Shizuko Yoshikawa

Shizuko Yoshikawa

Shizuko Yoshikawa (1934, Ōmuta, Japan-2019, Zurich, Switzerland) is one of the few women who gained centre recognition in the rationalist art movement of Constructivist and Concrete Art. She was also the first and only female Japanese student at the famed Ulm School of Design (1953–1968), Germany, which had been co-founded by Max Bill to continue the legacy of the Bauhaus. The school represented an at the time highly progressive form of teaching, integrating subjects like sociology, psychology, politics, economics, philosophy and semiotics with aesthetics and technology, and attracted many global students.

Yoshikawa began with an academic career studying English Language and Literature in Tokyo, following in the footsteps of her grandfather who obtained his postgraduate degree in philosophy at Harvard University as one of the first Japanese students. In 1958, she received her Master’s degree in Architecture and Product Design at Kyōiku University (now Tsukuba University) in Tokyo. While participating in the World Design Conference (WoDeCo, 1960) in Tokyo as a coordinator and interpreter, she first met there the famous Argentinian design theorist Tomás Maldonado. Maldonado was, after Max Bill, rector at the Ulm school when Yoshikawa arrived. He introduced a focus on scientific principles and system theory, strongly reflected in Yoshikawa’s relief permutations and her 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. 

Yoshikawa’s first artistic realisations were in fact large-scale environmental sculptures integrated within architectural and public art projects. In 1972, she created the impactful relief design in concrete, vier mögliche progressionen (four possible progressions, 1972) on the site of a Brutalist church building in Zurich. These intriguing modular wall constructions which site-specifically factored in the time-based play of light and shadow to great effect, became the blueprints for the artist’s signature body of works of wall reliefs and sculptures of the 1970s - 80s. 

Through Yoshikawa’s involvement with the Concrete Art galerie 58 (1965–1974), she became familiar with the experiments and achievements of Zurich’s Concrete Art movement founded in the 1930s, centrally by Max Bill with Camille Graeser, Verena Loewensberg and Richard Paul Lohse. Particularly the painter Verena Loewensberg, allegedly the only woman among the first-generation Zürich Konkrete, became a role model for the younger Yoshikawa. Building on the Constructivist-Concrete principles of the group and her own investigations into colour theory,  optical design and phenomenology, Yoshikawa embarked on undogmatic trajectories for the purportedly “cold art” of the post-war era. She indicated her freedom from established formalist traditions with work titles such as “nicht zweiheit” (non 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 yoshikawa. colour shadow, Minami Gallery, Tokyo, 1978).

In the early 1970s, Yoshikawa began to create her first abstract reliefs painted in acrylic on wood, such as the prominent triptych transformation von vier gleichen farbflächen no. 1, no. 2 and no. 3 (transformation of four equal colour planes). Composed of strong purple to blue colour gradation and structural permutation, these multidimensional wall works create a sophisticated optical and formal play, which positioned her work in proximity to the experimentation of Bridget Riley and other Op-artists of the time.

Among her outstanding experimentation are the farbschattenreliefs (colour shadow reliefs), created in polyester and epoxy resin in various formats between 1976 and 1984. In these minimalist white reliefs, Yoshikawa applied delicate hues of pastel colour only to the edges of the stepped permutations creating ultra-subtle visual effects which can only be fully perceived by the viewer when moving alongside its low three-dimensional structure.

“The overarching pictorial relief form, identifiable as a grid pattern formed of light, is based on “types.” The “types” are units made up of 2 × 2, 2 × 3, and 3 × 3 elements, each 5 × 5 cm. These elements are pre-fabricated polyester forms, each with a five-millimetre difference in height. Yoshikawa plays with the “types”, 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)

An exhibition of her early reliefs at the renowned Minami Gallery in Tokyo in 1978 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. Throughout her career she made use of certain types of painterly projects the diamond-shaped canvas format invented by Mondrian, and also introduced the tondo in her Concrete paintings. Over the years, her compositions became increasingly dynamic, breaking with the genre’s signature rationalism. Yoshikawa began to engage with Asian philosophy bridging perceptual and representational traditions between East and West.

Due to the intense theoretical foundation of her work, Yoshikawa was invited globally as a guest lecturer: In 1965 she lectured about 'grid systems' at Yale University, as an IBM fellow at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, at Kyōiku University, Kyoto, at State University, New York, the National University of Colombia, Bogotá, and at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

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.

This exhibition is realized in cooperation with the Shizuko Yoshikawa and Josef Müller-Brockmann foundation Zurich and special thanks go to Gabrielle Schaad.