A stark, decisive line ran through the middle of a long wooden board propped diagonally on two posts. Painted entirely in white, the board contrasted sharply against the ochre color of the ground and the dark-green pine forest behind it. Shadows of the pine trees were cast irregularly on top of the board. Upon closer examination, a passerby would realize that the dark line in the middle was not painted, but made of a negative space of about two inches wide, maintained between two pieces of boards throughout. The line recalled a crack made on the earth by an earthquake or lightning flashing in the sky. Shiraga Fujiko1 reflected, “The crack running through the sky was my own concept. It was by no means a natural phenomenon. It was created in my mind.”2 White Board (1955) was one of Shiraga’s earliest works that she showed at the “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun,” held on the bank of Ashiya River, near Osaka, Japan, by the Gutai Art Association in July 1955. Upon exhibiting it outdoors, however, she realized how small the work was in relation to the environment and felt that her intention and her as a person were made bare through the work.
Born in 1928 to a family who ran a watch store in Osaka, Uemura Fujiko had no formal training in art except having participated in a high-school painting club. While learning tsuzumi (Japanese hand drum) under the influence of her mother who liked Noh music, she was introduced to Shiraga Kazuo, a college art student who was three years her senior, whose family also practiced Noh music. After marrying Kazuo at age twenty, and giving birth to their son the following year, Fujiko gradually developed her interest in art. While participating in Gutai’s first outdoor exhibition, the couple decided to join the group, and were encouraged by its charismatic senior painter, Yoshihara Jiro, to “create what has never been done before” through the interaction of spirit, body, and matter.3
Shiraga Fujiko’s intention behind White Board was to “express that vast power which lies beyond human comprehension” as “an enormous crack in the empty sky.”4 Her pursuit was extended onto her early paper works, many of which consisted of a simple rip in the middle, just like in White Board, or a diagonal tear. Torn pieces of thin washi (Japanese paper) or torinoko paper (made of gampi) were fixed on another piece of washi with rice paste. The adhesive created slight ripples between two sheets of paper. Even though the idea was simple, its execution of ripping a large sheet of paper into two halves would have required a tremendous focus, decisiveness, power, and precision. As curator Yamamoto Atsuo deducted, “the concepts she envisioned could not be accommodated by physical media” and “her ideas were somewhat spiritual and also immense.”5 In a rare interview, Shiraga stated: “I just liked to go my way, straight on, straight all the way to the sky. I want to keep doing that until I die.”6 Her desire to go “straight all the way to the sky” was visualized in these works. In her imagination the rupture could be limitlessly extended to the sky.
The abstract and philosophical nature of Shiraga Fujiko’s work can be compared to those of her contemporaries. For example, after the late 1940s, Barnett Newman created vertical lines using masking tapes and called them “zips.” Several scholars have interpreted those zips as the first divine light in the book of Genesis and relating to Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah.7 The rip in Shiraga’s paper pieces as well as her sculpture might also represent light, but without a particular religious connotation. Perhaps more than light, Shiraga sought to express “that vast power which lies beyond human comprehension.” In the same statement, she concluded her artistic pursuit is like a “form of prayer or heartfelt yearning to connect with the infinite.”8 Shiraga’s rupture can also be compared to Lucio Fontana’s Cuts (Tagli) in his Spatial Concepts (Concetti Speziali) series in the late 1950s. By slicing the canvas painted in monotone to create a shadow, Fontana suggested another dimension behind its surface. In Shiraga’s paper works,
the contrast between the torn sheet of paper and another sheet of paper supporting it is subtle. One can detect only slight variations in white (yellowish versus off white) and that is the main clue in deciphering her artistic process.
Early Gutai heralded performance as a process of creating a work, which they often called e, meaning “picture.” Paper was used in early performative work because it was cheap and readily available; and the paper became the record and art object resulting from those practices. For example, Murakami Saburo broke through layers of paper mounted to wooden frames in his series of Paper-Breaking, beginning with the occasion of the First Gutai Art Exhibition in 1955. In the later version, Passing Through, performed during the opening of the Second Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, Murakami went through twenty-one screens before collapsing with a concussion. According to art historian Ming Tiampo, Murakami “literally burst through the picture plane” in order to “create pictures that assimilate time and space.”9 While documentary photographs of these actions are better known than the resultant work, the paper screens, complete with gaping holes, were exhibited as an accompanying artwork each time.
