Fujiko Shiraga, c. 1950s. Photo: Osaka City Museum of Modern Art.
FUJIKO SHIRAGA was an innovative and independent mind. Active as an artist for only about a decade, she was better known during her lifetime as the wife of Kazuo Shiraga. However, in retrospect, Fujiko’s creativity strikes us with its refreshing radicalism and intense engagement with matter.
Born Fujiko Uemura in 1928, she married Kazuo Shiraga (1924–2008) in 1948. In 1952, Kazuo founded the avant-garde group Zero Society with Saburō Murakami and Akira Kanayama, around when Fujiko started taking interest in creating artwork herself. In 1955, Fujiko and the four members of Zero SocietyKazuo, Murakami, Kanayama, and Atsuko Tanakajoined the Gutai Art Association and became core members of this now-legendary avant-garde group, known for its leader Jirō Yoshihara’s decree, “Create what has never been done before!”
Fujiko responded to this challenge with radical clarity, staging simple interventions with physical objects. For instance, for the 1955 “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun,” she took a thirteen-foot-long plank of wood, painted it white, cut it in half, and called it White Board. Installed on the ground in a tilted manner, this Minimalist object indifferently revealed its long, winding cut.
Her works from the latter half of the 1950s are marked by nuanced simplicity and blunt materiality. Her washi (rice-paper) hanging pieces, which received minimal manual interventions, challenge our perception, while her canvases—covered not only in pigment but also wax, broken glass, and torn paper—overwhelm us with her bold experimentalism. She even used fire to bring diverse texture to the painting’s surface. In contrast to Kazuo’s variegated foot paintings (his favorite color was crimson lake), Fujiko preferred to keep her palette a white-based monochrome.
Fujiko Shiraga, White Board, 1955, painted wood. Photo: Osaka City Museum of Modern Art.
In 1961, she quit artmaking altogether to devote her time to assisting Kazuo’s signature style, foot painting. This may appear typical for women of her generation, who would readily put their husbands’ careers before their own. However, Fujiko was no mere assistant. As Kazuo himself openly admitted, he could not execute his foot painting alone. Indeed, they painted together, with Fujiko always preparing oil paints and advising Kazuo on colors. She even determined whether or not he would need more action on a given painting. In other words, Fujiko was not so much an assistant as an artistic partner.
Ever humble and modest, Fujiko never gave an official interview during her lifetime. However, when I conducted an oral history interview about Kazuo with Mizuho Katō, a Gutai scholar, in 2007, we managed to have Fujiko join the conversation toward the end. Asked by Katō what her favorite work was, she responded, “Well, I like the simplest kind I made by tearing washi. I like them more than those I made later with some other things added on. It was like I had one straight road in the very beginning. I like it very much.” I prodded her to explain her inspiration to use washi, her signature material. She recalled:
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.
Speaking of another of her signature materials, glass, she frankly admitted, while laughing: “I love dangerous things, too.” (That’s why she also loved fire.) Yet, she was “very sorry” about creating a dangerous environment with broken glass for her husband, who painted with bare feet during the time they shared studio space. She said, “That was thoughtless of me.” She was also very candid about why she quit Gutai:
First of all, I thought I might become a hindrance to him. You cannot make art without complete absorption. So I said to myself, “I shouldn’t be doing this.” I was not that strong, either. I just wanted my husband to pursue the road of painting with no distraction.
Despite Fujiko’s modesty, I sensed from this short conversation her pride in what she once created. Although she’s less known than other female Gutai members, such as Atsuko Tanaka and Tsuruko Yamazaki, the situation is changing, and rightly so. Her work was included in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s epoch-making exhibition “Gutai: Splendid Playground” in 2013 in New York, and Fergus McCaffrey held “Kazuo and Fujiko Shiraga” this past spring also in New York, the first exhibition devoted to the couple. Showing fifteen works by Fujiko, including ones that were discovered in Kazuo’s studio after his death, the latter exhibition offered a good starting point to understand her talent and bring her the recognition she deserves.
But would she care? Perhaps not, because she was content with her decisions, including the decision to give up her art in order to support Kazuo’s. That was her way of being an artist. Her final words in our interview were telling: “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.” Humble but strong willed, Fujiko lived her own life to the fullest.
Hiroko Ikegami is an associate professor at Kobe University, Japan, where she specializes in post-1945 art and global modernism.
For more details on Fujiko’s interview, please see the “Oral History Interview with Shiraga Kazuo,” conducted in Japanese by Katō Mizuho and Ikegami Hiroko, September 6, 2007, Oral History of Japanese Art, at oralarthistory.org.
