Art

A Gutai Painter Finally Has His Moment in the West

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Installation view of ‘Kazuo Shiraga’ at Mnuchin Gallery (all images courtesy Mnuchin Gallery, photography by Tom Powel Imaging)

Much attention is being focused on the paintings of the late Japanese Gutai painter and Tendai monk, Kazuo Shiraga (1924–2008), who for years has been collected throughout Europe, even as he has been virtually ignored in the United States. With two concurrent exhibitions in New York at Mnuchin Gallery and Dominique Lévy (with ceramicist Satoru Hoshino), and a third forthcoming at Fergus McCaffrey in West Chelsea (paired with his wife, Fujiko), Shiraga’s belated yet highly significant reputation will undoubtedly enter another phase of discussion as the Japanese painter who most closely represents an Eastern counterpart to late Abstract Expressionism. As if all this were not enough, there is currently an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art of two Gutai masters, titled The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga, curated by Japanese scholar Koichi Kawasaki. Fundamentally, Kawasaki argues that Shiraga was the first East Asian counterpart to Jackson Pollock, with the crucial difference that Shiraga painted not with a stick or a brush, as did Pollock, but with his naked feet while supporting himself with a single rope that hung from the wall in his studio. His first foot painting was done in 1954, followed a year later by his phenomenal “Challenging Mud” performance at Ohara Hall in Tokyo, as part of the First Gutai Art Exhibition, in which the artist immersed himself with his entire body in a field of mud.

Kazuo Shiraga, “Untitled” (1964), oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 25 1/2 inches

Some may assume that this posthumous festschrift given to the remarkable paintings of Shiraga is mere evidence of media hype or an unwarranted orchestrated trend, neither of which is the case. Based on conversations during a press opening with the proprietors of the acclaimed Mnuchin Gallery, virtually none of the three New York galleries noted above were aware at the outset that the others were preparing a Shiraga exhibition in such close proximity to one another. So where did Shiraga come from? And why is he suddenly so important?

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Kazuo Shiraga, “Chimosei Hakujitsuso (Daylight Rat incarnated from Earthly Wasted Star)” (2001), oil on canvas, 76 x 51 1/8 inches (click to enlarge)

If one decides to inquire further and investigate into why the significance of Shiraga’s paintings has been championed by international critics, less affiliated with the New York media mainstream, Kazuo’s contribution and grand leap into recent art history soon become plausible. Within the overall history of expressionism, Shiraga’s paintings are unlike anything seen in the Western canon. But to know this the computer screen will not suffice. One must actually visit any one of the gallery sites where his work is or will be on view. To see Shiraga’s paintings is not about seeing a well-designed virtual display; rather it is about an intense physical and emotional experience. The comparison between the works of Pollock from the 1950s with those by Shiraga, such as “Chibisei Walkyakuko” (1959) at the Mnuchin Gallery or “Untitled” (1959) at Dominique Lévy, if such a comparison is possible, offers a possible distinction between East/West expressionist abstraction (as unpopular as this premise may be). In general, the paintings of Shiraga during the Gutai period, especially from the late 1950s through the early ’70s, demonstrate the urgency of focus, the self-assured modeling of paint, and the accuracy of composition of the best abstract forms of expressionism.

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Kazuo Shiraga “Zuisohen (Auspicious Sign)” (1986), oil on canvas, 51 3/10 x 63 4/5 inches

In their width, breadth, and force, the craggy, gestural movements of Shiraga, such as in “Shukubu” (1996) and “Fungyu” (1999), appear as strong as the more reduced linear patterning achieved by Pollock in his important period from 1947 to ’50. Both painters also resisted the use of the figure to ground compositions, often endemic to early European abstraction. In many ways, the works of Shiraga and Pollock are equally sophisticated, but stylistically different, in terms of how line, balance, color, and form evolve into a continuous whole.

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Kazuo Shiraga, “Gusoku Jintsuriki (Armed with Divine Power)” (1982), oil on canvas, 63 3/4 x 51 1/4 inches (click to enlarge)

Considerable research and attention has been given to unraveling Shiraga’s relationship to the Gutai movement during the early period in Osaka by major art historians and critics in New York and Los Angeles, including Reiko Tomii in her trend-setting book, Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades (2009), followed by Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Monroe who curated the definitive Guggenheim exhibition, Gutai: Splendid Playground (2013). As a result of these and numerous other related events, one might consider that the time has come to recognize a major painter who emerged from this movement into a prominence comparable, if not exceeding, much of the expressionism known in the Western world.

I can only imagine the range of optical effects so diverse and pronounced in their urgent mannerisms that viewers might experience in seeing Shiraga for the first time. The works bristle with intelligence and sensory delight, while emanating the energetic traces that brought these surfaces into being. Given the current frustration over international pop stars in major museums in New York, the paintings of Shiraga might serve to offer an alternative point of view. These are brilliant and remarkable paintings — powerful in their unwavering mental concentration, unpredictable weaves of color, and astonishing physical and subtle tactility, as seen in “Gusoku Jintsuriki,” or “Armed with Divine Power” (1982). Although Shiraga became a Tendai Buddhist monk at mid-career, he continued to make paintings sporadically throughout his life, with his body voluntarily suspended from a rope in the middle of his studio, manipulating pigment with his feet on canvas or paper. Finally, his spirited and sensual paintings have justifiably come into their own.

Installation view of ‘Kazuo Shiraga’ at Mnuchin Gallery

Kazuo Shiraga continues at Mnuchin Gallery (45 E 78th St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 11. Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino continues at Dominique Lévy (909 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 4. The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga continues at the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 North Harwood, Dallas, Texas) through July 19. 

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