by Kawasaki Koichi


Motonaga Sadamasa had a habit of making people laugh by interspersing everyday conversations with jokes. He also had a habit of saying, “It’s light up ahead.” More than just the personal philosophy of an artist known for his optimistic, free-spirited nature, this line also applied to Motonaga’s unceasingly positive artistic expressions. In addition to paintings, Motonaga created sculptures and picture books, and his use of essentially formless materials such as water and smoke perfectly exemplifies the flexible nature of his ideas. Among Motonaga’s early works are a number of pieces that diverge from the standard two-dimensional approach. Examples of his unfettered mind include early sculptural works such as Zaru kara (From a Strainer), Mebae (Buds), Kugi (Nails), Sakuhin (Work) (consisting of wax floating in water), Cellophane, and a series in which he attached pieces of straw to painted stones. There are also works like Sakuhin (Mizu) [Work (Water)] and Sakuhin (Kemuri) [Work (Smoke)], which gave form to the eponymous materials; the vinyl tubes he used in Gutai’s stage presentations; his later three-dimensional planar works using chairs and wire; and outdoor sculptures and murals made of ceramic. Motonaga’s freewheeling concepts can perhaps be traced to the environment in which he was raised. Amiable and large in stature, he entertained those around him with his innate sense of humor. In this essay, I would like to explore his background and look back at the artist’s eighty-eight-year life.

The Early Years

Motonaga Sadamasa was born in November 1922, the first of two children, in Ueno-chō (now Iga City), Ayama-gun, Mie Prefecture. His mother and grandmother ran a mom-and-pop candy store out of the family home, and they later enjoyed success with a small Japanese restaurant. Motonaga’s father worked as a chauffeur. His American-made car, purchased at his own expense, cost as much as a house at the time. Motonaga’s hometown of Iga Ueno, where his mother had also grown up, was situated in a basin entirely surrounded by mountains. Since ancient times, the area was legendary as the site of a hidden ninja village. Like many other children of his generation, Motonaga became a devoted manga enthusiast around the time he entered elementary school. He later suggested that his aspiration to become a comic artist was in part inspired by watching friends copy manga and “wishing I could draw that well.” At about the age of ten, Motonaga started to take judo lessons at a local dōjō. He eventually earned the rank of ni-dan (second grade) and, according to the artist, really achieved excellence only in sports, which challenged him both physically and mentally. Through judo, he began to develop his robust physical strength. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a movie star, a singer, or a painter. Hoping to use his skills to pursue a path that was to his liking, Motonaga recalled being roundly scolded by his mother after revealing his secret dream to her.

In 1935, he entered Mie Prefectural Ueno Commercial High School (now known as Mie Prefectural Hakuhō High School, the institution boasts an official seal designed by Motonaga) but almost immediately realized that he was not cut out for academics—or, for that matter, business. Coinciding with a period of personal rebellion, Motonaga spent three years at the school without ever developing an interest in studying or earning good grades. He graduated in 1938, when he was sixteen.

Until this point in Motonaga’s development, he did not express any particular interest in a career in art. He was just an ordinary boy who immersed himself in manga and leaned more toward sports than the arts. But certain aspects of his outlook seem to have emerged during this period.

After graduating, Motonaga left his mother’s side for the first time and found work as a live-in employee at a machine-and-tool outlet in Osaka. But not long after, the arduous living and working conditions prompted him to look for another job. After consulting with his father, who was driving a taxi in Osaka at the time, he began working at a munitions plant. The precision work did not agree with him, however, and Motonaga returned to Iga Ueno a while later. He later reflected, “Obviously, there weren’t any jobs that a young person with a junior high education and as-of-yet-unknown talents could perform satisfactorily.” Next, after consulting this time with his mother, Motonaga took a test to work at Japan National Railways. He passed the physical examination but failed the academic section. Disappointed, Motonaga enrolled in a private cram school and devoted himself to studying. This time he easily passed the secondary test and began his strenuous public duties as a railway employee. But a little more than four years later, Motonaga quit again.

In the interim, however, he had managed to hang on to his passion for manga, and he began to submit his work to comic books. Although World War II grew increasingly turbulent during this period, the mountain town of Iga Ueno remained quiet. Hoping to study painting next, Motonaga was introduced to a local painter who doubled as the postmaster. This would be his first opportunity to study painting. But just at that time, his draft card arrived. Blessed with a sturdy physique, Motonaga seemed to have no choice but to enlist—but, surprisingly, he failed the final examination. The reason? He suffered from hemorrhoids. Motonaga must have felt as if someone had intervened on his behalf. He ended up returning to Iga Ueno and sat out the war working at another munitions plant.