Unlike Murakami who typically created this work in front of an audience at an exhibition opening, Shiraga never demonstrated her artmaking process in public. In her earliest known artist statement, she wrote: “While art rewards you with intensely rich and joyful experiences, the secret is that it is also a lonely practice.”10 It was necessary for her to have the privacy of her studio to tear the paper as it required the utmost concentration. Nonetheless, the clear rip in her paper makes the viewer imagine her decisive and precise action. Shiraga’s ripped papers can also be considered her own attempt to “create pictures that assimilate time and space.” The subtle gap in the paper suggests a different space behind it and expands on the notion of space. Another paper work, dated to have been made in the same period, shows unusual scratches, which were most likely done by her fingers.11 The zig zag consisting of four parallel lines records the artist’s hand moving through dynamically. The paper surface was perhaps moistened and softened. Some of the scratches penetrated the paper and the surface is broken here and there. The zig-zag line recalls Yatsuhashi, or eight-planked bridge, which was originally depicted in the Tales of Ise, a set of poems written in the Heian era, and represented in a renowned screen painted by Ogata Korin in the early eighteenth century. Many Japanese
gardens include an iris pond with a zig-zag bridge inspired by this poem and painting.12 It is possible that Shiraga’s dynamic
gesture references this love poem and the aesthetic tradition that has sprung from it. It also recalls a stream of water cascading down a slope. Devoid of any color, her work makes the viewer focus on the incised lines and imagine the artist’s movement. Speaking of these early works, Shiraga stated: “To begin with, I loved washi, that materiality, that texture. It’s white, but not pure white. With a shade of beige, it’s never pure white. This appealed to me. Its texture differs from crisp Western paper, too. Washi is soft. If you want, you can easily tear it.”13
By tearing, wetting, and scratching, Shiraga experimented with the physicality of the paper and enjoyed its malleability. In addition, the rice paste she applied between sheets of paper created ripples that resemble the movement of water in a river, or the waves of the ocean.
Contemporaneously with these white paper pieces, Shiraga created a series of paintings on paper by covering washi with dark-blue oil paint. Some areas of dark red are also visible in the background. As an overlay, she painted streaks of thin silver lines that are reminiscent of a waterfall. In this particular work, two parallel lines are paired and often converge at the bottom to suggest a gravitational attraction between these silvery lines. Along with the white paper pieces, these silver-on-blue paintings have the rippling quality of moving water.
By 1960, Fujiko ventured onto more complex collages where she layered torn sheets of paper in a staggered manner on canvas and clustered glass shards in some areas. She used encaustic wax to hold these materials together as well as to color some areas brown. She might have begun using canvas as a support since Gutai artists responded to French critic Michel Tapie’s urge to work on canvas to make their works more durable, and hence more sellable. The resultant work presented the surprise meeting of disparate materials and their textures and Shiraga’s experimentalism. Unlike her earlier work, which was characterized by simple lines, the images created from the layered paper pieces were suggestive of organic forms of nature, such as sprouting plants, flower buds, and tree bark.
The glass shards that Shiraga had introduced, however, posed a potential danger to her husband Kazuo, who had been painting with his feet for some time. The couple shared the same Japanese-style room as a studio. In a rare and rather spontaneous interview, Shiraga spoke of her love for dangerous materials such as glass, but admitted that she was “thoughtless” for working with glass.14 She also said that she was afraid of becoming a hindrance to her husband and wanted him to pursue painting without any distraction. She stopped making her own art and devoted herself to assisting Kazuo by preparing oil paints for him and advising him on colors, as well as when to stop painting.15 In the same interview, Kazuo stated that he could not have continued foot painting without her. After 1961, Fujiko became an integral force in Kazuo’s oeuvre.
What would Shiraga Fujiko have created later if she continued her artmaking? Unfortunately, we can only imagine. After 1961, she tucked away her paintings. Her early paper works, including those discussed here, remained unknown until her passing in 2015. A handful of paper rolls were found in the studio that was primarily used by Kazuo, who died earlier in 2008. Because Fujiko remarked that she liked the simplest kind of work she made by tearing washi more than her later works, it is possible to deduce that she did not want to continue collages on canvas any longer. When Gutai members were challenged with the need to appeal to Western audiences and potential collectors, they shifted away from
more ephemeral works, often done on paper, to producing canvas-based work. It is possible that this shift in Gutai as a whole was not agreeable with Fujiko’s love for simplicity and clear-cut aesthetics.
