Shizuko Yoshikawa: Possible Progressions


Shizuko Yoshikawa: Possible Progressions

April 05 - May 18, 2024

Private view: 4 April, 6 - 8 pm

Marlborough London is pleased to present the first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom dedicated to Shizuko Yoshikawa (1934, Ōmuta, Japan – 2019, Zurich, Switzerland)

Yoshikawa was one of the few women to gain centre recognition in the art movement of Constructivist and Concrete Art in the 20th century. The exhibition features her signature relief sculptures, paintings, drawings and conceptual colour studies spanning four decades of the artist’s career.

With the new attention given internationally to the reintroduction of women artists who worked in the Abstract Avant-Garde movements, Shizuko Yoshikawa’s innovative work has recently received new recognition.

Yoshikawa was the first and only female Japanese student at the prestigious Ulm School of Design (1953–1968), Germany, which had been co-founded by Max Bill, a leading figure in postwar geometric abstraction, to continue the legacy of the Bauhaus.

While co-organizing in 1960 the legendary World Design Conference (WoDeCo) in Tokyo, the young Shizuko Yoshikawa met leading protagonists of the “International Style” and progressive design movement, among them the Argentinian Tomás Maldonado who was then rector at the Ulm school. Maldonado introduced a focus on scientific principles and system theory, later strongly reflected in Yoshikawa’s own work, as in her relief permutations and mathematical approach to composition.

Yoshikawa studied at the visual communication department, where she contributed to Otl Aicher’s innovative corporate design for the German airline Lufthansa. In Ulm, she was frequently exoticized as a Japanese female student, yet decided not to return to her homeland, anticipating professional limits in Japan’s hierarchical and male dominated design world for a woman practitioner. In 1962, Yoshikawa moved to Zurich, where she took a job in the studio of her future husband, Swiss graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann. He was a pioneer of the International Typographic Style, which expanded on the modernist typographic innovations of the 1920s that had emerged from Russian Constructivism, De Stijl and the Bauhaus.

At the Müller-Brockmann studio, Yoshikawa collaborated with Gudrun von Tevenar, a former fellow student at the Ulm school. They became Chief Designers for the Education, Science and Research Pavilion at the 1964 Swiss Expo in Lausanne. Alongside her career as an award-winning poster designer and graphic artist, Yoshikawa gradually developed her fine art practice.

In Zurich, Yoshikawa became acquainted with the group of the influential school of the Zurich Concretists that had formed in the 1930s, centrally by Max Bill, Camille Graeser, Richard Paul Lohse and Verena Loewensberg, allegedly the only woman in the group, who was to become a role model for the younger generation Japanese artist.

Yoshikawa began her artistic career in 1972 creating a large-scale outdoor relief made of concrete, vier mögliche progressionen (four possible progressions, Zurich, 1972) which added an avant-garde character to the façade of a Brutalist municipal building in Zurich. These intriguing modular wall constructions which factored in the site-specific play of light and shadow to great effect, became blueprints for the artist’s signature body of works of wall reliefs and sculptures of the 1970s - 80s. Their tectonic stepped structure also evokes   for example pre-Columbian reliefs and other global indigenous abstract languages. The exhibition will present architectural models of this earliest phase of the artist’s work. Meticulous preparatory drawings for these outdoor designs show the mathematical precision with which Yoshikawa approached her work, enabling us today to revisit possible realisations of the concrete reliefs.

Yoshikawa began to develop her signature artistic style of restrained abstract principles. The multi-dimensional optical effects in her work are achieved through the artist’s unique sensibility for colour, ranging from a powerful palette of purple, blue, orange and green to the ultra-subtle scales of pastels.

In the early 1970s, Yoshikawa began to create her first abstract reliefs painted in acrylic on wood, such as ‘zentrum grün' (centre green, 1976), or the prominent triptych '3 sequenzen' (3 sequences, 1974) which is composed of optically animating colour graduations in of blue, green, purple and orange in combination with dynamic tectonic or centrifugal relief permutations.

Among Yoshikawa’s outstanding bodies of work are the ultra-minimalist white farbschattenreliefs (colour shadow reliefs) such as the prominent scaled wall piece FARBSCHATTEN NO. 67 (1978/79) or the freestanding rotating sculpture farbschatten', stehobjekt no. 45 (standing object, 1976/79). Created in polyester and epoxy resin in various formats between 1976 and 1984, Yoshikawa applied delicate hues of pastel colour solely to the edges of their stepped permutations, creating subtle visual effects which can only be fully perceived by the viewer when passing along the low three-dimensional structures.

