World War II punctured the reality of everyday life. Artists, especially, were left wondering how their practices should evolve to meet the new standard of violence and destruction made visible the world over. The Japanese especially—whose government committed atrocities and whose people experienced megatons of atomic destruction—were especially caught by this question of how to move on.
The artist Shozo Shimamoto was born in Osaka in 1928, to parents who worked in the shipping industry. Just after the war, in 1947, he took a philosophy course at Kwansei Gakuin University, and though his formal education didn’t include anything about art, he clearly thought much about aesthetics. Shortly after starting at the university, he won a prize at the All-Kansei Art exhibition for one of his paintings. Shimamoto also met Jiro Yoshihara that same year, an artist who would inspire (and conspire) with him.
In 1949, Shimamoto sat in his studio in Nishinomiya City, Japan. Contemplating his canvas, which was made with layers of newspaper because he couldn’t afford canvas, he decided to lash out. Striking holes in the painting, Shimamoto acted on a tendency that the avant-garde would eventually be defined by: the impulse to pierce the veil, to reveal the process of art making for what it was, or what it could be. Many who saw these works at first ridiculed them, but Shimamoto would go on to develop a movement of like-minded artists, such as Kazuo Shiraga, who made works by suspending himself over the canvas, making gestural marks with his dangling feet.
Though not astonishing today, this simple action of piercing the canvas was a revolutionary act in the late 40s. Shimamoto and Yoshihara attracted artists who were interested in new ways of making art, and decided to dub this group Gutai, translating roughly to “embodiment” or “concrete,” a reference to the physical process of making art. Yoshihara would go on to perform a critical role in the movement and in Shimamoto’s life: he wrote the manifesto for Gutai, which emphasized a balance between process and object, rather than a focus on art itself.
To give some historical context: while the Gutai group was working in Japan, similar but independent movements were starting in Europe and America and elsewhere: Pollock flung his paint with abandon in New York, COBRA made primitivist works in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. All these movements shared a certain philosophy of gestural artmaking, as well as a philosophy of masculinity. Shimamoto, however, was taking aesthetics beyond the marks themselves. He began experimenting with new methods of painting; besides the holes he struck into his canvases, he got even more viscerally involved, highlighting the tension and possibilities between utter destruction and novel creation.
In 1956, Shimamoto starting a particularly violent painterly process wherein he would fill a glass bottle with paint and launch it from a cannon against the canvas—all for a live audience. This would leave glass embedded in the work. These works, as well as other actions and paintings that involved strong performative elements, would go on to gain Shimamoto critical success. His work would go on to receive institutional validation from the likes of the Tate, Guggenheim, Centre Pompidou, and several iterations of the Venice Biennale.
De Buck Gallery, the lauded space located in Chelsea known for breakout shows by artists such as Rashaad Newsome, has a fascinating collection of Shimamoto’s work from the later stages of his life. The exhibition, titled Do Something Interesting, See Something Odd, provides a perspective on works made toward the end of his life, including works from his Bottle Crash series, a continuation of the aforementioned work from his earlier life, but this time thrown by the artist’s own hand and in various types of vessels.
The exhibition also contains a work titled Untitled (Ping Pong), from 2011, just two years before his passing. It’s a large scale multicolored painting with ping-pong balls dressing it, splashed with bright color. Works such as this cast a light on the work of an avant-garde artist working in contemporary times, late in his life and at the end of a renowned practice. Full of life and energy, the works display the radical promise of the Gutai movement in Japan, a cultural watershed much less known than the European and American abstract expressionism happening at the same time.
Though Gutai officially disbanded in 1972 due to the sudden death of Yoshihara, Shimamoto’s university friend and colleague, its reverberations continue to be felt. Collections such as the one on display at De Buck are a reminder that the post-war moment didn’t only have great effects on the West—they were felt all over the world, particularly in Japan, and especially by the artist Shozo Shimamoto, who indeed did something interesting, and saw something odd.