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Kazuo Shiraga
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essay Kazuo Shiraga, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

From photographic documentation of the Japanese Gutai artists’ early actions, it is quite clear that Shiraga Kazuo was the most enterprising, even macho, of the pack. Challenging the Mud (1955), in which the artist, dressed only in a pair of boxers, jumped on top of a mud pile and kicked, punched, and wrestled with it, remains an iconic Gutai work. A practice that has earned him more enduring recognition, however, is his “foot painting,” which he had begun shortly before joining Gutai in 1955. To create a piece such as Untitled (1959) in the Walker Art Center’s collection, he would swing back and forth from a rope attached to the ceiling and push paint with his feet across canvas or paper laid on the floor. The artist’s performative physicality exemplifies, with a powerfully dramatic flair, the Gutai group’s manifest practice of translating action into painting.

Michel Tapié, the French critic who formulated the theory of art autre (also known as Art Informel) in relation to postwar gestural painting, was introduced to Gutai early on and became the conduit between the Japanese avant-garde and the Western art world. When Tapié arrived in Japan in 1957 with his compatriot Georges Mathieu, a practitioner of rather histrionic action painting and no stranger to swaggering self-promotion, the latter allegedly said: “That man named Shiraga, I hear, paints with his feet. Why does he paint with feet when he’s got hands? He should cut his hands off then!”1 As soon as they encountered one of Shiraga’s paintings, however, both Tapié and Mathieu became avowed backers of their Japanese contemporary’s work.

Shiraga’s method of painting on a horizontal surface invites an obvious comparison with Jackson Pollock’s “dancing” and “dripping” over a canvas laid on the floor, which was famously captured in Hans Namuth’s 1950 documentary film and photographs. However, even when hung on the wall as a painting, Shiraga’s work denies the sublimation of base materiality into pure opticality that one experiences in Pollock’s.2 The thick accumulation of pushed paint and the registration of splashes in Shiraga’s paintings pulsate with an uncontainable preconscious—perhaps even preperceptual—energy. The artist, who became an ordained Buddhist monk in 1971, has commented numerous times on the calligraphy of Nantembo, the early twentieth-century Zen monk and artist known for his energetic brushwork. By linking his art to another tradition in which horizontal mark-making is practiced for the explicit purpose of self-awakening, Shiraga intimates that his gesture is able to elevate matter to a level beyond the optical, perhaps to that of the spiritual sublime.

  1. As recalled by Murakami Saburo in “Gutai-teki na hanashi” (Concrete Talk: Interview with Murakami and Shiraga Kazuo), in Gutai I•II•III (Ashiya, Japan: Ashiya City Culture Foundation, 1994), 211. Trans. Doryun Chong.

  2. For an in-depth discussion of horizontality and the idea of sublimation in painting, see Rosalind Krauss in The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993), 242–308.

Chong, Doryun. “Kazuo Shiraga.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center