SEVERAL TRIBUTES APPEARED immediately after the sad, distressing news of Kippy Stroud’s death, paying due homage to her achievements as a creative force—artistic director, arts entrepreneur and producer, patron—while trying as well to capture something of her mercurial personality. An only child but with a substantial extended family of origin, Kippy also, by instinct and design, created an extended family of affinity within the organizations she founded, and within the larger art world. Each of us has our Kippy stories, our own understanding and interpretation of who she was. My relationship with her, as colleague and friend, spanned over thirty years, encompassed many kinds of interactions, and had its inevitable highs and lows. Even so—or maybe as a result—it’s a challenge to produce a fully dimensional portrait of this brilliant, complicated subject.
What do I remember most vividly about Kippy now? A partial list: Her discerning eye for talent and beauty, her acute intelligence, her generosity and hospitality, her willfulness, her courtesy and sense of obligation, her reflexive self-effacement when in the spotlight, her steadfast loyalty to those she cared for and about, her affection for the children of her staff and friends, her turbulence, her late arrivals at every event laden with bags and often with her beloved dogs waiting in her car, her essential aloneness, her funny superstitions, her lucky number, her favorite color, her unique sense of style. Who else, after all, would or could wear cowboy boots with Issey Miyake, and complete the ensemble with rolls of blue tape as bangles? She was unmistakable; it’s hard to think of all that restless, creative energy stilled.
There was a saying that Kippy liked, picked up, I believe, from the artist Robert Kushner, who often repeated it: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Of course, the irony is that she did things exceedingly well, on her own terms, and with a level of ambition, vision, and drive that was formidable. Those achievements spanned the founding of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, which grew from its origins as an educational, print, and textile workshop to an internationally recognized museum with an extensive collection and active exhibition program, to the establishment of Acadia Summer Arts Program, aka Kamp Kippy, which developed out of her long-standing habit of hosting friends at her summer home in Maine and became an extensive residency program and think tank for cultural practitioners, available by coveted invitation only.
These organizations mirrored each other, or, better said perhaps, functioned as two sides of the same coin, fostering creativity and the creative in complementary ways. At the FWM, a who’s who of contemporary artists from around the world came to Philadelphia to be in residence. There, Kippy encouraged each of them to imagine broadly, to conceive of “fabric” as any medium or material, and then ensured that they would be assisted by a highly expert production team in realizing new, often heretofore undreamed of, projects of sizable scale and impact. At Acadia, Kippy offered cultural practitioners both solitude and community, nurturing curators, administrators, friends, and artists in legendary comfort, in a group of houses and studios each more picturesque than the others, and in a natural setting so beautiful that she might be said to have invented “glamping” there, avant la lettre.
Kippy certainly put her substantial fortune to uses bigger than herself, although everything she touched was marked by her animating presence. She leaves a considerable gap in the cultural landscape here in Philadelphia and in the field at large. Yet visions can survive visionaries. And in her intensely art- and artist-centric focus and approach—offering the gift of extraordinary possibilities and resources, enabling making at an exceptional level along with time for rich reflection—can be located, I believe, the values that might figure as an empowering legacy. Those values can transcend the immediately personal while permeating what is left behind, and inspire a transformed, stable future in which her important work might be reinvigorated and continued.
Paula Marincola is the executive director at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia.
Chantal Akerman. Photo: Marthe Lemelle.
IN MY FIRST CONVERSATION with Chantal Akerman, which took place in late December 2009 in a studio apartment on Wooster Street, my brand-new white Olympus WS-400s digital voice recorder between us, I made the mistake of trying to vous-voyez her, or, more accurately, of trying to approximate that deferential form of address in English. “So, Madame Akerman,” I began, using an honorific that I had hoped would convey my utmost respect for a filmmaker I revered but one that inadvertently caused some offense. “Don’t call me madame! I’m not a madame,” she responded, alacritously but not too unkindly, in a husky, tobacco-deepened voice. Determined not to abandon my attempts at pathetic politesse, I tried again: “Mademoiselle?” More gently this time, she enjoined: “Chantal, Chantal, just call me Chantal. You are Melissa, I am Chantal.”
