The Persistence of Form in The Art Of Jiro Yoshihara
Jul 12, 2019
This summer, Fergus McCaffrey gallery in Tokyo is reviving interest in the work of Gutai Group founder Jiro Yoshihara. Jiro Yoshihara: The Persistence of Form focuses on a specialized aspect of his oeuvre—the circle. Featuring 20 mostly small scale works on paper and canvas, the exhibition is an exercise in contemplation. Most of the compositions on view consist entirely of a single circle painted with just one or two brush strokes. A few do include multiple lines, and some contain other, non-round shapes. One of the two most complex works in the show features a black hashmark grid; the other consists of a yellow circle and four different colored lines. It is remarkable how quickly such minimal variations can become the essence of complexity when compared to a room full of circles. Perhaps it is even more remarkable how quickly the eye can perceive complexity where at first it seems there is none. No two circle paintings in this exhibition are the same—not even close. Divergence is achieved through a number of techniques. Some circles are painted with acrylics, some with oils, and others with watercolors. The range of textures created by the different mediums is alone something to contemplate. The different translucency is also worth considering, as is the multiplicity of effects caused by the type of surface Jiro used—paper yields under the weight of even the gentlest medium, while canvas offers its full support. Lest you think that an exhibition mostly made up of small circle paintings cannot possibly hold your attention for long, just consider this—Jiro devoted more than 10 years of his life to his attempt to draw the perfect circle, and never felt he achieved success. The least we can do is give his best attempts a few minutes of our time.
In Search of Japanese Modernism
Jiro was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1905. He did not receive any artistic training as a child, but as an adult discovered Western styles of Post Impressionist painting such as Fauvism and Expressionism. He became adept at imitating such styles, and eventually became attracted to Surrealism and other Modernist European styles. But in 1952, after participating in the Salon de Mai in Paris and seeing the advancements of artists from other countries, Jiro became convinced that Japan was trailing the rest of the world in creating its own distinctive type of Modern Art. Inspired by the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Jiro decided that rather than academic mimesis, performative action was the key to releasing the subjective perspectives of Japanese artists. Inspired by this belief, he formed an avant garde artist collective called the Gutai Group.
Jiro Yoshihara - Untitled, 1965-70. Watercolor on paper. 13 1/4 x 9 5/8 inches (33.5 x 24.5 cm). Fergus McCaffrey, Tokyo. © Estate of Jiro Yoshihara
In 1956, Jiro penned the Gutai Manifesto, which read, in part, “bid farewell to the hoaxes piled up on the altars and in the palaces...they are monsters made of the matter called paint. Lock up these corpses in the graveyard. Gutai Art does not alter matter. Gutai Art imparts life to matter.” The manifesto became a rallying cry for a new generation of Japanese artists who embraced their own natural essence. Gutai artists created works by stomping on paint, hurling their bodies through sheets of paper, wrestling with mud, and scores of other performative gestures. Their work fundamentally transformed the Japanese post war avant garde, and set Jiro on a path towards creating something truly unique, which interestingly culminated in a late career return to the simple, gestural act of painting circles.
Jiro Yoshihara - Untitled, 1965-70. Acrylic on paper. 15 x 17 7/8 inches (37.5 x 45.3 cm). Fergus McCaffrey, Tokyo. © Estate of Jiro Yoshihara
The Conclusion of Space
Something few artists have the courage to discuss is the anxiety they feel every time they enter their studio to start a new work. Will this be the day they run out of ideas? How will they even begin? As he aged, Jiro spoke openly about the burden of knowing what else there is to paint. In a text he prepared for an exhibition of his work in 1967, he wrote, “These days I draw only circles. It’s because it’s convenient. However large the space is, one circle will very easily conclude it.” What other painter has been so bold as to admit that the conclusion of a painting is their primary concern? But I do not think Jiro was just saying that he wanted to get his paintings over with. Rather, I think he was commenting on the inevitability that every painting is doomed to fall short of expectations. His pleasure came not from the success of achieving his impossible goal of perfection, but from the thrill of embarking on a fresh attempt. He therefore needed a quick compositional strategy that allowed him to have as many new starts as possible.
Jiro Yoshihara - Untitled, 1965-70. Acrylic on paper. 14 7/8 x 17 3/4 inches (37.5 x 45.3 cm). Fergus McCaffrey, Tokyo. © Estate of Jiro Yoshihara
The circle was an ideal choice. It is a simple shape, but not the simplest. The simplest would perhaps be a dot. The next simplest might be a line. As a dot can extend into a line, a line can extend into a circle, but there is even infinite variation within this simple recipe. A thousand dots can conglomerate into a circle, or a circle can form when two curved lines meet. Over and over again, Jiro explored this seemingly absurd paradigm, experimenting with not only methods and medium, but with aesthetic variations. Some of his circles are sloppily drawn so the paint is allowed to drip; others are pristine. Some feature multiple inward spirals or a cross bar; others are as wiggly as a fish. Each circle started him anew on his journey of discovery, and each uncovered new ways to fail. “At times,” he wrote, “I find myself unsatisfied with all the circles I draw...at the same time, not being able to even draw a single line that satisfies me means that is precisely where I must begin...in this single line, which I cannot draw as I wish...lies the infinite possibility, like a bottomless swamp.” Though he died long before he found the bottom of his swamp, his circles at least map the frontier of possibility that he sought. Jiro Yoshihara: The Persistence of Form is on view at Fergus McCaffrey gallery in Tokyo through 7 August 2019.
Featured image: Jiro Yoshihara - Untitled, 1965-70. Acrylic on paper. 14 3/4 x 17 3/4 inches (37.4 x 45 cm). Fergus McCaffrey, Tokyo. © Estate of Jiro Yoshihara
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio