Shozo Shimamoto, one of the most influential Japanese artists in the postwar era, died in January at the age of 85. A memorial event for the artist was held today in Osaka, Japan.
At the age of 19, Shimamoto joined the studio of painter Jiro Yoshihara, the master who would go on to found the Gutai art movement in 1954. Gutai represented artists’ attempts to merge “human qualities and material properties” in order to understand the abstract concretely, according to their manifesto, believing that the beauty of things was revealed when they were damaged or began to decay, whether by human intervention or the passage of time. Through mixed artistic practices, combining painting, sculpture and performance, boundaries of art forms were transgressed and the beauty of art thereby revealed. Shimamoto is credited with proposing the movement’s name, which translates as “embodiment” or “concrete.”
The “Ana” (“Holes”) series (c. 1949–52) was Shimamoto’s first attempt at incorporating Gutai’s spirit into his work. He said he invented his method of making holes when he accidentally broke the surface of a work when using newspaper as a canvas. In the series, the resulting holes, tears and patches of inks appear as well-balanced marks on the pictorial plane, without over-emphasizing any particular element.
On the other side of the world, in Italy, Lucio Fontana worked in a similar way in his “Spatial Concept” series simultaneously—his signature was a slash, sometimes several, on single-colored, cloth canvas. Unlike Fontana, Shimamoto’s “Ana” series featured delicately eroded picture planes layered with industrial paint. The Japanese artist was less concerned with the exploration of pictorial space than with the materiality of things.
From 1956, Shimamoto ventured into action painting, creating his works as part of public performances. Cannons shot plastic bags of paint on occasion. At other times, the artist hurled bottles onto the canvas while raised on a platform or carried into the air by helicopter, hot-air balloon or crane. These violent actions evoked media images of the atomic bombs, and insisted on the roles of materials and of spontaneous energy and chance in a work of art.
Like many of the postwar generation, Shimamoto was also a peace activist. One of his performance paintings, Heiwa no Akashi (“A Proof of Peace”) (2000– ), in which he dropped bottles of paint on a concrete canvas while lifted in midair, is installed as a monument at Nishinomiya Yacht Harbor. The work is supposed to be continued every year for 100 years on the condition that peace remains in Japan.
Shimamoto has been widely exhibited internationally. In the 1998 touring exhibition “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979” organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, his paintings hung alongside works by Fontana, Jackson Pollock and John Cage. He also participated in the 1993, 1999 and 2003 Venice Biennales.
Another incentive for Shimamoto to travel was his interest in mail art, with a twist. In 1986, he shaved his head to commemorate the visit of Italian mail artist Guglielmo Achille Carvellini to Japan. Afterwards he kept his head bald, and, while traveling to visit artists in the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union, he asked them to do whatever they liked to it as pictorial plane—his head was thus used to carry messages and pictures, and slides and films were also projected on it. Although he left Gutai after the death of Yoshihara in 1972, he still continued to work in its spirit of challenging materiality and breaking boundaries.
Shimamoto was also the founder of Art Unidentified (aka Artist Union) and founder and president of Able Art Japan (previously known as Association of Art, Culture and People with Disabilities, Japan), and was keen to promote art to the world. In his own words, “Art is something that shocks people.” The shock, excitement and influence of Shimamoto’s life will last.
Works by Shimamoto can be seen at “Gutai: Splendid Playground” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, until May 8.
Katherine Tong is a researcher at ArtAsiaPacific.