Chantal Akerman, Hotel Monterey, 1972, 16 mm, color, silent, 65 minutes.
With this ground rule—an extremely generous, egalitarian gesture—established, I spent the next hour or so engaged in a wide-ranging, frequently personal discussion with Akerman, an interview whose level of candor and intimacy I am certain will never be matched. I was in that SoHo flat with her two days before Christmas to talk about the upcoming release of “Chantal Akerman in the Seventies,” a three-DVD set that includes the films she made in the years before and after her 1975 masterwork, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles: her sublime New York nonfiction trilogy, consisting of La chambre (1972), Hotel Monterey (1972), and News from Home (1976); and her slyly erotic, autobiographically informed fiction features Je tu il elle (1975) and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978). Akerman expounded, as you’d expect, absorbingly and eloquently on each of these titles, her replies to my queries made all the more animated by the fact that she frequently leaped up from her chair at the small wooden kitchen table where we sat face to face: to rush to the stove to light her cigarette, to briefly take a call from a relative—a niece, maybe?—who was phoning, if I remember correctly, from somewhere in the US and whom she adoringly called “Baby.”
But it was Akerman’s multiple digressions during our interview that made me feel as if I were being granted special access, that this already (and infamously) outspoken artist might have wanted to share more with me about her life than with other worshipful film journalists. I tried to sit there impassively as Akerman revealed behind-the-scenes details that floored me: the coy attempts by Delphine Seyrig, Jeanne Dielman’s regal star, to seduce her twenty-four-year-old director. Later, at the very end of our conversation, while my tape recorder was still on, Akerman would tell me of a long-term relationship that had ended the day before, of the woman she had been seeing for eight months, of a decade-long affair.
Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975, 35 mm, color, sound, 3 hours 21 minutes.
What prompted these latter confessions, which I didn’t include in the Q&A published a month after our meeting, was our discussion of La Captive, Akerman’s soaring 2000 adaptation of the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time. In that book of his magnum opus, Proust writes, “The daughters of Gomorrah are at once rare enough and numerous enough for one not to pass unnoticed by another in any given crowd.” Did Akerman instantly recognize her interlocutor as a fellow daughter of Gomorrah? Did this account for her disarming frankness? You are Melissa, I am Chantal: In that irreducible statement, Akerman, as she did in everything that she created, opened up limitless possibilities.
Melissa Anderson frequently writes about film for Artforum.
Additional tributes to Chantal Akerman are forthcoming in Artforum’s January 2016 issue.
Carol Rama. Photo: Pino Dell’Aquila.
CAROL RAMA has left us at the age of ninety-seven. But in reality, she was already gone three years ago, of old age—an old age that was long and full of accolades. (It had been somewhat the same for Louise Bourgeois when she passed away in 2010.) The works in Rama’s career, which began in the late 1930s and continued until the present year, are grouped by themes: the sensual and scandalous watercolors that led people to view her as a loose cannon in the city of Casorati; the works tending toward abstraction during the “MAC” period (the Concrete Art Movement); the mixed-media works, with informel inflections; the bicycle inner tubes on sawhorses or on tarpaulin; mixed media on canvas-backed paper from the past decade; the extraordinary “mad cow” series; and innumerable other inventions.
Rama is the figurative painter that the entire young audience of videos and installations—in other words, the viewers of contemporary art’s most frequently used technologies—favor and love. Why is this? It is because of her way of painting, assembling, and re-creating, which has always moved on many levels and has always ignored the canonical rules of fashion and opportunism. While in the 1930s or ’40s, Rama anticipated present-day taste, she has also always pursued, indomitably and passionately, a comical vein in her work, through which everything that is most sacred in pain and in love is distorted by an extremely refined sarcasm.
