Free Action of Color – Lorenzo Mango

On a cool evening in May 1957 the Sankei Center of Osaka held an unusual event. In the theater room a group of young artists had organized a strange show by compiling together a series of actions unrelated to each other and hardly associated with any of the classic forms of art. Those young artists were the Gutai group (in Japanese “concreteness”), which, under the guide and teachings of Jiro Yoshihara, was abruptly revolutionizing Japanese art, by thrusting it into the Modern. At the same time as Jackson Pollock’s action painting, which Yoshihara had seen in 1951, Gutai threw itself into visual and formal experimentation, which, by addressing the object-quality of artwork, its techniques, and the codification of its genres, concentrates in action, in the event, in the burning fleeting moment of the expressive dimension of art. When Allan Kaprow rebuilt historical memory – far and recent – of happenings (which had its debut as “new genre” in 1959), he included in full that which was being done by Gutai with its extreme experimentations.

Ever since its creation, Shozo Shimamoto was part of the group. Interested in regenerating artistic codes, Shimamoto, from the start, was directed toward radical and minimalist techniques of expression. In the 1940s he had produced the series of “holes”, sheets of paper on which he acted through chafing until the surface was lacerated and left exposed like an open wound. For “Gutai on the Scene”, instead, he realized a violently destructive action, by crushing a series of glass globes and pouring onto the scene a mountain of ping pong balls that suddenly appeared from the dark. A few years earlier, in 1955, he had exhibited a rickety plank – with the emblematic titled “Please Walk on Here” – on which visitors were invited to pass on. The artwork reached it completion upon being walked on, not as the object in itself.

Hence, ever since his debut, Shimamoto adopted a behavior of radical denial of artistic tradition. Yet, what was tradition for a young “angry” postwar Japanese artist? Hard to say. It certainly wasn’t the national one, in its academic form, but not even the western avant-garde, being so far away. Tradition, for Shimamoto, therefore ended up coinciding with the act of painting – in all times and all latitudes – conveyed by balance, representation, form. Conveyed – as he himself stated in a few brief words – by the paintbrush, emblematic image of a technique that aimed at enhancing form, composition and description instead of expression. In 1957 Shimamoto formulated this conviction in an article/manifesto. In his efforts to ban the paintbrush, which he believed had mortified the material and autonomously expressive qualities of color, bending it to extremes unknown to its nature, through the use of “traditional” techniques (all traditions ideally unified in the example of the Renaissance). “I believe – he wrote – that the first thing to do is free color from the paintbrush. If in the process of creating the paintbrush isn’t cast aside there is no hope of emancipating the tones”, which was what he intended to do by giving to color what is of color, that is, its being a material part of light.

Shimamoto’s unconventional act, the betrayal of techniques and conventions could have taken paths of total eccentricity in regards to painting, as we have seen in the cited examples, but most of all it became a hypothesis of a new strategy of the painting practice, that was translated into an alternate solution of work, without a paintbrush. In 1956, for the first time, Shimamoto created the act of casting bottles full of color onto a canvas. This is an act which he repeated infinitely throughout the years and still today characterizes his “painting”. With this act Shimamoto reacted to all possible forms of paint, to all constructed models of form. Throwing bottles of color and making them explode on the surface of a canvas laid on the ground, the “bottle crash”, determines an unforeseeable situation, an event of which one can direct, contemplate and plan its layout, but which, in the moment it is happening, find its complete freedom.

Other than Pollock’s teachings, which can certainly be sensed, the “bottle crash” technique also retains a memory which is more specific to its nation of origin, which Shimamoto himself manifests openly: zen calligraphy, and particularly, that one of a great master of the 19th century, Nantenbo. “the thing that surprised me the most when I went to see this master – he wrote – was that he used a very large paintbrush and with this he created much larger works than his contemporaries”. Nantenbo, thus, appeared to Shimamoto as very able in both keeping with the ritual tradition of zen writing and in being brave enough to “betray” it with his expressive force and exceptional brushstroke. In the characters of the master “we find smudges, fading, sprays, drippings and other effects that were not possible to express through the oil painting of the time”. The “bottle crash” has the same unconventional action toward pictorial code, it does not want to ridicule or belittle it, but, just as in Nantenbo’s case, regenerate it through chance and spontaneity.