Adrian Frutiger, 2003. Photo: Henk Gianotten.
ADRIAN FRUTIGER ushered type design through enormous changes in the twentieth century. Those changes yielded his superlative work: designs that were built intuitively and realized theories that were previously only hinted at. A member of a rarefied generation of designers, Frutiger began creating punches for metal type before graduating to phototypesetting and, later, digital technologies. Over the course of a long career, his influence was as enormous as his work was prolific: In addition to over forty typeface designs, he wrote books and crafted corporate, civic, and institutional identities. It’s difficult to find a designer who hasn’t used his typefaces; it’s impossible to find one who hasn’t learned about typography from their use.
Frutiger created typefaces in almost every imaginable style, but his best works were sans serifs. And no wonder—he was a tireless champion for the importance of space in type. The sans lays bare this truth. From counters and apertures to letter spacing, kerning, and word spacing, its unadorned forms are defined as much by what they are as where they are not. Frutiger created three sans-serifs in particular that were emblematic of his precision and taste and that were crucial contributions to the definition and development of the genre.
Adrian Frutiger, Univers signage at Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5, London, 2008. Photo: Akira Kobayashi.
In the 1950s, Frutiger’s most famous work, the neogrotesque Univers, expanded the cosmos of strict modernist design. It was momentous—a typeface that seized on the potential of nascent phototypesetting technology. At the time, a limited palette of type defined the ordered ideals of international modernism. Frutiger conceived a family of twenty-one styles arrayed along the two axes, weight and width, for a comprehensive system of almost unlimited potential. Univers has a luster that owes to its restraint; the designer reasoned that building a neutral framework would allow nuances to emerge across the styles. “I liked calling this a landscape: the landscape where different typefaces unfold,” he said. This was too modest, not just because the spatial metaphor is limited, but because it implied that, in Frutiger’s case, chance played a larger role than the creator. Univers continues to amaze. Today, as then, it shines with confidence, exuberance, and newness.
Frutiger was driven to develop forms that were at once contemporary and timeless, which inspired his eponymous typeface two decades later. His ability to merge analysis with intuition is evident in Frutiger, a design that established a voice so clear that it set a standard for accessibility. He developed the type from lettering he did for the Charles de Gaulle Airport in the early ’70s. Airport signage is demanding, and the solution he proposed was striking for its openness and legibility. Frutiger was the designer’s favorite creation—type that was both stylish and practical. Although it isn’t particularly calligraphic, it is the quintessential humanist sans-serif, because it reflects the hand that drew it.
Adrian Frutiger, Frutiger signage post in Bern, Switzerland. Photo: Akira Kobayashi.
My favorite work of Frutiger’s is Avenir, a typeface whose innovation was its detailed balance. As type transitioned into the digital age, no one was better suited to solve the old problem of the geometric sans, where legibility often suffered from rational modernist form. He used his experience to fight fire with fire; where the forged precision of geometric shapes often resulted in typographic rigidity, Frutiger managed to soften the results by rigorous refinement. “To draw in all those nuances, so fine that you can hardly see them, but you know they’re there,” he recalled, “that really sapped my strength. It was the hardest typeface that I have worked on in my life.” Avenir tricks the eye: It is a masterpiece of optical fine-tuning that cheats ideal forms just enough to adjust for the subtleties of human perception. It established a high bar for craft just as the tools arrived to usher in a new era of type design.
Adrian Frutiger, Frutiger signage in New York City. Photo: Akira Kobayashi.
Frutiger’s work will enliven graphic design for centuries to come. He made beautiful and useful typefaces, but his legacy may best be measured in his influence. He taught, lectured, wrote, and gave interviews, sharing his knowledge in great detail. His ideas are distributed directly and indirectly so that, among the thousands of designers making hundreds of thousands of typefaces today, the entire trade is made up of Frutiger’s apprentices. Any measure of artistry in contemporary typography owes a debt to him.
Benjamin Woodlock is an art director and type designer based in Los Angeles.
Shigeko Kubota, 1983. Photo: Video Data Bank, www.vdb.org.
One of Shigeko Kubota’s best-known works may have happened only because George Maciunas and Nam June Paik “begged her” to do it, but it still took a lot of guts. Arriving in New York from an art community in Tokyo that seemed determined to ignore her, she recalled being met at the airport by Maciunas, who scripted her into his summer Perpetual Fluxus Festival in 1965. It was here that she attached a brush to her underwear and squatted down to produce Vagina Painting, immortalized in Maciunas’s photograph of the one-time event.