Carol Rama, Presagi di Birnam (Omens of Birnam), 1970, bicycle and camera tubes, iron, 6' x 4' x 24". Photo: Museo del Novecento, Milan.
Her fantasies of signs, her tender and ferocious descriptions of nude amputees, frogs, knives, diabolical angels, flying dentures, faces with double and triple red tongues, abandoned shoes with no feet, brushes, razors, toilet brushes, renards (silvery foxes to be worn like stoles), wheelchairs and restraining beds, and finally cow udders cut out of rubber and attached to canvases, speak to viewers, transporting them into a late-Romantic dimension of misery and shuddering. The arrogant expertise with which, with great virtuosity, she mixed precious and trivial materials, gives her works a physical tangibility that is skillfully depraved.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
Lea Vergine is a critic and curator.
Additional tributes to Carol Rama will appear in a forthcoming issue of Artforum.
Carol Rama in her studio, 1997. Photo: Pino Dell Aquila. Courtesy of Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi Berlin and Archivio Carol Rama.
CAROL RAMA WORKED RELENTLESSLY for seventy years, dwelt in her studio home in Turin for seventy-five, and lived for ninety-seven.
These impressive figures tell the story of a life committed to painting, an activity she unceasingly practiced since adolescence: Her first known painting, Nonna Carolina, is a gorgeous work of great artistic maturity, painted in 1936 when she was only eighteen years old, which is now at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Torino. Her last work is from 2007, a portrait of a friend, still in her studio home.
I started this brief homage tossing some numbers on the table, hoping to hold back my emotions about Carol and her recent demise. Carol was, or better is, irregular, nonconformist, and weird—both in her life and in her career. And, in time, she softened her aggressiveness with her sweetness, making up for her lack of education with a profound and self-taught sense of artistic culture, acquired by growing up in contact with intellectuals such as her friends Edoardo Sanguineti, Man Ray, Carlo Mollino, Alexandre Jolas, Felice Casorati, and many others. She countered her acrimony toward other, luckier, artists with her generosity and her theatrical gestures and tricks, continuously exposing her naked soul, nursing obscenity with healing words.
Carol Rama, Nonna Carolina (Grandmother Carolina), 1936, watercolor on paper, 9 x 14". Photo: Roberto Goffi. Courtesy the Foundation for Modern and Contemporary Art CRT at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin and at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Rivoli-Turin.
As her friend Corrado Levi described it, Carol went beyond the limit without breaking it, teaching us lessons about accepting risk and measuring balance. These lessons can be found in her watercolors from the 1930s and ’40s, often brutally erotic in their iconography, yet incredibly elegant; in her “bricolages” from the ’70s in which ordinary objects are inserted in all their physicality into the pictorial composition; in her so-called rubbers from the following decade, in which pieces of inner tubes are used as paint in exceptionally balanced (as well as disorienting) abstract works. She walks the line, never taking a fall, in later works, too, such as those dedicated to “The Mad Cow,” in which the tragedy of a real situation is turned into aggressive yet harmonious works of art.
Thanks to this and much more, she is also beloved by younger generations of artists, who recognize in her a total commitment to painting, to material and thematic experimentation, and to the celebration of anomalies in life and work. Her life and career were marked by hardship, and mellowed only in the last few years, when she was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2003, and now with the great retrospective that is currently touring Europe, hosted by Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and Musťe d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Still missing is a major jump across the Atlantic: It would have been on her wish list.
A first contact with America occurred when a monographic exhibition of her works traveled to Boston from Amsterdam in 1998. Back then, already well over eighty-seven years old, she was at the opening and, while she was speaking meaningfully about her works, people, and things, and gently caressing everybody, the tri-phallic pendant she always wore was there too, dangling under everyone’s noses.
Her studio home in Turin is still the way she left it. It’s an extraordinary place, like few in the universe, where works and objects witness seventy years of life and art. I wish for her sake, but mostly for our own, that this place stays the way it is, so that it can be visited by the public, as a place to see, learn, and remember.
Maria Cristina Mundici served as the chief curator at Castello di Rivoli, Museum of Contemporary Art from 1985–1992, and has worked as an independent curator since 1992. She is now the director of the Carol Rama Archive in Turin.
For additional tributes to Carol Rama, see a forthcoming issue of Artforum.
Carol Rama, 1997. Photo: Jennifer Bacon.
Filippo Fossati: “Do you believe that in fifty years young people will like your work? Old people? Middle aged? What do you think they will like about your work?”
Carol Rama: “They will be liked greatly by those who have suffered, and have not known how to save themselves from the suffering . . . because, having had a mother in a psychiatric institution, and having myself felt comfortable in that setting . . . because that way I began to be familiar with gestures and manners, without any preparation in terms of culture or etiquette. . . . I believe that everyone will like these gestures more, because they are gestures that, for reasons I don’t dare say, pertain to everyone . . . because madness is close to everyone . . . and there are those who absolutely deny it . . . and anyone who denies it is just crazy, melancholy, sad, unapproachable . . . because it is like culture, culture is a privilege, which I too would have been able to benefit by . . . but I have always felt more flexible with drawing, a painting, a story, a composition.”
Massimo Mila: “We know that Turin, the most normal, most fastidious, most Swiss city in Italy, every now and then produces crazy people, the craziest that exist in the entire world. . . . Within this race of subalpine lunatics, Carol Rama has earned a place of honor.”
ON SEPTEMBER 25, artist Carol Rama passed away in Turin at the age of ninety-seven. She was born Olga Carolina Rama on 1918. Her story is one of a challenge to humanity, an attempt to compensate for the collective, impersonal, and anonymous history that does not pertain to individuals but is imposed on them by outside and uncontrollable forces.
Carol’s story is one that emerges from her freedom, from emancipation, from the imagination, from inventions, from creations, and from her personal choices. It is the story of an artist without qualifications or labels: of an unusual, unsociable, provocative, and wonderfully imperfect woman.
To those who dispute honoring her memory I leave the task of writing the “official” history, perhaps on the occasion of the now-imminent “Carolramian” centennial.
Carol said she began painting at the age of fourteen. I have no idea what mischief she was capable of at that young age, but I know the paintings and works on paper that she painted from then until eighteen or twenty, and they are still astonishing even now. They represent situations and things in the real world you don’t expect to see painted. Imagine a bourgeois and conservative city—“wonderful, cynical, and cruel”—as Turin was in the late 1930s. Carol’s subjects during that period are urinals, toilet brushes, dentures, prostheses, tongues, genitals, men who are masturbating, paradoxical erotic scenes, women with neither legs nor arms who are shitting, naked, forced into beds of torture, on wheelchairs. For the bourgeois and self-righteous public, Carol’s manners and art are morally guilty of speaking in vulgar terms about intimate and “sacred” things. You shouldn’t hang your dirty linen out to dry, you shouldn’t joke about suffering or death. And it isn’t only a question of “style.” The beauty of the sign, the color, and the compositions do not hide the violence and horror of the subjects.
Carol’s adventures in her personal exploration of these “sacred” themes are profanations in the classic sense of the term. Carol takes motifs consecrated by social and artistic conventions and transfers them outside the places designated for religious display, outside the temple. To do this she subjects herself to a sort of moral condemnation on the part of those who consider it scandalous to celebrate agony with a joke or to mock misfortunes.
She doesn’t back down; on the contrary, she proceeds with determination. She is independent, irreverent, parodistic, and provocative—she disturbs the censors.
“The Passion According to Carol Rama” was the very inspired title of a series of exhibitions organized in five European museums shortly before she died. She was known for her “eccentricities” and for her unusual company. And I’m not speaking only of the characters who knew her and who hung out with her (incomplete lists of whom always appear in her biographies). Carol was well acquainted with rage and violence, shame, the solitude of grief and death. She had known them since childhood, to the point that she became immune to the rules and conventions of the social world that surrounded her.
