Time and Space
So if you want to do something, that means you are alive. If you do it, then that proves that you are alive. . . . Speaking of doing what you want to do, there is one method you can always count on that uses only what you have in front of you. Think hard.18
Gutai artists viewed all forms of artistic expression as interrelated. For them, paintings could be created through performance, and performances could be a form of painting. As Murakami Saburo (1925–1996) wrote in 1957, Gutai artists aspired to “create a new painting.” He recommended “discarding the frame, getting off the walls, shifting from immobile time to lived time.”19
Reacting directly to the legacy of Abstract Expressionism and Jackson Pollock’s (1912–1956) drip technique, Gutai artists created radical and early responses in the mid-1950s that eschewed the paintbrush. As Shimamoto Shozo (b. 1928) wrote in “Killing the Paintbrush” (1956), “It is only once the paintbrush has been discarded that the paint can be revived.”20 Shimamoto substituted the brush with glass bottles of paint he smashed onto the canvas and paint he shot out of a homemade cannon. Sumi Yasuo (b. 1925) painted with an abacus, a vibrating device, and a paper umbrella; other artists used tools such as a watering can, a bicycle, an automatic toy car, and their own feet. Murakami used his body to alter the picture plane by literally bursting through paper in his Paper-Breaking series (1956), thus defying the traditional painting boundaries of both time and space.
Shiraga Kazuo (1924–2008) and Kanayama Akira (1924–2006) represent two poles of Gutai’s experiments with process. Shiraga painted with his feet, thus creating a direct encounter between his body and materials. Kanayama, on the other hand, painted with an automatic toy car. By mediating his process through a mechanical device, he removed personal or psychological expression from his work—a clear critique of Pollock. Still, as curator Ming Tiampo writes, both artists “viewed their innovations in process as acts of individual liberty that freed them from artistic convention.”21
Even when works did not involve paint at all, they still harkened back to formal ideas of painting. Gutai artists made moving “pictures” in time and space. In Shiraga’s Ultramodern Sanbaso (1957), the artist performed in a red costume with long sleeves, a mask, and a cone-shaped hat to create a “picture” that resembled an undulating red line. In Tanaka Atsuko’s (1932–2005) performance, Electric Dress (1956), performers wore costumes made of incandescent lightbulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue that were set to flash. Their movements set the formal painting elements of light and color into motion.
Show: Photographs of Shiraga Kazuo and Kanayama Akira making their art.
- Ask students to describe what they see the artists doing.
- Compare these painting methods to each other and to more traditional methods. Shiraga’s process creates a direct encounter between his body and the material, while Kanayama’s takes his body out of the process. How do these differences affect the process and the product?
- As Shimamoto wrote, “It is only once the paintbrush has been discarded that the paint can be revived.”22 Why do students think he said this? Do they agree or disagree? What are some methods students can think of for getting paint on a surface without a paintbrush?
- Shiraga wrote an essay called “The Formation of the Individual” (1956) to accompany his piece Challenging Mud (in which he wrestled with mud). He wrote, “People need first of all to understand the personal material they were born with. This material expresses one’s difference from others and comes out when a person watches and feels, talks, paints, or makes sounds. Each person should develop their own way of feeling, talking, and painting.”23 Read this quote to students and ask them to respond to it. What do they think their “personal material” is?
- Shiraga went on: “The stronger a person’s will, the more the person can resist external forces.” Do students think an understanding of our “personal material” can help us “resist external forces”? Why or why not? Give examples.
- Gutai artists were interested in how they could apply paint to a surface without using a paintbrush. They used tools such as a homemade cannon, an abacus, a vibrating device, a paper umbrella, a watering can, a bicycle, an automatic toy car, and their own feet. Set up an “art lab” where students can experiment with different methods. Have paint, paper, and other everyday materials available, including toys, plastic straws, and balloons. Students should come dressed for messiness and also bring potential paintbrush substitutes from home. Ask students to work with a partner to experiment with at least three methods and, on a chart, record notes about how their new methods compare to using a paintbrush. What changes about the process and product? How much can they control? How much is chance? (As an alternative, this activity can be done with water instead of paint, so that even water balloons can be thrown to make marks on a surface such as an outdoor wall.)
- Some Gutai artists created paintings or “pictures” without paint, paintbrushes, or even a surface. They performed on stage wearing costumes in dances that addressed the same formal elements as painting. Have students create a performance with just their bodies and costumes that uses the formal elements of painting, including, light, color, and line. How can their performances become pictures?
- In a poem by Shimamoto, he lists alternatives to traditional art materials. Under “Paint,” he lists, among other things, time, the rainbow, heat, magic ink, blood, and spots of dirt from the neighboring painting. Under “Brush,” he lists a sheath of straw, time, an electric cooker, a sponge, a cannon, and somebody’s footsteps. Under “Canvas,” he lists a trash can, stone, air, a mirage, a street with cement surface, a wedding dress, and myself.24 Ask students what they think about the objects or ideas he lists. How do they connect to what students have seen of Shimamoto’s work? Next, ask them to write their own “list poem” in which they imagine replacements for art’s traditional materials.
English Language Arts