How Gutai Master Kazuo Shiraga Pushed Art Beyond its Traditional Realms

Artsy Editorial
Sep 23, 2014 5:53PM

In their Hong Kong space this fall, Belgian gallery Axel Vervoordt shows Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga, one of the key players in the famed Gutai Group, which thrived during the second half of the 20th century. Alongside Gutai contemporaries and members of the Zero Group, a concurrent Japanese avant garde art circle, Shiraga was among a wave of artists who sought to thrust art beyond its traditional realms. Although much of his oeuvre is made up of extensions of Abstract Expressionist painting, Shiraga’s experimental approach and incredible vision helped to expand the artistic lexicon and art’s possibilities in the Postwar period.

Kazuo’s action paintings, through which he sought to engage directly with the medium on canvas, span several decades, from the early 1960s through the 1990s. To execute these works he would suspend himself from the ceiling with a rope, and then use his feet to spread paint across canvas. He abandoned the use of brushes, preferring instead the record of speed and movement that he could achieve with his body. “I stake everything on action,” he once said. Early in his career, in actions such as Challenging the Mud and What I Think (both 1955), Kazuo wrestled with mud, treating the substance like paint or clay. He employs a similar process for his paintings, which as a result reflect a similar aesthetic sensibility. A large, untitled canvas from 1962 features big blooming swipes of dark red, white, and ochre. Thin splatters of paint radiate from the canvas’ center, where it is applied so thickly that ridged furrows have been carved into it by Kazuo’s gestures.

The simplicity of his 1992 painting, Yellow Line, is nearly calligraphic. Made with bright yellow and black paints, the former serves as a ground and a reactive field onto which the latter is applied and into which it is mixed with a few economic but effective movements. And his Hachiko-Ooji (1984), with its monochromatic black paint, can be taken to refer to the tradition of East Asian ink-and-wash painting. Similar to Action painters such as Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, and Gutai compatriot Shozo Shimamoto, Shiraga is interested in paint as an expression of the artist’s body, psyche, and movement.

Kazuo Shiraga” is on view at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong, Aug. 28th–Nov. 15th, 2014.

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Artsy Editorial