On August 16, 1945, the day after the war ended, Motonaga received an invitation to a tea party organized by his painting teacher. The event was attended by local cultural figures such as novelists, poets, and critics. This is how he described the situation: “It wasn’t a formal tea party. It was more like a social occasion, providing people with a place to talk. The war had ended, and there was now a new world in which everyone was free. Since the war had ended the day before, the party had a special significance. There was a palpable sense of eagerness as people set out to create a peaceful world. This was an extravagance that would have been unthinkable in larger cities, which had been devastated in the bombings. It was only possible in a rural setting like Iga.” This was clearly a major event in Motonaga’s life, and it taught him the importance of emotional support.

During this period, he also took part in theater productions, organized by a local group to provide postwar relief, as well as a variety of other activities. And in time, Motonaga’s painting teacher invited him to work at the post office. This gave Motonaga a chance to look at art books and discuss painting on a daily basis as he worked; on his days off, his teacher took him out sketching. It was also around this time that Motonaga began creating oil paintings. He also stopped practicing judo and started attending ballroom dance classes. This coincided with a burgeoning interest in women. Motonaga’s other, extremely varied pursuits included joining a chorus group, publishing a comic strip, and making billboards for movie theaters. As he drifted from one job to the next, Motonaga continued developing as an artist, one step at a time. Although conditions at the time were severe, Motonaga’s confidence never wavered as he received support from friends and family and prepared to set off on his own path.

One day, early in the summer of 1952, Motonaga decided that his “genius would be buried in Iga to the detriment of human culture.” According to him, “This was no vain conceit on my part. . . . If I didn’t push myself forward, I felt as my heart would burst and I could no longer go on living.” At that point, he decided to leave his hometown and move in with his younger brother, who was living in the Uozaki district of eastern Kobe.

Starting Out as an Artist

Luckily, Motonaga quickly found a job in a display company, which he thought would help him move forward in his career as a painter. But in the end, he quit after deciding that “in order to continue painting, it would be better to do something completely unrelated.” Overall, as far as Motonaga could remember, he worked at more than twenty different jobs. The reason he quit was often that the job was too demanding or that he got in a fight with the boss, but sometimes he simply decided to leave. By now, his primary goal was to enter art school and study the rudiments of art. He had finally started to take sketching lessons at an art school in Nishinomiya. He also began to make oil paintings of nudes based on these sketches. In the 6th Ashiya City Art Exhibition, in 1953, Motonaga showed a painting titled Kiiro no rahu (Yellow Nude). What surprised him, however, was the large number of abstract works in the event. Having had almost no contact with abstraction in the past, his sense of surprise led him to undertake a new challenge. Abstract painting seemed like an ideal means of satisfying his desire for free expression. He collected his painting supplies and set out for the nearby beach. The works that emerged as a result, Zaru kara (From a Strainer), Mebae (Buds), and Sudare (Bamboo Blind), were included in the 7th Ashiya City Art Exhibition, the following year.

The shapes that Motonaga encountered while striving to make his abstract works would later become one of his trademarks. They were inspired by the lights on top of Mount Maya, which was visible from his house. Scattered across the peak, the lights created a night view unlike anything Motonaga had ever seen in his mountain-enclosed hometown. Takara ga aru (There Is a Treasure) was directly influenced by the impression the lights had made on him as he gazed up at the mountain every night. With refuse he had collected from the beach and the night view he saw from his window, Motonaga’s abstract expressions grew out of his daily life and the natural landscape, which helped him to develop his subsequent work. This was the starting point. Yoshihara Jirō praised the work, saying, “The familiar materials convey a sense of humanity that one wouldn’t get from a pompous work of art.” Having set his sights on abstraction, Motonaga next began to devise ideas for three-dimensional works that were unlike anything he had attempted in the past. In the 8th Ashiya City Art Exhibition, he showed a humorous work made with stones that he had gathered from a natural environment. This proved to be a decisive step in his joining the artists’ group Gutai. Motonaga’s disposition, marked by a flexible human quality and keen insight, led Yoshihara to cordially invite him to become a member. Perhaps Motonaga’s real talent hinged on his never having received an academic education in art.