Vagina Painting, perhaps not surprisingly, echoed Paik’s Zen for Head, performed in Wiesbaden for another Maciunas affair three years earlier. In both works, an Asian body abjects itself for an embodied public ritual of “action” and “gesture” painting, staging what Paik openly acknowledged at the time was his performance, for a Euro-American art world, of the “yellow peril.” Kubota had another agenda, which she later summarized as “Video Is Vengeance of Vagina.” Doing the performance for Maciunas and Paik modeled new chutzpah for feminists and set her life on its American course; after Maciunas took her to see Fluxus in its Canal Street offices in lower Manhattan, she “hung around this area ever since,” marrying Paik in 1977. 
Kubota would allow herself to be defined by this union, making at least four videos of Paik that chronicle her partner at various moments and in various travails. (Among these are Trip to Korea, 1984, Sexual Healing, 1998, April is the Cruelest Month, 1999, and Winter in Miami 2005, 2006.) At the same time, she continued moving in her own direction, describing herself and Paik as being “like water and oil.”
The binary took dialectical form. If he would emphasize the popular and the ephemeral, she would honor Duchamp and the high art discourse of Conceptualism. If Paik gravitated toward massive cultural events and Global Grooves, 1973, she perfected intimate video modes that she referred to not as diaries but as “ghosts.” If he shot in the studio on a tripod with a fixed camera, she would carry her heavy Sony Portapack to videotape Duchamp’s gravestone, the image wobbling with fatigue and emotion. “We came of age in between analog and digital,” she recalled in one 2014 interview, and for her this meant connecting video to narrative traditions of the scroll or mural—unfolding over time, but potentially monumental.
Growing up the daughter of a Buddhist teacher (and blessed with a name that means “luxuriant child”), she spent her childhood in a temple: “I saw paintings of hell and paradise unfolding on the walls like a film script.” That sensibility endured, informing works that ranged from an embrace of nature in balance (River, 1979–81) to the acceptance of disaster (SoHo SoAp/Rain Damage, 1985) or death.
Shigeko Kubota, SoHo SoAp/Rain Damage, 1985, video, color, sound, 8 minutes 25 seconds. Photo: Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.
And if Paik asserted that “Shigeko discovered death for video,” it was a kind of death that was neither tragic nor heroic.  In many of these works, video is a “liquid reality” (the artist’s description of River), the streaks on its magnetic tape analogized consciously to Buddhist flows, cyclical returns, and the quieting of the self. Useful to that set of analogies was the work of John Cage, an important contributor to the American interest in Buddhism during the 1960s; even in Japan it was through Kubota’s interest in Cage as a musician that she discovered Fluxus, Maciunas, and the world that awaited her in New York.
Maciunas was Kubota’s mentor, Paik her life partner, but Duchamp was her muse. Kubota did a feature on him for the Japanese art magazine Bijutsu techō in 1968, and through one of the many coincidences that blessed her life, was grounded on an airplane with Duchamp soon after the magazine was printed. (She showed it to him on the plane, and they became friends.) It was close to the end of Duchamp’s life; his death propelled her to make an entire series she called “Duchampiana,” 1972–91, each work given its own subtitle. One of these was shown at the 1977 Documenta with the subtitle Nude Descending a Staircase, 1976; it became the first video sculpture acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a triumphant vindication for the medium and for this female practitioner. Yet Kubota remained relatively unknown; as Jonas Mekas put it, she was “always promoting others, herself remaining invisible.”  Her impact was quietly fundamental nonetheless, from her stints as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf to her role as the first curator of video under Mekas at Anthology Film Archives from 1974 to ’82.
Among her video “ghosts,” Marcel Duchamp’s Grave, 1972–75, is perhaps Kubota’s most exemplary installation. Intended to expand from floor to ceiling, it consists of stacked monitors that loop the twenty-minute U-Matic video she made of Duchamp’s grave site in Rouen, paying particular attention to the epitaph, which she found hilarious: “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent,” (“Besides, it’s always the others who die.”) Sadly, this time it was she.
Caroline A. Jones is a professor of art history in the history, theory, and criticism program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.
1. Quotes from the oral history interview with Kubota conducted by Miwako Tezuka, October 11, 2009, at Kubota’s residence in New York City, posted in 2014 at post.at.moma.org/content_items/344-interview-with-shigeko-kubota. Kubota’s first marriage, to composer David Behrman, ended in 1969; she moved to California to be with Paik shortly thereafter.