Living is something that is difficult for everyone, but I believe that for Carol it was a daily, unnatural effort, a struggle to lose herself without losing sight of herself. I am thinking about ecstasy. About Carol’s perennial ecstasy. The condition of finding herself outside herself, not to escape herself, but in order to be able to look from the outside in, to always and only live in the present, within herself, in her visions and in her nightmares.
Her wild nature developed a form of non-sensitivity, a spontaneous phenomenon in nature. Non-sensitivity is comforting. It helps establish a distance, one’s own universe, positioned at the edges of human experience: It is eternity.
I met Carol when I was a child. She always said, to use a common expression, that she had seen me grow up, and there is surely some basis for this. Turin is small, and our houses are a few hundred meters apart. Carol was a familiar presence. She roared through four generations of my family’s existence, like the motorcyclist in Fellini’s Amarcord, who entered from one side of the screen, made a couple of turns, and exited from the other side. Carol knew my maternal grandparents, Francesco, a painter, and his wife Ottavia; my mother, Eva, and my father, Paolo, an art historian and critic with whom she was friends and who wrote about her. She knew my uncles, my stepfather, Luciano, a gallerist. She knew me, my sister Caterina, and my brother Francesco; my children, Mattia, Giulio, and Paolo; and my sister’s daughter, Olga, who shares her name. She is also responsible for my second marriage.
My memory of our first encounter does not coincide with Carol’s memory, and it is a mixture of fear and enchantment.
I am five or six years old. I am with my father in front of the large wooden front door with gilded handles, the entrance you traverse to climb up to the now-famous residence/studio/warehouse on Via Napione. The old elevator, imprisoned in an iron cage, takes us to the top floor. The creak of doors closing. Then, still farther up—following behind my father, I climb up the last, steep flight of steps. On the landing to the left, behind a half-open door, a tiny little woman appears in a black slip that leaves her shoulders exposed. She has a perfect braid, coiled like a crown around her head. Her lips are outlined in purple, drawn sidewise, rising from her mouth up to her nose. She has a penetrating and diabolical gaze. She says something in a tone that clashes with the rest of her and immediately gives me the unpleasant impression of an elderly witch.
We enter a large, dimly lit room. The windows are closed. The walls, coated with black smoke, are covered with frames, photos, drawings, posters, paintings, necklaces—hung, nailed, or just pinned from floor to ceiling. The only light comes from two lamps perched like birds on a table at the center of the room. An incalculable deluge of objects populates the attic. Everything is there. Heads of wood and glass, Man Ray’s funerary mask, African sculptures, an old television, bowls full of brushes, limbs, tools, hammers, saws, planers, boxes, wooden crates, bars of soap, mannequins, measuring sticks, scissors of every type, strings, collections of suitcases, casts of feet, hands, gloves, caps, umbrellas, wooden shoe trees, a Rolling Stones album Andy Warhol gave her . . . layers of life that Carol had piled up in her attic. In the corner, a woodburning stove, and chairs scattered everywhere. Suddenly I hear her voice, swearing and cursing at someone. I hold on tight to my father, but she approaches, takes my hand, and has me sit down on a sofa bed behind the table. She puts a box of cookies in front of me. “Your father is an extraordinary man!” she shouts loudly. I don’t like the strident sound or the cookies, which seem made of marble, but in the end I like the old crone’s comment, and I follow her, enchanted. She snatches a marker. “I’ll make you a drawing!” she says and begins working on a sheet of paper that has appeared out of nowhere. She sketches a woman’s heeled shoe, and the space inside it is a penis. What is it? I ask. What a shitty question! It is the shape of the cock inside a shoe. She hands me a stone phallus and has me caress it, “because for me, there’s the cock, which gives me a whole lot of pleasure. The cock, number one, and then intelligence. Are you at least intelligent?” I look at her, confused. Grown-ups don’t talk like this.