Early Gutai

Among Motonaga’s early works as a Gutai member, those that employ water and smoke are particularly striking. In the Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun, Motonaga filled a sheet of transparent vinyl with water, which he had colored with food coloring, and hung it from a tree. Yoshihara applauded the effort: “Motonaga, this is excellent! You made something amazing here—the world’s first water sculpture.” Motonaga also made works with smoke, which like water is essentially a formless material. In April 1956, several members of Gutai created works and staged performances for a reporter from Life magazine. Motonaga drilled a round hole in each side of an approximately one-meter-square wooden box. Then he placed flares inside to fill it with smoke, which emerged in rings when he struck the back of the box. The principle was the same as a smoker amusing him- or herself by pursing their lips and blowing a ring of cigarette smoke. When Motonaga later showed the work in Gutai Art on the Stage, he produced a smoke ring with a diameter of about 20 inches (50 cm) that floated vigorously up from the stage toward the upper gallery of the hall, enveloped in colored lights and sounds. The gradually disappearing ring seemed to highlight the fleeting nature of time. In addition, using vinyl tubes of various widths and a wide range of shapes over the years, Motonaga created water works that were among the most visible representations of Gutai at group retrospectives.

Motonaga’s early paintings began to display a clear artistic direction at the 3rd Gutai Exhibition, in 1957. At this event, he showed some fifteen works, including several monumental paintings, in a large hall. Moreover, all of the works were inspired by the shape of a mountain. Toward the end of the same year, however, Motonaga inadvertently changed course: “I had no intention of streaming the paint. It happened by chance. When the paint started to overflow, I thought, ‘Oh no, I screwed up.’. . . But when I looked a little closer, it was more interesting than I thought. Then I thought, ‘I might be able to do something with this.”

Motonaga embraced this accident, which could have been seen as a failure, and applied it to his work. The technique was not a means of incorporating something at random, nor was it a mixture of action and chance. The artist retained control of the way the paint was streamed and layered. Referring to the countless little drawings he made on a daily basis, Motonaga chose the shapes that he would calmly apply to the canvas, and then added colors that he intentionally streamed. This created a subtle conflict between the colors, which had parallels in traditional Japanese paper marbling. He also switched from oil paint to naturally drying phthalate acid–based synthetic-resin pigments, used with turpentine. Motonaga also added small pebbles, adhesives with which he attached them to the canvas, and a kind of house paint. By streaming the paint, Motonaga thought, “I could use the power of nature to create work that went beyond my own conception.” Describing his approach, Motonaga said, “Though the streams of paint were inspired by the shapes on top of Mount Maya, I started by thinking up shapes. . . . I slowly, carefully stream the colors on top of the shapes. Then I layer a shape with another color on top and stream another color on top of that. The relationship between the shapes and the streams of paint creates my own exclusive space and manifests my own world.”

The works were made of cheap materials, and like other Gutai members, Motonaga created large paintings for big places in accordance with Yoshihara’s dictum that the artists make “pictures that have never been seen before.” As a member of Gutai, Motonaga’s works tended to be lumped together with Art Informel, but strictly speaking his style does not belong to this category. The subtle diversity of each Gutai artist’s works is sometimes difficult to detect when seen as part of the group as a whole.

Foreign Introduction

With Michel Tapié’s visit to Japan in the fall of 1957, Gutai’s sphere of activity suddenly extended to an international level, as the group’s works came to be shown in countries such as France and Italy. After Tapié put in a good word for the group, a Gutai exhibition was held at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York the following year. It was not particularly well received at the time but would later come to be seen as a historic event. Motonaga was among those who took part in the exhibition. In 1959, he showed his work in Italy and won his first foreign award after being invited to participate in the XI Premio Lissone Internazionale per la Pittura, in Lissone, near Milan. Gutai’s encounter with Tapié marked the international debut of various group members, including Motonaga. In 1960, Motonaga signed an exclusive contract with Martha Jackson Gallery, and he began sending both large—from size 100 (63¾ x 51⅛ in. [162 x 130 cm]) to 150 (89½ x 71⅝ in. [227.3 x 181.8 cm]) and small works to New York every month, earning himself a small but constant income.

