Gutai (具体, “Embodiment”) – Mimicking Violence To Work Through Trauma

Posted: February 7, 2019 in Uncategorized

By its very nature, action painting is painting in the medium of difficulties.
–Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters” (1952)

There exists my action, regardless of whether or not it is secured.
–Kazuo Shiraga, “Action Only” (1955)


Kazuo Shiraga
Challenging Mud (1955)


Kazuo Shiraga
painting with his feet for Life magazine
at the Nishinomiya factory of Jiro Yoshihara (1956)

Shozo Gutai

Shōzō Shimamoto
making a painting by shattering bottles (1956)


Murakami Saburō
Passing Through (1956)


Kazuo Shiraga
Work II (1958)


Shomei Tomatsu
Atomic Bomb Damage (1961)


Kazuo Shiraga
Black Sky (1990)

  1. This made the idea of what an action painting is a lot clearer, especially in combination with the Jackson Pollock example from class. I love the size of his canvas and how dynamic the shapes are.

    This example seems to exemplify the process that we talked about in class of breaking free from predictability by doing the most ‘outrageous’ things. Painting with your feet is certainly an action that breaks away from the expectations of modern art. It certainly breaks free of the “canned”, commercial modernist paintings that Rosenberg speaks out against.

    • Yes. As I said in class, there was more than one critical response to the work of Jackson Pollock. Greenberg considered Pollock the most important living painter because of his formal achievement in having pushed the opposition between illusion and flatness farther than anyone before him. Rosenberg, on the other hand, thought Pollock was the greatest because of his radical rejection of every previous convention of painting. When he painted, he was totally free.

      The wild expressivity of the artists of the Gutai group seem to have more in common with Rosenberg’s view than Greenberg’s. Nevertheless, while Rosenberg extolls the courage of painters who create in utter spontaneity, without any external motive, and as an authentic ‘action’, these Gutai painters seem to go to the opposite extreme and paint as a direct and explicit ‘reaction’ to horrifying events of the immediate past. Clearly, the Japanese are not trying simply to ‘look modern’. Rather, they have had modernity thrust violently upon them.

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