My father was accustomed to taking my sister and me to a restaurant when he took a break from work. Often Carol was with us. I don’t know how much she liked children, but she didn’t talk to us much. We considered her an old wag. I had nicknamed her Madame Artaud, with a combination of respect and mockery. If I happened to meet her on the street, I would avoid her if I could, crossing over to the other side of the pavement. Her sharp tongue confused me, and I didn’t know how to react to her exaggerated and impetuous ways.
I eventually returned to her studio, again with my father. It was 1978. I remember exactly because of a drawing that she gave me and which I still have. A flying cock, “pre-circumcised,” as she said, laughing. Little had changed. There was maybe more disorder, and over time the walls had become even blacker. The windows were always closed, and the quantity of objects increased, but in the final analysis the attic was the same as before. Carol and my father were preparing a show at Liliana Martano’s gallery, and they asked me to take some notes. She was kind and willing, and I soon changed my mind about how I had felt about her as a child.
I began to make a habit of visiting her now and then when I skipped school. The “warehouse,” as she called it, was a safe haven, and I knew that she would never betray me. I liked to watch while she worked. I tried to follow her irregular train of thought. I listened to her stories, her passionate outpourings, her rages, her insults, and, seated on the sofa bed, I responded timidly to her brazen questions. Every now and then, during pauses, Carol would stretch out on the blanket. She had sewn it herself, and it was a painting on which you could stretch out. There were two legs facing backwards, maybe she had detached them from the figure next to them, which didn’t even have arms but did have a white eye, its tongue sticking out, an erect penis, and a crest that emanated rays as far as the edge of the bed. We would chat about this and that, about things that it would be unthinkable to hear or say at my house.
This tiny little woman with uncontainable energy, who I had never seen venture outside her city, told me about fantastic places and extraordinary people. She would say things that no other adult dared to say. Once I had seen Hal Ashby’s film Harold and Maude. I had told her about the plot, which she liked a lot, but I didn’t have the courage to tell her that she reminded me of Maude, because she would have told me that that was a shitty name. However, now, without embarrassment, I think that she would have liked to know that I had thought this because, for a moment, I had been the personification of the young Harold.
The day after I met Jennifer, who would then become my wife, I had a date with Carol, and I brought her with me.
I called Carol to let her know in advance, and she met us at the door without her braid, which was an unusual look for her, and reserved only for her most intimate acquaintances. “Have you already fucked?” she shouted at us on the landing. We spent the day together. Carol was still astonished by the “mad cow” crisis that was sweeping Europe at the time. She was fascinated by the image of a dying cow that was being continually broadcast on TV. The animal’s flanks twitched spasmodically before it collapsed, and Carol felt as if she were witnessing a frenzied sexual embrace, an uncontainable orgasm. She showed us the first drawings she had done, and Jennifer, who had a gallery in New York, decided to give her a show. I organized it. So it is Carol’s “fault” that we found each other, and we ended up producing her two solo shows in New York. The first, in 1997, was also her first solo show in the United States. We met with great critical success, and I presumptuously believe the show helped to introduce Carol’s work on that side of the ocean and push back against a provincialism that favors commonplace mythology (and that exists in our country too). In 1998, my father, along with Rudi Fuchs and Cristina Mundici, organized the first large-scale retrospective of Carol Rama’s work, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which then traveled to the ICA in Boston.
My father died the following year, the day of the birth of my third child, who is named after him.
I called Carol and told her that we had another Paolo, born only a few hours after his grandfather’s death.
“Your father is an extraordinary man!” Carol then shouted into the phone. “He never liked airplanes, and this is why he took a while to go see you.”
Everything is so cruelly balanced.
Filippo Fossatti is an art critic and historian based in New York.
For additional tributes to Carol Rama, see a forthcoming issue of Artforum.
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.
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.
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.