by Kevin Conley
Many great painters exploit the undiscovered possibilities of their chosen medium – think of van Gogh treating brushstrokes like woodcarving, or J.M.W. Turner creating the illusion of space from thin washes of color. Add Kazuo Shiraga, one of the leaders of Japan’s postwar generation of artists, to this list: He was the first to come to grips with the inherent slipperiness of paint. In 1954, in one of his earliest efforts after rejecting his training in nihonga (traditional Japanese painting), he jumped onto a canvas on top of which he had squeezed a huge amount of oil paint straight from the tube. He intended to perform a few strong, disciplined movements, spreading the paint over the canvas with his bare feet. Instead he slipped and fell.
An inauspicious start, but Shiraga was a forceful personality, traditionally masculine in an era when the expression of such masculinity in Japan was deeply fraught. He did not give up. He rigged a rope from the beams of his studio and held himself upright, using the strength of his upper body to turn the lubricity of paint to his own advantage. European collectors loved him. Americans, who had their own version of what became known as action painting – one that was rooted not in violent inner struggle but in liberation – couldn’t grasp his genius.
For awhile it seemed that even Shiraga sided with the U.S. camp: He abandoned painting in 1970 to become a Buddhist monk. But in 1972 he returned to his work with a serenity and a renewed sense of discipline that helped him pursue his lithe and tactile brand of painting well into his eighties. Since his death, in 2008, the market for his works has exploded. The Mnuchin Gallery, a Manhattan dealer that has long specialized in works by Abstract Expressionists, took note of his world record prices and is presenting a retrospective of Shiraga’s foot paintings, through April 11, with the gallery’s longtime clients in mind. Partner Sukanya Rajaratnam told me, standing in front of a large Shiraga from the 1970s, “We’re hoping this will be acquired by someone who has a de Kooning from the same decade.” Then she laughed and confessed, “We like to curate other people’s collections.”