’s artists that went on to great renown, like Saburo Murakami, Sadamasa Motonaga and, of course, Shiraga fully embraced the free spirit of the art and raw, concrete (Gutai in Japanese) creativity. However hardly anyone in the movement embodied Gutai’s philosophy more dramatically than Shiraga, who developed a unique technique of pouring paint on the canvas and creating brushstrokes with his feet by swinging on a rope hung from the ceiling.
Shiraga was born in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, in 1924 into the family of a kimono business owner. From early childhood due to his background he had access to the marvels of traditional Japanese art: calligraphy and antiques, classical theatre and cinema, ukiyo-e prints and ancient Chinese literature. After studying traditional Japanese painting in Kyoto, Shiraga fulfilled his long desire to explore Western paintings. He moved away from the figurative style and pursued a more emotional direction. As a result, in the early 1950s his work arrived at total abstraction following closely the mood of the times – to challenge conventional artistic forms. The Tokyo retrospective opens with a selection of Shiraga’s unfamiliar abstract works from this period dating as early as 1949 when the artist was only 25 years old.
Around 1952, Shiraga together with artists Murakami and Akira Kanayama formed the Zero Society (Zero-kai) relying on the idea that art should be created from the point of nothing. Shiraga started experimenting with fingers using them to make distinctive patterns, as shown in a couple of works on view. The finger technique eventually led him to placing the canvas flat to avoid the paint dripping. It made reaching the canvas center impossible unless the artist would step on it. And so he did. In summer 1954 the legendary Shiraga’s foot paintings (otherwise sometimes referred to as action paintings, the term originally coined for Jackson Pollock’s works) were born and the same year the artist joined the Gutai movement. The primordial energy of these new foot works explored tension as well as the sense of power. Sliding on the canvas Shiraga used his physical strength to reach a certain state between conscious and unconscious reducing his painting approach to a performance. It was a visual record, a memory of a specific action at a particular moment in time. Shiraga wouldn’t stop exploring the possibilities of a painting practice that would document his canvas exercises.
Some of Shiraga’s performances that flourished after he joined the Gutai group as well as several pioneering installation pieces including the Red fluid cattle liver piece from 1956 highlight the artist’s wider practice. Of particular interest to any Shiraga lover will be a few stunning wall sculptures from 1955–56. Made from urethane and wood these pieces aimed to encourage direct action by viewers, activation by touching and pushing. Another absolute masterpiece is the Wild Boar Hunting (1963) from the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. This brutal but rather mesmerizing work is widely considered among the strongest pieces produced by Shiraga.
“The Water Margin Hero Series” is a vivid example of Shiraga’s foot paintings. Most of these works were produced by the artist to be sent to Europe under an agreement with the French curator and true Japanophile Michel Tapié but a few were luckily gifted by Shiraga to the City of Amagasaki and are displayed in the exhibition. With this series, Shiraga has somewhat broken away from Gutai’s main principle—to keep the work untitled. Yoshihara strongly opposed the idea of art having a descriptive function. Nevertheless Shiraga titled this group of works after the names of the heroes of Water Margin, a long colloquial Chinese novel dating back to the Ming dynasty, of which the artist was a big fan.
In the 1960s, Shiraga’s pursuit of spirituality led him to esotericism. In 1971 he became a monk of the Tendai sect and in 1974, two years after the death of Yoshihara and the dissolution of Gutai, he performed 35 days of Buddhist training. During this period of Shiraga’s artistic and spiritual search, he abandoned painting with bare feet and opted for a long spatula to create works reminiscent of esoteric mantras.
The spatula method soon proved to be limiting the freedom of his movement on the canvas and soon Shiraga returned to foot painting again. He maintained his sharp production method and increased the overwhelming power of representing both human body and spirit, literally and figuratively. Until his death, the artist was devoted to this unique, almost anthropological, approach questioning how to merge physical, spiritual and sensual essence of a human being. With very simple methods of production—bare feet, a handmade wooden plank type shoe with cloth strap to tighten it onto the foot, a rope and a metal can of paint—Shiraga’s groundbreaking ideas returned the act of human creation to its primal roots.
Kazuo Shiraga: A Retrospective
11 January — 22 March, 2020
*the gallery will be temporarily closed from 29 February — 16 March
Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery
About the artist
Kazuo Shiraga was born in 1924 in Amagasaki, Japan. After studying Nihon-ga (Japanese-style painting) in Kyoto and growing frustrated with the stylistic and material confines he found in Nihon-ga, Shiraga participated in Gendai Bijutsu Kondankai (Contemporary Art Discussion Group) with several other students and began experimenting with making oil paintings using his hands and fingers. Shiraga found the viscosity of tube-ready oil paint more “free” than the inconvenient and thin ink-based pigments he had used in painting school. In 1954, Shiraga joined renowned Japanese avant-garde collective Gutai and was inspired by Gutai’s leader, Jiro Yoshihara, to further push his performative, material-driven painting practice in order to “make something that never existed” before.
During his time as a member of Gutai, Shiraga simultaneously pursued oil painting and performance, often integrating the two practices in performance-painting pieces as Challenging Mud (1955), in which the artist used his entire body to manipulate mud as if it were thick, pliable paint, and Ultramodern Sanbaso (1957), in which he wore a dramatic red costume with elongated and wing-like arms, his movements creating slashes of color against the stark black backdrop of the stage. Shiraga continued this exploration of the relationship between body and material over the course of his career, and is best known for the large-scale foot paintings he made well into his eighties.
Julia Tarasyuk is an art consultant and art writer with over a decade of experience collaborating with museums, galleries and independent art projects in Russia, UK, France and Japan. In 2015 she started an online magazine Museeum.com and runs the platform as its editor-in-chief. Julia is currently based in Tokyo, where she organizes tailor-made art tours for various institutions, arts councils and private collectors and actively supports the exchange between the Japanese and international art scene. Julia is an author of “Art Tokyo” book published in Russia in 2018.