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  • Provenance

    Tokyo Gallery, Tokyo
    Private Collection, Osaka

  • Catalogue Essay

    “The physical constitution with which someone is born is that person’s initial capital for living.”

    -Kazuo Shiraga, 1956

    (from Gutaï, no. 5, October 1, 1956)

    Precipitated by the advent of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s, ripples of a revolution in painting began to emerge on a global stage by the early 1950s. Abstract Expressionism was propelled by its two of its most visible proponents, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, both individually determined to make the act of painting itself the artistic process: to make the “action” as important as the content within. But while these varied American painters were responding to their received knowledge—consciously rebelling against an institution dominated by the figure—halfway around the world there was an independent movement of singular significance. In Japan, a group of painters that came to be termed the Gutaï group was creating stylistically similar pictures that sprung from a completely disparate yet intertwined influence: the trauma of the Second World War. As the most prominent of these artists, Kazuo Shiraga epitomized a mission of non-figural gestural abstraction more than any other. With Keishizoku, 1961, Shiraga marvelously exhibits his unique contribution, one compositionally and gesturally equal to the New York masters, possessing a spiritual depth that occupies a class of its own.

    In the wake of the destruction left at the end of the Second World War, Japanese artists who had been trained for many centuries in the same traditional styles suddenly broke with the forms of the past. This was modernism’s encroachment upon the Japanese visual world, when style came to supplant figure as the forms of the past began to lose their once vital meanings. Classical training came to repel the young Shiraga, and, in addition to his additional training in yo-ga (Western-style painting), and he soon began experimenting with the Western-style influence of Jiro Yoshihara. Upon the founding of the Gutaï group in Osaka in 1954, Shiraga began to find new outlets for his gradually abstracted works. Meaning “embodiment,” the dialogue with the artists that would constitute Gutaï helped to propel Shiraga towards his mature style that developed by the end of the decade.

    Michel Tapie, one of the twentieth century’s great international critics, was instrumental in discovering and promoting the work of the Gutaï for a Western audience, finding their abstract approaches kindred to his own. Upon premiering their work for an American audience at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1958, the Gutaï group began to emerge as a society as rooted in their philosophical approaches to painting as in their work itself. Indeed their exploratory processes of merging both psyche and physicality in an artist’s work led to their patronage by such renowned Western artists as Yves Klein, who both shared their techniques and elaborated upon them. Though the group was led by the “Gutaï Manifesto”, authored by Yoshihara, Shiraga began to produce writings of his own, centering on the ideal approach for the painter. In the Gutaï journal, Shiraga outlined his personal concept of shishitsu, or the marriage of physicality and mind: “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.” (Gutaï, no. 5, October 1, 1956)
    Shiraga utilized his own life and work as an outgrowth of his theory of perception and the mind. He began to erase the distance between his body and his art, eventually using nothing other than himself as the creative implement, eliminating the trained hand altogether. He showcased this provocative technique in Tokyo, 1955 as he literally wrestled mud into sculptural shapes. Within three years, he had perfected his technique for the canvas: using only a rope hanging above the flat surface, he would use his bare feet to manipulate paint which he had previously dripped onto the canvas. In doing so, he completely dissolved the translation of the brushstroke in favor of using his own body as the brush, and, furthermore, destroyed the concept of intentional composition, his body half slipping, half pushing the paint across the plane. Shiraga had redefined action painting as the active fusion between the artist and his work.

    This intensely personal and virtuosic process is fully on display in Keishizoku, 1962. Its dense pigments piling atop one another, the present lot has an unrivaled tactile quality, one that nearly tempts the viewer to grab hold of one of its many three-dimensional outposts in order to achieve a tangible sensation. It would be difficult to parse the many colors that lie upon the surface of the painting, for in his creation of the piece, Shiraga allowed his feet to mix and spread his colors according to the precepts of shishitsu—in other words, the release of psychic and physical power was central to the compositional nature of the painting.

    Yet, for all his efforts to the contrary, he manages to craft a gorgeous piece, replete with its own brand of chromatic wonder. Keishizoku naturally divides itself into two chromatic sections. The first follows left from a large swath of deep blue that, below, morphs into a rich shade of garnet. On this left third of the painting, we observe a conversation of texture and color; mountainous forms of burnt sienna cascade into silvery streaks below. To the right, the second chromatic section is defined by its luminous blue and silver, bubbling and quaking in an interaction that varies from top to bottom. At the far right of the painting, it is almost as if we can see Shiraga slipping and sliding upon the surface, the power inherent in his grip on the rope defining the unrestrained movements of his toes.

    But the picture’s most remarkable characteristic is the powerful stroke of red that slices like a knife clear down its center, finally landing at the bottom left corner of the painting. Against the peaceful interaction of deep colors, this violent interruption is mesmerizing for its contrast, yet terrifying for its vicious implications. Shiraga was well aware of the shared heritage that this image might convey. Works by Utagawa Kuniyoshi bore remarkable visual similarities to that of Shiraga. Kuniyoshi’s illustrations included the touchstone of Shiraga’s titling process; drawing his titles from the names of major characters in the “Water Margin,” one of the four great works of Chinese classical literature, Shiraga chose to imbue his paintings with a sense of personality. Keishizoku is the Japanese translation of Qiu Qiongying, one of only a few female warriors in the tale. Most interestingly, she is no commoner, but a general serving under the rebel leader Tian Hu. Eventually Qiu Qiongying falls for a warrior of an opposing army, leading to her defection and defeat of the army from whence she came. In the end, we may surmise that Shiraga was able to connect deeply with his finished pieces, finding a synesthetic relationship between his paintings and their correlative characters. His connections with his finished works are evidence of his mesmerizing crowning achievement of shishitsu in each, eliminating his consciousness in order to achieve a spontaneous composition.

    Today, Shiraga’s paintings are widely recognized for both their beauty and their clairvoyance in terms of painting, a kind that reached all corners of the world: “Even if he did not use the word himself, Shiraga's rope-hanging performances were "Happenings;"they preceded those of Allan Kaprow, the alleged inventor of the genre, by at least two years. (Kaprow owned up to having seen Gutaï performances in New York, and acknowledged his debt to them.) Yves Klein, too, may have taken Shiraga on board, Klein's body paintings of 1958 on bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Japanese artist's.”(C. Darwent, “Kazuo Shiraga: Avant-garde Artist Who Painted Barefoot and Hanging from a Rope,” The Independent, April 25, 2008) Indeed, Shiraga’s intensity as a creator had a far-reaching impact, inspiring not only future action painters to intensify the physical act of creation, but also to evolve their methods of achieving their own definitions of shishitsu. Considered one of the most important Japanese painters of the twentieth century, Shiraga’s influence far outlasted the Gutaï Group, which disbanded after the death of Jiro Yoshihara in 1972.

    In forging both an individuated style and philosophy surrounding his work, Shiraga can be regarded as an artist of exemplary integrity—one whose production follows a code of philosophical conduct rarely seen in contemporary art. In the present lot, we find Shiraga at the height of both his intellectual and aesthetic powers, an artist with both the means to produce his work and the spiritual justification for its existence: “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.” (The artist in Gutaï, no. 4, July 1, 1956)

Ο24

Keishizoku

1961
oil on canvas
76 3/8 x 51 1/2 in. (194 x 130.8 cm)
Signed dated and titled "Kazuo Shiraga 1961 [Keishizoku]" on the reverse.

Estimate
$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for $3,973,000

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Evening Sale
[email protected]
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York 11 November 2013 7PM