Essay written by Ming Tiampo, professor at Carleton University in Ottawa (Canada) and In 2013, she was the co-curator of the exhibition, ‘Gutai: Splendid Playground’, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York). Ming Tiampo contributed this text for the gallery’s published monograph ‘MASATOSHI MASANOBU’ (2017) documenting the artist’s life and work, and coinciding with a series of three solo exhibitions at Axel Vervoordt Gallery Antwerp and Hong Kong (2017 – 2018).
What's Gutai about Masatoshi Masanobu? A Gutai member from its founding moment to its final hour, Masanobu Masatoshi is ironically perceived by some as anomalous due to the fact that his work does not fit into the popular perception of Gutai. By most measures, however, he was a highly regarded and very successful participant in the Gutai group and represented an important tendency in painting that's sometimes underappreciated. In addition to being a longstanding member, he was chosen for two of the group's special honours: participation in the 1960 International Sky Festival, and in 1965, a solo show at the Gutai Pinacotheca.
Masanobu first met Gutai group leader Jiro Yoshihara in 1948 or 1949, when he began attending a public art class being offered by Yoshihara in Kobe. In 1951, under Yoshihara's tutelage, Masanobu painted Lakeside (1951), an important early landscape work where he began exploring abstraction, and for the first time used the pale yellow that would permeate his work throughout his career. Here, the yellow is applied in layers to define a circle, creating a luminosity in movement that reads perhaps as a moon or a sun reflected in water. This quality of shimmering light, of life-imbued paint that exceeds its simplicity of form, is central to Masanobu's work, and is the key to understanding the artist's committed approach to Gutai's earliest core principles.
In 1954, when Yoshihara founded Gutai, Masanobu became one of the group's founding members. He participated in every one of the group's Gutai Art Exhibitions, an impressive record over Gutai's eighteen-year history. Masanobu's early Gutai works reflect an interest in material, following Yoshihara's establishment of concreteness as a central problematic for the group, whose name embodied this very meaning. In Gutai's first year, Masanobu's work grappled to concretely grasp the material presence of objects, in particular clay sculptures. In works such as Yellow Clay Figure (1953-57) and Black Clay Figure (1954), Masanobu defines form as if through touch, kneading the sculptures into the space around them. (1)
In 1955, Masanobu participated in the Outdoor Exhibition to Challenge the Midsummer Sun (Ashiya Park, July 1955), with a geometrical sculpture made up of connected white triangles mounted upon a vertical black pole, accented by a black orthogonal. It's perhaps fitting that in this portrait of him with the work, he's painting the sculpture, extending his two-dimensional practice to three, and crystallizing his deep and enduring obsession with material and line.
Following his participation in the outdoor exhibition, his works begin to work more intensely with line, as in Work (1958). Here, the canvas is treated with an all-over deep sepia wash, darkened in sectors to create the impression of depth. Against this ground that seems almost stained, is an agitated surface created by the restless energy of experiments in linear definition-curls, slashes, scratches, angles, dragged lines, scrubbed lines, and gently vibrating lines. An almost obsessive study in the distinctions between wash, brushstroke, scratching and scraping, it's as if Masanobu was considering the core properties of paint, haunted by Yoshihara's 1951 description of Jackson Pollock's Number 11 (1949) and Number 7 (1950), which travelled to Japan for the first time and were shown at the Third Yomiuri Independent Exhibition in 1951. On this, Yoshihara wrote:
As Jackson Pollock proves, drops of paint are more beautiful than that which they present. …One could say painting has purified itself: the elements of painting… are no longer lines or shapes, or colours: but lines and shapes as they appear in nature, colours as substance."(2)
While other Gutai artists experimented with different techniques of applying paint to canvas-Akira Kanayama with an electric toy car, Shozo Shimamoto with a canon or glass bottles, Kazuo Shiraga with his feet, etc.-Masanobu focused instead on paint itself, seeking to define his voice through "lines and shapes as they appear in nature, colours as substance." The discipline with which he pursued this singular vision is not unlike that of Atsuko Tanaka or Chiyu Uemae, both extraordinary painters who pursued an "unknown aesthetic" (3) through their sustained practices.