Noah Davis, 2009. Photo: Ed Templeton.
SOME YEARS COUNT AS DOUBLE
On September 17, 2014, I drove from my office in downtown Los Angeles to the Underground Museum. I still didn’t understand what east and west meant in LA, so I ended up somewhere on East Washington Avenue surrounded by train tracks and electrical lines, and I remember thinking either this joint is seriously underground or I am majorly lost. A few minutes and a big U-turn later I arrived at the actual Underground Museum, a storefront space located on a block that was home to a Jamaican lunch spot and a Spanish language evangelical church. It was ninety-six degrees. I had an appointment to meet Kahlil Joseph and see a video that two of my Museum of Contemporary Art colleagues—Emma Reeves and Bennett Simpson—had urged me to see in an exhibition organized by Noah Davis called “The Oracle.” This was how I met Kahlil and his brother Noah for the first time. Everyone who has seen Joseph’s double screen projection video m.A.A.d, 2014, knows that it is nothing short of mesmerizing. I sat through it twice before walking back into a large office behind the galleries where Noah and Kahlil were hanging out; a black cat was being as still as possible on an old sofa upholstered with African or Japanese indigo fabric, and a stunningly beautiful woman, Onye, Kahlil’s wife, was working intently on a laptop. Even though the heat was deadly, we sat around and talked for hours. We talked about film; we talked a lot about Kerry James Marshall, an artist Noah loved. It turned out that Noah had heard some gossip from New York about the show I was working on with Kerry, and we laughed a lot about the ludicrous nature of museum politics. It felt easy and natural, and the connection was filled with the sparks of energy that fly around among people when they meet and realize they mutually love many of the same things: Marshall, David Hammons, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Taylor, art, bookstores, Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, Black Mountain College. And then there was the irreverence, the shared deployment of humor as a way of navigating the great cruelties of the world. While we were hanging out, another impossibly beautiful woman came in. Karon, Noah’s wife, was breathless, in a rush, with Moses, an angelic little boy of five. When introduced, she flashed me a huge smile, but she had things to do.
I had just had my first studio visit in Los Angeles. I drove back to my office, where I had worked for three weeks, and put Kahlil’s video on the exhibition schedule. I didn’t really know what I was doing, I only knew the video felt utterly and completely NOW and urgent, and we were making a new museum at MoCA, and I wanted it to be the kind of museum that could move fast and show what felt right.
The next time I went to the Underground to hang out, I asked Noah if we could do a studio visit, and he sort of blew me off. Standing outside smoking, he said something like, “This is it, you know, it’s just here. When I make some new work you can see it.” Noah was like that, humble, always deflecting attention away from himself. Because Kahlil’s video was showing at MoCA, I started seeing Noah and Kahlil, either at the Underground, or at MoCA. At the William Pope.L opening, Noah and I stood in awe of Pope.L’s huge, wind-whipped and blowing, frayed flag, and Noah told me he felt a little embarrassed by it because it made him feel like he used to feel when he looked at art. I knew what he meant, but asked him to say more, and he said something like, “It’s like art was before the market killed it, like when art was for the people who really loved art and thought art could really do something.” He thought the piece was unassailable, complete, full, uncompromised. It was one of the most open-ended, hopeful conversations I had had about a work of art in a long time.
Noah Davis, Basic Training 1, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 10 x 10". Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection.
Noah Davis, American Sterile, 2008, oil on canvas, 52 x 60". Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection.
Noah Davis, Painting for My Dad, 2011, oil on canvas, 76 x 91". Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection.
I’m not exactly sure when Noah pitched his dream for the Underground to me. I remain flummoxed by how I can’t remember where we were; what I mostly remember is how nervous I was when I wrote to Philippe Vergne, the new director of MoCA, to tell him that what Noah wanted was to show “museum-quality art” (he always put quotes around that phrase; Noah was so damn funny) at the UM. But I do remember the important question: Noah wanted to know “Would MoCA be willing to lend art to the Underground?” And I know that all I wanted to do was say “YES.” The Underground had started to feel to me like an artwork in and of itself, in the tradition of Katherine S. Dreier, Duchamp and Man Ray’s Société Anonyme, Marcel Broodthaers’s Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, and David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. I was completely turned on by the hopefulness of it all. No more trying to change things slowly from the inside. Fuck it. The general vibe of the Underground (and of Noah in general) was a tacitly shared “These folks fucked up . . . let’s just make this shit ourselves.” At least that’s what it felt like to me, and I confess I wanted in. And it turned out that Philippe wanted in too. For him it was a way to rethink museum expansion: No big-name architect needed! Let’s move horizontally, not vertically. Los Angeles was starting to work its magic on us.
