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Kazuo Shiraga, one of the founders of the Gutai group, painting with his feet.

The Influence of Zen on Artistic Creativity 

in the '50s


by Michel Batlle


Translated from the French by Chantal Duggan

(scroll down for the original French text)

To build a bridge between the Oriental and the Occidental worlds has been an ancient dream of many curious and dynamic minds, in order to conquer (from Christopher Columbus to Pearl Harbor), to do business, or to exchange spiritual ideas.


The 18th century was so enraptured by oriental ceramics that they were reproduced in its manufacturing plants (the famous “chinoiseries”), and in the not so distant past, did not the impressionists embrace Japan?  Just as African art had influenced Cubism, the oriental philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism, in turn influenced North-American artists after the Second World War.  Curious about difference, new worlds, and other perspectives, many artists drew back the curtains on Japan and China.  Some traveled there, others read Lao-Tseu or Suzuki.  This encounter with new philosophical concepts and a new vision of the world would fundamentally change the space of the painted canvas, which up to that time had perpetuated the rules and the mysteries of the Renaissance.


Nurtured by the density of the styles of Cézanne, Monet or Matisse, American painting was discovering another dimension: the void. This void not only enabled American art to forget its European heritage but also could eventually counterbalance the excesses of a consumerist civilization.

Mark Tobey, Wounded Life, 1957. Source:

Mark Tobey, “Universal Signs”


A forerunner in this field, Mark Tobey, born in 1889, is fascinated by calligraphy, which he studied in 1920 under a Chinese master and he made his first trip to China and Japan in 1934 where he sojourned in a Zen monastery. The power of signs fills his entire work, becoming a sort of sensitive musical score: “What was once a tree became rhythm. . . .”  Tobey synthesized the stones of Zen gardens with the grid of Mondrian’s compositions.  But he always desired that all of the richness of the universe be contained in the smallest parcel of reality. There is only one step from the proliferation and interlacing of his signs to the famous drippings of Jackson Pollock, an evolution of what we could call the “American dimension,” in other words a new fullness in which the work of art is scaled to the human body, the latter being its specific tool. It is in that instant that American painting takes note of the physical reality of the place in which it is created: the vast spaces of its territories and the monstrosity of its cities, enabling this style of painting to surpass the previously dominant School of Paris.  




Jackson Pollock, “Look at the action”


Thus was born, with Pollock, what the critique Harold Rosenberg coined “action painting”, a pictorial technique in which the artist’s gesture and the very act of painting find their direct reflection in the completed work of art.  This technique allows the artist to fully identify with his work. The creative power of the gesture was only the beginning of a and long evolution that would stretch from Tachisme [a European school of painting similar to and contemporary with Abstract Expressionism] to body art. In Zen, one cultivates intuition as that which produces knowledge suddenly and spontaneously, independent of any natural demonstration.  It is the unexpected voice that is heard when it is needed; it is the guide.  “When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I’m doing.  It’s only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about.  I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.”  (Pollock, quoted in Possibilities I, Winter 1947-48)



Barnett Newman, “One line to control chaos”


We can therefore say that the paintings of Franz Kline are “painted actions” similar to the works of the Tachisme painters. For Mark Rothko, the absence of a theme becomes the theme of his painting, a sort of presence-absence, obsessed with a reality that cannot be grasped.  Unlike other abstract expressionist painters, Barnett Newman does not disperse his shapes. Without any concession, he emphasizes the vertical line, “a lone line is sufficient to dominate chaos.”  He shows himself “simple, naked, colorless” as Lao-Tseu described the unique and universal self, emptying space instead of filling it.


For these artists, Zen philosophy opened new perspectives on the world and on the human body and soul, becoming source and fruition at once. This was not a constricted and rigid way of thinking but the transmission of concepts forged by thousands of years of experience yet always fresh and awakening.  “Here and now.”  This key notion emphasizes the present.  So it is important to be completely present in each gesture. To concentrate here and now, is the lesson of Zen philosophy. The subject being in the object and the subject containing the object. 

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