Kazuo Shiraga: Wrestling With Painting

Friday, May 26th 2023

La Gazette Drouot, Christophe Provot

This 1962 oil on canvas by the Gutai master Kazuo Shiraga, which has never come up for sale before, is a performance painting, a hand-to-hand combat with color.

The gaze cannot find a focal point in this work where flat colors are suddenly cut off as if torn by an accumulation of matter. The paint swirls and twists in wild bursts, seemingly driven by the violence and raw power that put it on the canvas. "I want to paint as if I were fighting on a battlefield until I collapse from exhaustion," Kazuo Shiraga said one day. T. 34 (No. 50) looks as though that is just what he did. The pure, loud colors are locked in combat, with splashes and sprays completed by wide streaks and flows.

Shiraga’s work is as much Asian calligraphy as abstract expressionism. Hanging from a rope, he would swing back and forth over the canvas painting with his feet, confronting the viewer with a singular force that surpasses that of the most gestural works. By merging his body with the material in an almost cathartic synthesis, Shiraga stood apart from the gestures of Jackson Pollock and other Western abstract expressionists, blazing a revolutionary trail in the history of contemporary art.

In 1962, the year he created our painting, Shiraga’s international career finally took off. After art critic Michel Tapié discovered him in Osaka in 1957, the Stadler Gallery in Paris hosted his first solo show outside Japan (a group exhibition had taken place in 1959). This painting was certainly featured in the exhibition. Most of Shiraga’s works are untitled except for those named after the 108 warrior heroes from Water Margin, a 14th-century Chinese novel, a series he worked on from 1959 to 2001. Ours belongs to a rare group of 14 paintings entitled with the letter "T", which could stand for the French word "travail" (work) or the name of his friend Tapié. All but one were made in the same year. In 1990, the head of a medical supplies company, who thought that Shiraga painted with his feet because his hands were disabled, bought the work from Jean-Claude Livet for 50,000 francs. Today it is estimated €500,000/800,000, proving that a wise investment always pays off.
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