The entirety of MoCA’s storied permanent collection exists in picture form in three massive three-ring binders in my office. I refer to these volumes as the bible. I leaf through them almost daily, and when we agreed that MoCA would lend works to the UM we decided to give Noah a copy of the bible and let him start looking at what we had. The plan was to let the Underground take the lead: He would choose, and we would follow. Around this time, Noah’s cancer returned, and he called to let me know he was going to have to miss a meeting because he had to check into the hospital for a few days. Me being me, I didn’t want to lose momentum so I just drove the bible over to the hospital. Watching Noah flip through its pages was exhilarating. His excitement was off the charts. We went deep, we laughed, and then he started making up shows—just like that, in a hospital bed. It turns out, on top of everything else, he was a curator too. Over the next months, Noah made lists of artists he wanted to show, lists of exhibitions he wanted to do. He had fundraising ideas. And he had the most enviable titles EVER, like “Water and Power” for a show with Olafur Eliasson, Hans Haacke, and James Turrell. That was Noah; he made it look simple—three great art objects and one title that spun them around into a new formation. Boom! All my synapses would fire up, and to top it off I would usually be laughing.
He kept drafting exhibition ideas. We decided to start with a William Kentridge installation, a modest first step to see what it felt like. The Underground got all kinds of folks to volunteer to paint the walls and work on the show, and the staff at MoCA just leapt into the void; it was all about making things happen. The energy felt good. The press was off the hook (we were inventing a new model!). But the truth was Noah was getting sicker. The trips to the hospital were more frequent. It was clear he was in pain. I selfishly grabbed whatever time with him I could. I was always trying to get a little more out of him—a few more ideas about shows, a few more funny quips about art, a little more gossip. One day, en route to Palm Springs to check myself into a hotel to write a catalogue essay for my upcoming Kerry James Marshall show, I visited with him and Karon in the hospital. I started to tell them how nervous I was about writing the essay and Noah said, “Oh man, Kerry James Marshall: That work speaks for itself.” I laughed all the way from Santa Monica to the desert thinking about what a funny a thing that was to say to someone who was about to write an essay on Kerry James Marshall. Noah had a way of placing people’s egos in check. It still cracks me up whenever I think of it.
Art and death and love are inextricably linked to one another. Art is what is left behind; art is the trace of our brief time on the planet. It is a privilege to leave such traces, and it is an honor to tend to them. Love is the engine that makes the production and preservation of art possible. Love is the energy that allows us to connect equally with an art object made thousands of years ago or yesterday. Love—particularly love’s capacity for the infinite—is what allows us to be open to the experience of the other. It is love that enables the profound encounter with the ideas and vision and passion and feelings of another person. Such encounters form the very core of our engagement with art. It’s no mistake that Noah’s paintings are filled with figures that are touching each other. It’s also no mistake that Noah’s paintings are filled with solitary figures fully occupying the existential state of loneliness. For me, the Underground Museum is Noah’s magnum opus, a complete and total artwork, dedicated to creating a space for others, committed to making room for different encounters, inspired by the deep truth about art . . . that what it’s for is to pull individuals into fellowship—if only temporarily. Art helps us find the members of our infinitely dispersed tribe, art helps to bind us to one another. This is the great gift that Noah Davis left us, and the Underground is a reminder that setting out on a new path often means a return to the basics.
Noah passed on August 29, 2015. I was fortunate enough to know him for almost a year, but I will tend to his work and memory for much longer, because that is what curators do: They care for works of art. No bells and whistles, just back to basics. “Oh man, Noah Davis: That work speaks for itself.”
Helen Molesworth is the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
February 1988. Lucas Samaras. Ingrid Sischy’s last cover as editor.
Ingrid Sischy and Sandra Brant at the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children’s Inaugural Gala for Child Protection, 2015. Photo: Clint Spaulding/PatrickMcMullan.com via AP Images.
WHAT I REMEMBER most about Ingrid is her voice. It was, as they say, an excellent instrument, low and honeyed, which could easily turn into a growl or a purr. Her use of it totally depended on what her goal was: getting someone out of her face, drawing someone closer, closing the topic down, opening a golden door. She would have made a great, rampaging Auntie Mame. I can see her climbing that stairway to paradise, arm extended, voice rising like an alto sax, exhorting “Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
Richard Flood is the director of special projects and curator at large at the New Museum in New York. He was managing editor of Artforum in 1980, and books editor in 1982-83.