Fujiko Shiraga (1928–2015)

Fujiko Shiraga, White Board, 1955, painted wood. Photo: Osaka City Museum of Modern Art.

ALL TOO OFTEN, revisionist historians tell the story of an important artist (usually female), who has been regrettably overshadowed by her (usually male) partner. In the case of Fujiko Shiraga this narrative certainly applies. Yet to try to simply reinstate her individual position in the nascent canon of Japanese postwar art does a disservice to her contributions overall. Fujiko should be recognized both for her own paintings and installations, and for the creative assistance she offered her husband, Kazuo Shiraga (1924–2008). Both were members of the Gutai Art Association, a Kansai-based art group that was active from 1954 to 1972.

Fujiko’s artworks are few (currently, the number of known extant pieces is under twenty), yet, as the recent exhibition at Fergus McCaffrey in New York has shown, they remain as stunning and thought provoking as they were in the late 1950s. Her large-scale collages of glass, paint, and torn paper appear fragile and dense, rich with saturated colored paper concealed by uneven layers of cloth.

Fujiko Shiraga, untitled, 1961, oil, Japanese paper, glass on canvas, 63 x 52". © The Estate of Fujiko Shiraga; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey, New York / St. Barth.

Shiraga created both two-dimensional assemblage paintings and three-dimensional sculptural pieces. White Board, for example, is a thirteen-foot-long piece of plywood painted white and bisected by a sinuous gap that might be mistaken for a flat line from a distance. The artwork was first shown in July 1955 at The Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun (an event organized by the Gutai Art Association leader Jirō Yoshihara and the Ashiya City Art Association). Though made of wood, Fujiko’s starkly painted installation clashed sharply with the forested setting of the bucolic park in the affluent city of Ashiya. White Board resonated as a reminder of the breakneck changes taking place immediately outside the park, where plywood was piled high in construction sites during the largest urban redevelopment the world had thus far seen. In 1955, the Kansai region was the leading edge of Japan’s extreme postwar urban transformations.

Shiraga’s investigation of industrial materials continued in other forms. In 1957, she made an untitled sculptural work of white cement layered on wood that was deeply gouged by four uneven lines. Like White Board, the medium of cement also calls up the materials of industry and urbanization ubiquitous in the ’50s. While these works commented on the dramatic changes in Japan, they also showed an engagement with the nonfigural, explosive gestures characteristic of transnational movements such as art informel and American Abstract Expressionism.

Fujiko Shiraga, Sakuhin, 1957, wood, cement, pigment, 24 x 18  x 3". © The Estate of Fujiko Shiraga; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey, New York / St. Barth.

Shiraga’s pieces were also often in dialogue with other artworks created by Gutai members. In 1955, both Atsuko Tanaka (one of the Gutai Art Associations most renowned artists) and Shiraga exhibited untitled triptychs of relatively untouched yellow material. Tanaka’s pieces were made of commercially dyed cotton and were hung vertically; Shiraga’s works were made of colored yellow paper, rather than cloth, and were hung horizontally. It seems likely that Tanaka and Shiraga, who knew each other before joining Gutai, through participation in another art group, Zero-kai, had shared ideas about the importance of material texture and Minimalist intervention.

These and other artworks by Shiraga have been overshadowed by Kazuo’s production, which has been represented widely in Japan but only recently has drawn headlines in the United States. Yet this disparity in attention between husband and wife is far from surprising, as Fujiko decided to withdraw from the Gutai Art Association in 1961 and discontinued her own practice. Instead, she became the primary interlocutor for Kazuo. Films and photographs show the pair hard at work in their studio space. Fujiko prepared paint, selected colors, and often advised her husband about when to stop painting and declare a work complete. Kazuo, who painted with his feet while hanging over a canvas by a rope, said he frequently relied on his wife, whom he described as having an “impeccable sense of timing.” Fujiko’s role went beyond simply assisting her husband with his laborious work (he painted with his feet for so long he developed painful bunions); instead, it should be understood as part of a creative partnership that is likely responsible for the longevity of Kazuo’s prolific oeuvre.

Namiko Kunimoto is an assistant professor in the history of art at Ohio State University. She is currently working on her forthcoming book, Anxious Bodies: Gender and Nation in Postwar Japanese Art.