Fujiko Shiraga (1928–2015)

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 Society—Kazuo, Murakami, Kanayama, and Atsuko Tanaka—joined 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.

Fujiko Shiraga, untitled, c. 1955, japanese paper, 54 x 28". Photo: © The Estate of Fujiko Shiraga; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey, New York / St. Barth.

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