The overarching pictorial relief form, a grid pattern formed of light, is based on units made up of 2 × 2, 2 × 3, and 3 × 3 elements, prefabricated in polyester and each sized 5 × 5 cm with a five-millimetre difference in height. Yoshikawa plays with these units rotating them, inverting the forms as mirror images, or transposing them into perpetual motion in order to produce topological crystalline surfaces. As she notes: “Subsequently two complementary colour pairs face each other along the diagonal axis in the colour wheel order, and the two adjacent colours likewise intersect on a topological surface.” (Gabrielle Schaad in conversation with the artist in 2017)

While committed to the strict rationalist thinking of Modern geometric abstraction, Yoshikawa soon embarked on an undogmatic experimentation – for example by transcending prescribed formalist programmes of the past with work titles like “nicht zweiheit” (not binary).

Max Bill wrote in a dedication to the artist: “having achieved her own mastery, shizuko today makes her independent contribution to the development of concrete art. she took up the zurich direction of concrete art in the best way and added a particularly subtle, graceful side to it. As an emancipated Japanese woman, she succeeded in combining Japanese tradition with the constructive ideas of our time to great perfection. (Preface exhibition catalogue shizuko yoshikawa. colour shadow, Minami Gallery, Tokyo, 1978).

The 1978 exhibition of her early reliefs at the renowned Minami Gallery in Tokyo marked Yoshikawa’s first international success, with numerous exhibitions following.

From the early 1980s, Yoshikawa developed several extensive series of abstract painting using modular units and multi-sectional and deconstructed grids. A prime example are her conceptual paintings titled weisse mitte (white centre) such as ‘weisse mitte’ von grün zu gelb (white centre from green to yellow, 1984): geometric compositions with the centre square left deliberately white, fashioning a negative space that transforms the grid pattern into a dynamic, evenly spaced matrix.

Throughout her career Yoshikawa made use of signature types of painterly formats such as the diamond-shaped canvas invented by Mondrian. Over the years, her compositions became increasingly dynamic and playful, breaking with the genre’s signature rationalism and creating abstract compositions with a certain Pop-Art appeal in paintings such as drehen z. ZWEIT' (turning w. TWO, 2016) where a chain of circles, each split in two colour fields of purple and orange and purple and red, is forming a spiral gravitating towards the edges of the green diamond shaped canvas.

Yoshikawa increasingly engaged with Asian philosophy bridging perceptual and representational traditions between East and West. Her highly theorised practice brought her numerous invitations as a guest lecturer: In 1965 she taught about 'grid systems' at Yale University; within the framework of an IBM fellowship at the Aspen Institute; at Kyōiku University, Kyoto; at State University, New York; the National University of Colombia, Bogotá, and at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

From the moment she entered the scene of 1970s abstract experimentation, Yoshikawa created a distinctly contemporary style that resonates strongly with the work of her London peer, the painter Bridget Riley, whose radical expansion of modernist principles Yoshikawa highly identified with. After meetings in Cologne and Zurich and a correspondence expressing her and her husband’s admiration for Bridget Riley’s paintings, Yoshikawa visited Riley in her studio in 1988 on a trip to London. Photographs of this visit document the intense exchange between the two artists. We are dedicating a special presentation in Gallery 3 to print work by Bridget Riley from the history of Marlborough Graphics set in a dialogue with graphic works and drawings by Shizuko Yoshikawa who had intensely engaged with this medium since 1976.

In 1996, the Contemporary Sculpture Center in Tokyo held a comprehensive solo exhibition showcasing her rich practice. In 1980, a solo show was held at Kunsthaus Zurich, and in 1986 she showed at a pavilion themed Science and Art – Color at the XLII Venice Biennial. In 1995, she was included in the exhibition Karo-Dame. Constructive, Concrete and Radical Art by Women from 1914 to Today at the Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland, the fist ground-breaking survey show of women artists in the constructivist-concrete art movements. In 2023/4, the retrospective exhibition Shizuko Yoshikawawas on view at MAMCO, Geneva's Musée d'art moderne et contemporain.

Selection of Public Collections:

Musée d'art moderne et contemporain (MAMCO), Geneva; Kunstmuseum Bern; Kunstmuseum Luzern; Kunsthaus Zürich; Haus Konstruktiv Zürich; Zürcher Kantonalbank; Landeszentralbank Düsseldorf-Neuss; Museum für Konkrete Kunst Ingolstadt; Wilhelm-Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen; Staatsgalerie Stuttgart; Museum Ritter, Waldenbuch; The National Museum of Modern Art, Osaka; The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.