While Shiraga’s active period was short, her creative engagement with various mediums, particularly with paper, was prominent among Gutai artists. After the recent rediscovery of her work, Fergus McCaffrey Gallery in New York mounted an exhibition of her and Kazuo’s works together in 2015; and some of her works have entered major museum collections in the United States. With more international exposure, the research into Shiraga Fujiko’s art will hopefully be deepened and expanded. Although she might not have cared about preserving her own legacy, her newly discovered work bear witness to an earnest artist who sought to go her way, straight to the sky, and connect with the infinite.
1. Editor’s Note: Japanese names are given in Japanese name order (family names preceding given names) when persons are known and discussed primarily outside of the English-language discourse, with the exception of those who refer to themselves by Western name order. The name of this article’s author, who has published widely in English, is given in Western name order.
2. Shiraga Fujiko, “Yagaiten zengo no watashi” [I Around the Time of the
Outdoor Exhibition], Gutai 3 (1955), reprinted in Document Gutai 1954–1972 (Ashiya, Japan: Ashiya City Museum of Art and History, 1993), 275. The full quotation, translated by the author, with assistance by her husband Gus Tsekenis: “I was strongly seeking an existence beyond myself while I was creating work for the outdoor exhibition. I just wanted to express, in human terms, that vast power which lies beyond human comprehension. I wanted to create a singular, enormous crack in the empty sky. Something whose materials and techniques are indiscernible. Something which would leave a viewer amazed and mystified. The crack running through the heavenly sky was my own concept. It was never a natural phenomenon. It was created in my mind.”
3. For more on Gutai in English, see Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe, eds, Gutai: Splendid Playground (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2013) and Ming Tiampo, Gutai: Decentering Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
4. Shiraga Fujiko, “Yagaiten.”
5. Yamamoto Atsuo, comment in a promotional video of the exhibition, “Fujiko Shiraga: 1955–1961,” produced by Fergus McCaffrey Gallery, New York, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd99Ci7GVk4 (accessed December 10, 2019).
6. Oral History Archive of Japanese Art, “Shiraga Kazuo Oral History,” interview by Kato Mizuho and Ikegami Hiroko, September 6, 2007, http://www
.oralarthistory.org/archives/shiraga_kazuo/interview_02.php (accessed December 10, 2019. English translation of the excerpts by Ikegami in “Passages: Fujiko Shiraga (1928–2015),” Artforum (October 27, 2015), https://www.artforum.com/passages/hiroko-ikegami-on-fujiko-shiraga-1928-2015-55821 (accessed December 10, 2019).
7. See, for example, Matthew Baigell, “Barnett Newman’s Stripe Paintings and Kabbalah: A Jewish Take,” American Art, vol. 8, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 32–43.
8. Shiraga Fujiko, “Yagaiten.”
9. Tiampo, “performance painting,” in Gutai: Splendid Playground, 167.
10. Senoo Aya, quoting Shiraga Fujiko, in a promotional video of the exhibition, “Fujiko Shiraga: 1955–1961,” produced by Fergus McCaffrey Gallery, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd99Ci7GVk4 (accessed December 10, 2019).
11. Since Kazuo explored painting from his intuition using his palm, fingers, and eventually his feet by early 1954, this finger-scratched work by Fujiko may be dated earlier than 1955, before the couple joined Gutai. See Kazuo’s works from 1954 (plates 1-8 through 1-11), in Kazuo Shiraga: Painting Born Out of Fighting, exhibition catalogue (Amagasaki: Amagasaki Cultural Center et al, 2009).
12. Ogata Korin (1658–1716), Irises at Yatsuhashi, a pair of painted screens,
after 1706, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, https://www.metmuseum
.org/toah/works-of-art/53.7.1-2/ (accessed February 5, 2020).
13. Oral History Archive of Japanese Art and Ikegami.
14. Oral History Archive of Japanese Art and Ikegami.
15. The number of Kazuo’s paintings increased dramatically in 1961, when Fujiko decided to quit her artmaking. In 1960 Kazuo was known to have created 26 paintings, and subsequently produced more than twice as many the following year—some sixty paintings. These numbers alone suggests that Fujiko’s assistance was crucial to furthering Kazuo’s career. See “Selected works,” in Kazuo Shiraga: Painting Born Out of Fighting, exhibition catalogue.