Motonaga also held a solo exhibition of these works at the gallery (though he did not actually attend). About the same time, on the recommendation of an art critic, he held a solo exhibition at Tokyo Gallery (in that city). But as the first Gutai member to show his work alone, Motonaga met with strong opposition from Yoshihara, who claimed that even he had never had a solo exhibition and accused Motonaga of trying to “stage a coup d’état.” Yoshihara actually had held one solo exhibition, in Osaka (at the age of twenty-three). However, he did not like the idea of individual Gutai members showing their work alone. Perhaps because of this, Motonaga was never asked to do a solo exhibition at the Gutai Pinocotheca.

In late August 1962, the Gutai Pinocotheca opened, and Yoshihara began to pursue his dream of using the facility as a base to expand the group’s activities internationally. The building had originally been used as a storehouse by the wholesale vegetable-oil company that Yoshihara ran, and his notion of converting it into a gallery can be seen now as a pioneering renovation project. At the time, not only was Yoshihara an artist in his own right, but he also played vital roles as the leader of Gutai, a company president, an exhibition producer, a museum owner, and a collector. As Gutai became more active internationally, Motonaga had another chance to show his work in the United States.

New York Residency

In 1966, Motonaga was invited by the Japan Society to take part in an eleven-month residency program in New York. This change in scenery also led to drastic changes in his art. Just as he was about to begin working, Motonaga discovered that the materials he had been using in Japan were not available in New York. He decided to take this opportunity to explore something new in his work by using acrylic paint and an airbrush. The outlines of his shapes remained unchanged, but this fresh approach gave rise to a new world. This was a technique that he continued to use for the rest of his life.

In the late 1960s, New York was a coveted destination for many Japanese artists. For Motonaga, it was a place to breathe new life into his art as well as to encounter new people working in a wide range of genres. The residency led, for example, to Motonaga’s friendship with the poet Tanikawa Shuntarō, who was living below him in the same apartment building. This spawned a collaboration in which Tanikawa playfully added words to Motonaga’s pictures, later culminating in a picture book titled Moko MokoMoko. Motonaga considered extending his stay in New York, but ultimately he returned to Japan after a year, following a trip to Europe. And during his brief stay, Motonaga visited countless museums and galleries, and he created many works in the studio that he had fashioned for himself there. It is often said that leaving Japan makes it easier to see the country for what it really is. In this case, Motonaga seems to have been particularly impressed by how much American artists were valued in their own country and how much they enjoyed creating their work.

Returning to Japan, Leaving Gutai

In 1966 and 1967, a third group of younger artists, whose work reflected Hard-edge and other current trends, joined Gutai. The changes that occurred during Motonaga’s one-year absence left him feeling somewhat out of place. But he was soon assigned the important task of supervising the Gutai Art Festival and Night Event, which were scheduled to be held in Omatsuri Hiroba (Festival Plaza) as part of Expo ’70, the world exposition that opened in Osaka in 1970. In addition to the older work Smoke, Motonaga’s own contributions included Supankōru Ningen (The Spangle Men), Yarn Person, Bubble Machine, and Flags, Flags, Flags. The artist later reproduced some of these for the 1999 exhibition Motonaga Sadamasa’s Stage Spaces.

But behind the glitz of the festival, Expo ’70, a huge government-sponsored project, caused strained relationships within Gutai. This prompted Motonaga to leave the group. Only five months later, Yoshihara suddenly died. Needless to say, as an early member of the group, Motonaga had benefited greatly from being able to engage in freewheeling creative activities under Yoshihara’s leadership, profited from the environment created by the group, and received valuable insights from Yoshihara himself. But over the years, Motonaga had discovered his own talents, and through his residency in New York, he had come to see Gutai’s activities in a more objective light. This eventually resulted in his departure from the group after the Expo.

After Gutai

Motonaga’s painting underwent a drastic change after he adopted the airbrush technique in New York. Although the shapes were essentially unchanged, his new works displayed a noticeable shift away from his trademark “streams” to “blurred” images, which created a very different sensation. Despite his extremely calm and careful approach to painting, Motonaga’s works exuded a powerful dynamism until the early 1960s. The airbrushed gradations created a bright, corona-like light, and in addition to brilliant colors, his new pictures contained an increasing number of distinct, humorous shapes that triggered the viewer’s imagination. With his optimistic character (or essential humanity) and unabashed curiosity (he referred to himself as a member of the Aho-ha, or “Fool School”), in the 1970s Motonaga began to paint with his body instead of his head.

