Sadamasa Motonaga

Sadamasa Motonaga was born in Mie Prefecture, Japan in 1922. An abstract painter and founder member of the avant-garde Gutai group, he emerged at a time when post-atomic surrealist existentialism was at the forefront of Japanese artistic development. Motonaga chose a different path, turning his back on the destruction wrought by the war and creating paintings, sculptures and performances that were fresh, jubilant and playful.

Founded in 1954, the Gutai group became famous for ground-breaking performance work alongside innovations in painting, sculpture and installation. With the founding of the group Motonaga began employing a vocabulary of embryonic shapes, flying objects and cartoon-like forms, all modelled in heavy oil paint, which revealed his fascination with children’s art and manga and deliberately collapsed distinctions between high and low art.

By 1957, Motonaga’s work had become more abstract, featuring flowing lines and pools of brightly coloured pigment dripped onto the canvas. This identifying style occupied Motonaga until the mid-1960s, when his anthropomorphic sensibility returned in paintings featuring extruded and knotted forms delicately modelled with an airbrush.

In the 1970s, the artist’s scratchy, hand-drawn forms reappeared along with the use of canned spray paint, creating a style that was fresh and contemporary raw, akin to graffiti and animation. Motonaga occupied a unique position in the Japanese art world, creating a distinct visual continuity between the artists and imagery of the immediate post-war era and the concerns that emerged in the work of contemporary painters such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara.

His work has been the subject of many retrospectives, most notably in 1998at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe, but also the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003 and the Mie Prefectural Museum of Art in 2009. Motonaga died in Kobe, Japan in 2011. In 2014, Dallas Museum of Art held the first exhibition of his work in the west.

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