The Soul of Shozo Shimamoto: Gutai, Mail Art, Collaboration with Nature

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

On January 25th, three days after his 85th birthday, legendary artist Shozo Shimamoto died of heart failure. A memorial event titled Shozo-ism was held  at Hotel Novotel Koshien, Osaka West in Japan on March 13th. Another memorial is ongoing. Quoting Shozo’s first son, Takashi Shimamoto “please visit Shozo’s soul, he would be so excited to see you.”

Artists from all over the world have been meeting Shozo’s soul for decades. Some two hundred mail artists from thirty countries are currently communing with Shozo at the San Francisco Art Institute exhibition Gutai: Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun.The show runs until March 30th, and includes a room filled with works by mail artists honoring Shozo Shimamoto.

The exhibition at SFAI was curated by artist John Held, Jr. and Andrew McClintock, co-founder and publisher of the San Francisco Arts Quarterly, and was arranged well before Shozo Shimamoto’s death. John Held, Jr. has been meeting Shozo’s soul since the early 1980’s in various projects. Some in real time, others in mail art land. The latter is where I met Shozo, also in the early 80’s. At the time I had no idea he was a co-founder of one of the most significant avant-garde art movements in postwar Japan. That movement was/is Gutai.

Gutai is often translated as “concrete”. An alternate is “embodiment”. A group of young artists from the Kansai (Osaka-Kobe) region formed the Gutai group in 1954 under the guidance of older established artist Jiro Yoshihara. Yoshihiro was simultaneously CEO of Yoshihara Oil, a successful company which manufactured edible oils from soybeans and cottonseed.

Jiro Yoshihara was a self-taught artist. Pre WWII he painted in styles associated with modernism, including surrealism. During Japan’s descent into militarism, modernism was suppressed. Unlike some prominent artists working in the modernist vein Yoshihara didn’t switch to producing state-approved propaganda. He withdrew to a rural agricultural community where his work became private and inward.

Postwar, when much of the Japanese art world still considered European painting the vanguard, Yoshihara realized the importance of American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s highly kinetic techniques made painting a gestural performance– a concept also present in traditional Japanese art forms such as calligraphy.

Jiro Yoshihara encouraged young artists to directly engage their bodies with their materials. He also told them to “challenge, not imitate”* and “not to fake, or not to follow any others”**.

Like many avant-gardists of the period, Yoshihara was attempting to forge a new and independent artistic identity in the shadow of Japan’s recent totalitarian past and the ensuing occupation by the U.S.

Shozo Shimamoto joined Yoshihara’s studio in 1947 at the age of nineteen. When the idea arose to create an art movement inspired by Yoshihara’s concepts, Shozo suggested the name “Gutai”. When the Gutai group published its first journal in 1955, it was printed at Shozo’s house. The official Gutai manifesto was written by Jiro Yoshihiro in 1956. Among other things, it contained these lines:

Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life. Gutai art does not falsify the material. In Gutai art the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other.

One of the earliest Gutai exhibitions was held in the Ashiya pine wood in Osaka. At the First Open Air Exhibition of Modern Art: to Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun, the sculptures and paintings of the Gutai group were displayed in the open air, subject to weather. Shozo Shimamoto exhibited a perforated metal sheet painted white on one side, blue on the other. In the evening a lamp was lit behind the sheet; the effect echoing the starry sky above. The work was called Ana— the Kanji character for “hole”.

Shozo Shimamoto began working on his series Ana in the late 1940’s; an early piece apparently won him his place in Yoshihara’s studio. The Ana works employed various methods of surface erosion, a technique which began with an accident (an unintended tear) then blossomed into conscious exploration.

As well as producing works on canvas, paper, and less traditional surfaces Gutai artists utilized music, film and recorded sound. They also threw their bodies into their work, staging eye-popping art events such as Kazua Shirago’s Challenging Mud; in which the stripped-down Shirago dove into several tons of a wet mix of plaster and cement, twisting and flourishing his body like a paint brush.

Walk This Way

At a Gutai exhibition at the Ohara Kaikan in Tokyo, Shozo Shimamoto presented Please Walk on Here, a twisting path of wooden boards on a system of springs. It was very difficult to walk on. At the same space in October, 1956, he staged Bottle Crash Experiment. A canvas was placed on the floor with a rock in the middle. Bottles of pigment were flung at the rock, shattering color every which way.

Then there was Cannon. In which plastic bags of color were loaded into a five-meter cannon and shot onto a huge canvas…

The artists of Gutai, along with artists working in avant-garde groups and collectives in postwar Tokyo, expanded upon and in some cases anticipated such now-familiar art memes as conceptual art, action painting, installations, earthworks, happenings, and performance art.

Gutai, as well as Tokyo’s avant-garde movements, attracted international attention and strongly influenced experimental artists in the west. The influence flowed both ways in a snap, crackle, Pop of creative electricity.

Mail Art and Beyond

In 1972, Gutai founder Jiro Yoshihara died. During his final years he produced a series of paintings focused on circles, which have been described as “reminiscent of satori, the enlightenment of Zen”.

After Yoshihara’s death the Gutai group, which had become less active and prone to factionalism, broke up. Many of Japan’s postwar avant-garde groups came and went in the blink of an eye. The Gutai group lived far longer than most.

Shozo Shimamoto continued to be tremendously productive, his works and performances reaching audiences in many countries. The spirit of Gutai continued to inspire him, including its ethos of artists putting their bodies on the line. Example: Shozo invited other artists to draw, write, or place objects on his shaved head. Films were projected on it as well. The collaborations were photographed. Shozo also turned his dome project into mail art. Sending photo copy pictures of his head to mail artists, with invitations to decorate. He laughed when copies of his copies reached him with the same invitation.

A few words re mail art. Definitions are legion, as are mail artists. This is from a piece I wrote in 2002:

Mail art started simply, roughly five decades ago. A handful of artists, when sending each other mail, began making their envelopes and post cards an extension of their work. Not only did they trade art by mail but they played with the very process, adding fantasy postage stamps, sending serial image postcards and building elaborate visual jokes. Some projects were like chain letters, travelling from artist to artist– collaborations that crossed thousands of miles and took years to complete. Over time more and more artists joined in. By the early 80’s, mail artists numbered in the hundreds of thousands…

Mail art was a travelling show, visible to all along the way. It leaped out of the gallery and into everyday life. Though mail art sometimes appeared on gallery walls and enhanced artists’ careers, careerism was never its main point. Love moved mail art. It was fun. It was free. Motivations increasingly inexplicable in the culture at large.”

By the mid 1970’s, Shozo Shimamoto was secretary general of the Artists’ Union (AU) in Osaka. He was a chief representative for mail art, which he felt embodied the spirit of Gutai. He wrote the following about Gutai and mail art in a book of his work titled AH, published in 1981 by the Japan Art Press Center:

…I was determined to refuse or defy the expression of authority as seen in works of art not only in Europe but also elsewhere in the world. What inspired me and encourage me most in this effort was “GUTAI” (pronounced “gootie”), whose spirit is embodied in the activities of “mail art”, a form of expression campaigned for by the Artists Union today.

As said, I met Shozo via mail art in the early ’80’s. At that time almost anything could make it through the mail. No War on Terror raged; fear of odd objects had not yet infected the post office. I received many wonderful– and sometimes outrageous– things from mail artists around the world. And surprise surprise, most delicate non-enveloped pieces arrived in fine condition. Including a piece by Shozo Shimamoto from his series focused on the Japanese character for “A”.

While corresponding with Shozo, I was working on a series of copy-art portraits of Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong). The portraits, retrospectively titled My Own Private Mao, were collaged from vintage propaganda from the Peoples Republic of China, plus various pop culture sources– including porn from American and Japanese mens’ magazines. I was struck by the similarities between propaganda and pornography, such as the use of rote images to stoke/stroke desire for a state of perfect satisfaction. Some of my pieces countered Warhol’s comment-free celebrity portraits of Mao (though China has recently detected some comment ), others riffed on abstraction by recombining Mao’s features (wart and all) ad infinitum. The latter involved extensive recombinations of photo copies. Think copies of copies of copies. A technique inspired by being broke; I wanted to use every copy I made, even the test ones.

In the mid 1980’s, Shozo Shimamoto arranged a show of my Mao series at the AU gallery. Afterwards he sent me a photo of the show with a letter commenting on its popularity and requesting that the works remain in the gallery’s archive. It was tremendously exciting to see the Maos displayed in a country so far away.

Over several years, Shozo Shimamoto sent me a number of things. Including AH, the book containing his thoughts on Gutai and mail art. In those days it was hard to find much information about Gutai in English.*** But Shozo’s work, as displayed in the book, conveyed much about its spirit. Though somewhat mysterious due to cultural differences, the book still spoke volumes. Often about beauty detected in, and added to, common and  damaged sources.