As with other Gutai artists, Masanobu was inspired by Yoshihara's urge to "do what no one has done before!" as well as the principles that he set out in the Gutai Art Manifesto. For Masanobu, however, who came to the Gutai group as an older artist who had already been painting for twenty years, Yoshihara's words gave direction to earlier teachings that he had received from his hometown painting mentor in Kochi, Seiichi Nobukiyo. Although Masanobu studied yoga (Western oil painting) with Nobukiyo, he was also exposed to Nobukiyo's interest in the history of East Asian painting. As well as being an artist, Nobukiyo was an art critic who was known for his knowledge of both European and East Asian Philosophy and Art History, as well as for his book about Nanga (literati painting). In Masanobu's reminiscences about his teacher, one of his strongest memories is of Nobukiyo's book, Yoshioka Issei's Paintings, which he described as follows:
The book was a pure and genuine analysis… names like (Ike no) Taiga, (Tanomura) Chikuden, Hachidai Sangin, and Shitao were mentioned, praising Yoshioka's works in the same breath as the ancients. (4)
Nobukiyo's influence on Masanobu is most evident in his writings, which articulate his artistic ambitions through the principles of Nanga painting. In particular, the terms that he repeatedly employs to describe his work reflect the impact of one of literati painting's most fundamental texts: Xie He's Six Laws of Painting. More precisely, it's Xie He's first law of painting, "spirit resonance which means vitality," (5) (気韻生動) that was most important to his work, and to the practice of literati painting in Japan. Indeed, Masanobu appears to map this concept of spirit resonance and vitality onto Yoshihara's articulation of the relationship between spirit and matter in the Gutai Art Manifesto. Thus, where Yoshihara writes:
In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance. Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter. When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out. To make the fullest use of matter is to make use of the spirit. By enhancing the spirit, matter is brought to the height of the spirit. (6)
I am currently attempting to present pure painterly touch, as a direct expression of my own vital energy and emotion. Paintings that you can isolate any part of, and the brushstrokes will be alive and in motion-and the overall surface overflows with vital energy… Painting with the ferocity of living, moving paint. (7)
These last two sentences, which stress the importance of "brushstrokes alive and in motion" as well as the ferocity of "living, moving paint" utilize the same two characters that Xie He does to invoke the significance of vitality in painting. This language is repeated in his 1979 article, "Gutai and Me," where he writes, "Each person saw their work in Gutai differently. In my case, I tried to create 'direct expressions with a sense of life.'" (8) Thus, in defining his own place within Gutai, Masanobu drew upon his earlier education in nanga painting, and used it to inform his artistic quest.
In 1963, Masanobu began painting with enamel rather than oil on canvas, which allowed the artist to experiment much more freely with movement in line. While Work '63.11 (1963) transforms his discrete linear doodles into interconnected cursive forms, Work (1964) abandons that vocabulary for sheer linearity. This work takes Pollock as a starting point, but seeks to do something quite different. Like a Gutai spider spinning layer upon layer of gossamer silk, Masanobu creates order from chaos, a universe that unfolds with its own internal logic. Sepia ground is distinct from the painting's black dripped foundation layers. Both are swathed in golden light by the upper layer of silken lines that drape elegantly across the painting, with large swooping arabesques at the top and bottom registers that record the dizzying precision of movement as the artist moved back and forth across the canvas.
For his one-person exhibition at the Gutai Pinacotheca in 1965, Masanobu created a series of works that explored the movements of line within the intimacy of script, without evoking the particularity of language. In Work (1964), he alternates loopy cursive with jagged zigzags, elegant serpentine forms, and digits that seem almost numeric in character. The bottom right sector of the painting is graced with a reference to the arabesque of dripped line, a rumination on the blurred distinctions between painting and writing, another concern of literati artists. Rendered in enamel rather than ink, however, the forms take on a hard, distinctly contemporary edge, evoking graffiti and its experiments at the boundary between the written and painted line.
In Masanobu's work, paint is paint and line is line, embodying a vision of "painting with the ferocity of living, moving paint" (9) that sought to allow the "scream of the material to cry out." (10) As with Cy Twombly, whose graffiti canvases such as Leda and the Swan explored the relationships between painting, writing, drawing, and graffiti, as well as connecting the raw expressivity of Abstract Expressionism to the Classical Greek tradition, Masanobu's works operate in complex conversation with post-war International Abstraction, Gutai, and the East Asian Literati tradition.
In pursuit of what he considered to be the highest principles of painting, Masanobu grappled with the question of how to breathe life into material, a problem that resonated profoundly with both his contemporaries and the literati tradition to which he had been exposed by his first mentor, Nobukiyo Seiichi. In the context of Gutai, Masanobu's insistent pursuit of the core properties of paint and line produced a body of work that contributed to an important strand of painting practice in the group, one that should not be forgotten.