The casting of bottles is what makes Shimamoto most easily recognizable. Technique and sign of style, through this method passes not only his painterly vocation to color, but also his own evolution as an artist. The first “throws“, in the 1950s, were energetically impulsive, charged with the anger of a generation (as were the young Japanese of the second postwar) devoid of points of reference and permanently wounded in its memory and identity. Shimamoto was interested in the chance, the possibility that color could act directly on the canvas without filters, that he himself would contribute to the creation of the work with his whole body, but there certainly was an element of vehemence and nervousness in the young “thrower” that we see at work in photos of the time. A certain tragic nature, terribly irreparable.

Although remaining fundamentally the same, as far as technique the “bottle crash” has changed profoundly over the years, enriched by philosophical implications and matured in artistic production. It’s as if Shimamoto has progressively developed a larger yet more subtle awareness of what the free action of color can produce on the existential level, if not on a philosophical one. The explosion of colored matter becomes, in his hands, a privileged vehicle of the deep energy that ties human beings with the Cosmo. It at once embraces and witnesses. A strong gesture, even violent for some, and at the same time a leap of happiness, exuberant and vital. A metaphor of life itself, of its being born as something explosively rich in a world that discolors and burns out in the gloomy negation of itself. The monument to peace of Hyogo is emblematic. Every year Shimamoto regenerates with color a cement platform on condition that Japan, during that year, hasn’t been involved in any way in war. Throwing color is to sanction peace; the great performance held in Naples in 2006 had a title that declared its intent: A weapon for peace. This action allows us to move on to the second aspect of the transformations given by the “bottle crash“. That which was born as an unconventional technique of producing paintings, has become, effectively, an autonomous spectacular moment, if not a theatrical event in its own right, enriched both by the context and by the chosen method of casting the bottles. This isn’t an impulsive gesture anymore, but it is organized as a ritual and celebratory act, milder in certain aspects but always intense for the expressive nature of the act. To widen its range, Shimamoto (as is the case in the Neapolitan event) often carries out the performance while hanging from a high crane, in order to have below him a huge canvas to paint, but more importantly, the horizon of the world. The action of the “bottle crash“, then, can be combined with the presence of other performers or of objects, on which color is impressed, thrown more delicately with light paper cups that glide over bodies, canvas and objects determining a certain choreography of colors. Which is connected, equally as often, to a musical moment called upon to participate in the action.

It is so that a spectacular autonomous and self-sufficient event is determined, in respect to the original painterly aspect which is, however, not lost: not in the result – because from that action paintings will be produced – but not even in its intention, in the sense that it is more correct to speak of a spectacular exaltation of the act of painting rather than regarding the works as an involuntary residual trace of a performance. Watching Shimamoto during one of these events is, literally, watching a painter at work, fully projected towards combining chance and intention, accident and form. At the same time, being present at one of his last events – many of which have been held in Italy, in Venice in 2007, in Capri and Punta Campanella in 2008, other than the one in Piazza Dante in Naples cited above – means being immersed, to use and expression by Achille Ricciardi present in the beginning of Novecento and referable also to Kandinskij’s spectacular projects, in a modern “theater of color“, where painterly material becomes actress of the event in first person.

Scene and paint thus become – as they were already in many ways in that far 1957 – signs, methods of work, techniques too, that dialogue with each other positioning the work of the painter in equilibrium on the fine line between process and product, there where what counts is the act as a physical but also moral action, body but also sign, performance but also form. Theater, finally, but also and always painting.

Lorenzo Mango