The gestural “hand” of Shozo, as displayed in reproductions of pieces he’d painted, or applied color to in some other fashion, was bold and generous. The colors themselves were dazzling. Pictured works included examples from his “A” series, and from a shorter series called Uzamaki (Whirlpool), which he made by pouring colors onto canvas and letting the colors separate according to their individual density.

Eventually I drifted out of mail art (though I still do an occasional piece) and concentrated on individual pieces and later, on writing about the gold dust twins of political corruption and real estate fraud. But I have a collection of works by the mail artists with whom I corresponded. Shozo Shimamoto’s book is a particularly treasured item. For the last 10 years I’ve kept my collection in archival boxes in a climate controlled storage unit. Safe as houses.

But as we all know post-housing bubble, houses aren’t safe…

A few years ago a storm caused a partial roof collapse at the storage facility. My unit wasn’t severely damaged but did get some flooding. Among the damaged items, Shozo Shimamoto’s book AH.

At first I thought it was a goner. But as I turned the book’s damp, water-stained pages I determined to save it. It was still a thing of beauty. Many of the pages were stuck together by rain water; I slid sheets of wax paper between ones that weren’t and waited till the book was totally dry. Even then some pages were still melded together and despite being handled delicately, tore when separated. Water damage was visible throughout. Yet the more I looked at the book the more the damages started seeming like additions, not ruination. As if a collaboration had taken place between nature and Shozo Shimamoto.

After the storm Shozo’s book lived on my desk. I often found myself looking at it.

Last Autumn I learned that an upcoming show in San Francisco would be honoring Shozo Shimamoto and Gutai. Curators John Held, Jr. and Andrew McClintock were inviting mail artists all over the world to contribute. This was good news; I was glad to get a chance to honor Shozo. Not only because he’d been so generous to me, but because he influenced me deeply in the past and thanks to his collaboration with nature, was doing so again. My contribution to the show included copies of the “damaged” pages from AH.

A few weeks after I sent my contribution off to San Francisco, I received a letter from John Held, Jr. telling me Shozo Shimamoto had died.

When researching this piece I learned that over his lifetime Shozo Shimamoto produced a huge body of work. Of which I’ve only referenced a tiny amount, mainly pre 1990. I also came across some of his writings, thankfully in English translation. Such as Art is Astonishment and Potatoes with Worms are Ticklish. Then there’s this exchange from an interview posted at the Associazione Shozo Shimamoto in Italy:

Interviewer: While reconstructing the Gutai years, you said that the driving force was the idea that art is supposed to be completely free. What meaning exactly does the word free hold in your concept of art?

Shozo: During the war, freedom did not exist for us. After the war we were given our freedom back and were initially taken aback by it, but we later learned, more than anything else, the extraordinary nature of freedom. Life is full of problems, but freedom is the key to happiness. It was a tremendous pleasure to express freedom through art.

In the same interview Shozo talks about his commitment to pacifism, which he expressed through many major art projects. In 1996 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by artist and publisher Bern Porter, who was also a committed pacifist. Before WWII, Porter worked as a physicist on cathrode ray tube technology. During the war he did uranium separation work on the Manhattan Project. He quit after Hiroshima was bombed.

As well as translations of Shozo’s writings, I came across excerpts from the Gutai manifesto written by Jiro Yoshihiro. Including these words about the beauty found in damaged things:

Yet what is interesting in this respect is the novel beauty to be found in works of art and architecture of the past which have changed their appearance due to the damage of time or destruction by disasters in the course of the centuries. This is described as the beauty of decay, but is it not perhaps that beauty which material assumes when it is freed from artificial make-up and reveals its original characteristics? The fact that the ruins receive us warmly and kindly after all, and that they attract us with their cracks and flaking surfaces, could this not really be a sign of the material taking revenge, having recaptured its original life?

I’m very grateful to have met Shozo Shimamoto in the land of mail art and to have encountered him again through the pages of his collaboration with nature. I’ll continue to visit his soul. Which mingles with the spirit of Gutai forever and ever.


*Asia Art Archive Chair Jane DeBeoise in conversation with art historian Reiko Tomii, on the occasion of a historical investigation of Shiraga Kazuo’s work, Challenging Mud.

**Whitestone Gallery, Jiro Yoshihara  

***These days it’s much easier, thanks to burgeoning interest in Gutai and other avant-garde movements active in postwar Japan. Along with Gutai: Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC just wrapped Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, and the Guggenheim Museum is currently presenting Gutai: Splendid Playground.




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