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Shozo Shimamoto and Gutai

January 13, 2017

The 1950’s were a time of radical change in the arts in the West. However, it is often unrecognized that a similar change was simultaneously happening in the East. Read on for how Shozo Shimamoto, Gutai, and other art movements of the 1950’s influenced international artwork for years to come by breaking the rules and shattering artistic boundaries.

Shozo Shimamoto was an artist obsessed with action. Born in 1923, he worked in Tokyo, Japan until he passed away in 2013. Shimamoto left behind a legacy of freethinking that inspired an art movement whose name he coined – Gutai.

Founded by Shimamoto in 1954 in collaboration with Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai lasted until 1972, and was one of the first radical post-war artistic expressions in Japan. Gutai challenged the traditional Eastern definition of art and how it related to the body, time, and space. When broken down, Gutai, Gu – meaning tool, and Tai – meaning body, becomes a literal linguistic representation of the 1950’s art movement in relation to Shimamoto’s work. Shimamoto’s physical actions were crucial to the making of his work throughout his lifetime and this inspired others at the time to join the freethinking movement. You see, at the core of the Gutai beliefs, it was extremely important to be free to create anything by any means, often giving life to the art by means of destruction.

In addition to the ability to think and create freely, the Gutai movement embodied a chance to foster peaceful relations between nations around the world post WWII. The members of the Gutai movement knew that their work would not be seen unless they showed it to the world themselves. Thus, the Gutai movement fostered a large goal: to become internationally recognized. They accomplished this by starting a publication called “The Gutai Journal,” which circulated globally and started a passion for mail art within the group. The Gutai members began mailing their journal alongside “New Year Postcards.” The postcards, also collectively referred to as Nengajo, were small masterpieces created by the members of the Gutai group, including Shimamoto. These postcards were mailed all over the world to capture attention by questioning the existing relationships with paintings as an art object, and reconstructing the idea of what qualifies as exhibition space.

This mailing system became a large part of the Gutai community. And while it was crucial to adhere to the core beliefs of the Gutai movement within that community, Shimamoto and Gutai strongly encouraged individuality within the group. Avant-garde artists of the time, the members of Gutai in Japan and Zero in Germany included, believed that creative groups fostered individual creative growth. Within the Gutai group, being an individual was considered a means of asserting freedom, another crucial aspect of the movement: freedom from fascist government, freedom from the rules of traditional art, freedom to create anything by any means. Intrigued by destruction, Gutai welcomed all mediums and had no rules. It was a movement dedicated to the exploration and pursuit of purely spontaneous creativity that fought against artistic and political oppression.

Shimamoto used this emphasis on individual creative freedom to experiment with painting and performance. Similar to our most recently exhibited Western artist, Bernard Aubertin of the Zero movement, Shimamoto created action paintings and blazed a trail for performance art in the East. Also like Aubertin, Shimamoto left several of his works up to fate, embracing chance and letting go of traditional control. For Shimamoto, the interest lay in interacting with the canvas itself. The act of painting became a performance through the creation of rips, holes, and cuts – a thorough exploration of composition beyond the simple manipulation of a painting surface.

Smashing traditional methods with his own, Shimamoto used his body as a tool to create work by exerting extreme force to launch glass and plastic bottles of paint at massive canvases often spread on the floor in front of an audience. These actions turned the making of his artwork into a piece of performance art. The paintings became a record of action, pushing Shimamoto’s paintings beyond abstraction and into something more. With intent, Shimamoto gave life to his paintings through himself. Shimamoto also experimented with force against the painting surface, integrating the aforementioned rips, holes, and cuts into his compositions like no other had done before. Perceived destruction became a large part of creation for Shimamoto, as well as the performances associated with the creation of each piece.

So while there are fundamental differences between Aubertin and Shimamoto and their respective art movements, both valued the elements of performance and destruction in relation to their artwork. The Zero movement stressed process and material. The Gutai movement stressed the belief that action was an essential part of the whole or finished piece, reflected in Shimamoto’s work, and ran a parallel between the ideas of creation and destruction. This idea can still be seen in contemporary works, such as Ai Weiwei’s documentation of the destruction of historical Chinese artifacts in Dropping the Urn, Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE.

The spirit of Gutai lives on in Shimamoto’s paintings. The energy found in the bright compositions and actions taken against the canvas in his many pieces will be as long lasting as the impact that the Gutai movement had on performance artists around the world.

You can observe Shimamoto’s work in person during Do Something Interesting, See Something Odd at De Buck Gallery, on view through February 18th.

Text by Sarah Sickles