In his works of the 1970s and 1980s, Motonaga established his own unique style by controlling the effects of the colors with an airbrush. While continuing to show primarily in solo exhibitions, he expanded his range to include not only paintings but also prints, tapestries, chairs, car paintings, murals, and public monuments. Motonaga even created a tile mural on the wall of a bathhouse. In addition, his picture books also played a significant role in bringing his work to a wider audience. The collaboration that he had begun with Tanikawa Shuntarō in New York became a best-selling book ten years later, in 1977. This led an increasing number of younger readers, who did not necessarily know Motonaga’s name before, to become familiar with his work. The two artists went on to publish several more books, and Motonaga’s wife also created a book with Tanikawa, whose poems are crafted out of pleasant-sounding but nonsensical wordplay.

Motonaga’s titles also changed during this period, to better express the artist’s openhearted spirit. Titles such as ZZZZZ (1971), Pon pon pon (1972), and Heran heran (1975) are onomatopoetic, but in a sense the sound of the haphazard combination of letters makes it seem as if they are also on the verge of becoming words, allowing the viewer to interpret what might emerge before it actually does. As seen in later works such as Sen no katachi (Shape of Lines, 1975), Shiroi hikari no aka to kuro (White Light with Red and Black, 1982), and Ue no katachi wa nanatsu (Seven Shapes on Top, 1988), Motonaga’s titles were created by directly substituting words for shapes and colors, a trend that would continue in much of the artist’s subsequent work. During the Gutai period, all of the members’ works were titled Work as a mark of Yoshihara Jirō’s supreme authority. It was Yoshihara’s belief that the meaning of words and explanations in titles would add a literary aspect to the works, therefore restricting the viewer’s appreciation of them. The titles Motonaga began using in the 1970s seem to guide the viewer in a certain direction—but because they do not actually have any meaning, they ultimately work to draw us more deeply into his creative realm.

These meaningless words can perhaps be traced to Motonaga’s Work—Letters, which appeared in the fourth issue of the Gutai newsletter.Structured as a parallelogram, the work is made up of randomly arranged katakana characters (thirteen horizontal and thirty-one vertical). But not only are the combinations of characters meaningless, so is the number of characters. Fifty years after this work, Motonaga published a book titled Chinrorokishishi. Here, one occasionally catches a glimpse of something in the stream of characters, woven together in a meaningless way, that seems meaningful, but nothing is concrete. Although one recognizes “shapes” and familiar “characters” in Motonaga’s paintings, all of them are united by the fact that they have no meaning. This sense of commonality is an important and enjoyable aspect of Motonaga’s work.

The 1990s and Beyond

The 1990s saw another change in Motonaga’s style, which for the previous twenty years or so had focused on airbrushing. From this time, he began to combine the techniques of “blurring” and “streaming” in a single picture. This initially seemed to be a return to the artist’s older creations, but today it looks more like a new development in his later work. This period turned out to be an extremely busy one, as Motonaga created reproductions of Water for a succession of Gutai retrospectives that began to be held in the late 1980s, and he organized exhibitions such as Motonaga Sadamasa’s Stage Spaces and Motonaga Sadamasa’s Art Performances: Contemporary Art and Popular Ballads. He also held retrospectives of his own work throughout Japan and exhibitions of picture books made in collaboration with his wife.

In the Reflexionen: Light, Color, Shape exhibition, held at the Hyōgo Prefectural Museum of Art in 2011, Motonaga showed eighty-three small works in which he had layered streams of paint on top of newly produced silkscreens made with thirty printing blocks.

Through his meeting with Yoshihara, Motonaga had embarked on a career as a full-fledged artist. This in turn led to a fusion between his natural disposition and the Gutai spirit, and the freewheeling attitude he brought to the group’s activities continued unchanged until the end of his life. According to Motonaga, “I never had a chance to go to art school. But when the Gutai Art Association disappeared from my world, it felt as if, after eighteen years, I had finally graduated from the Gutai School of Art.”

Motonaga’s final work, Sakuhin (Mizu) [Work (Water)], made up of sixteen vinyl tubes containing various colors of water, graces the frontispiece of the exhibition catalogue for Gutai: Splendid Playground, held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in February 2013. Displayed in this new open space, the fresh playful quality of the work, a version of which had first been shown fifty-seven years earlier, perfectly exemplified the spirit of Gutai that the exhibition had set out to capture.

This was to be Motonaga’s final masterpiece. On the afternoon of October 3, 2011, he met with exhibition curators Alexandra Munroe and Ming Tiampo, and he confirmed the display space while examining a model of the museum rotunda. That night, he passed peacefully, with the knowledge that his vision would be realized.