Abstraction and the Christian Faith

By Makoto Fujimura

The following essay was printed in November 1997 issue of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) newsletter. You can subscribe to CIVA, and join as a member by visiting CIVA web site.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "abstract, adj" as "having only intrinsic form with little or no pictorial representation <~painting>. It defines "abstract, noun" as "summary, epitome."

I see the word abstract more as the noun definition than the adjective definition: not strictly in the sense of giving an abstract, but in the sense of giving a summary and describing the epitome of experience, both internal and external. I seek after the essentiation of reality, experience and objects, stripping off the unnecessary, but accentuating the physical, tactile side with textures, colors and materials. This is the essentiation, I suspect, that poets and painters of the Japanese past viewed so central to their depiction of nature and life.

Tohaku Hasegawa, who has been called the Michelangelo of Japan, painted the "Shorinzu" byobu (a folding screen piece) in the 16th century, a work which many consider to be one of the greatest paintings of Japanese history. The painting, done in sumi ink on thin rice paper stretched over a byobu screen, depicts pine forests, but in essence he evokes the fog and the breeze which move the trees in simple, calligraphic lines. If there ever was a painting which captured the "sound of silence," this would be it. Hasegawa forged new ground, moving beyond his formal education in Chinese paintings with its harsh representationality (if you don't think that Chinese paintings are highly representational, you haven't seen Chinese landscapes. Believe me, they are more representational than Giotto), and he moved into the arena of ambiguity and transcendence. Less was indeed more. He did not merely want to capture a pine forest, he wanted to get to the essentiation, the core of being and seeing.

I remember going to the Arshile Gorky retrospective in the early eighties at the Guggenheim, and having the paintings speak to me in ways the Shorinzu byobu speaks to me today. In fact, I believe that experience convinced me that I should seek to pursue art. Gorky's later works spoke in a language I could not comprehend but yet yearned for. His exquisite lines opened space and closed them at the same time. His colors, both delectable with their focused intensity like that of the stamen of a lily, remained in my memory and affect my vision today. And this is not to speak of the influence of Rothko and Diebenkorn. The language of abstraction both eastern and western, came to me early, and stayed with me.


When I transferred my allegiance from Art to Christ in 1987, causing my Art to be art, a shift occurred in my vision. Whereas before, I had an intellectual doubt of seeing reality as is, let alone depicting it, now my new found faith gave me the foundation to see reality and trust it. Colors and forms I saw were indeed what others could see, and the objective world did connect to the subjective. Not that I had not trusted representational depictions before. I had spent the past year drawing from figures (it was required for my graduate program) and even dutifully copying Japanese paintings from the past. But I now had a new conviction, to know for certain that certainty existed, that the "substance of things hoped for" is not a shadow of existence, but THE greater reality, more real and weighty than our own. I saw trees, rivers and sky differently. This shift became my new theme, and my series of over a hundred paintings, called Twin Rivers of Tamagawa, explores this.

Many, seeing such paintings today, would call my works abstract, or semi-abstract. Labels not withstanding, I am still conscious of Gorky and Hasegawa. Even with my new angle, I see their attempt to reach transcendence as noble and bold. In the works of many abstract expressionists I see not only abstract paintings but a yearning and groping for the heavenly language. They were convinced that earth and history did not contain the language to capture the fear and power of the age.

They were right. I see abstraction as a potential language to speak to today's world about the hope of things to come. My works exegete both classical Japanese works and contemporary American paintings. I interpret them in a way, hopefully, that would increase the viewer's passion for seeing the physical reality and heavenly reality. To me the weakness of abstraction does not lie in its denial of the spiritual: the weakness of abstraction lies in its Platonic, Gnostic denial of the physical.. I want to affirm and celebrate the physical. As Paul Mariani, a writer, stated, we need to affirm "the splendid grittiness of the physical as well as to the splendor and consolation of the spiritual. In a word, a sacramental language." This sacramental language must address reality and confront what we see, but must transcend it to grasp what we can't see yet. Therefore I use precious minerals, gold, and silver on delicate handmade Japanese paper to affirm and celebrate the physical with the "sacramental language."

As I live and breathe the culture of New York, as I am called to live to "seek the shalom and prosperity of the city," I must work incarnationally, and get my hands dirty. I want my hands and intuitions to seek the shalom of the splintered and degraded aesthetic language of the day, to play a role, hopefully, to redeem the language of art, so that we can all, Christians and non-Christians alike, use the language to communicate. We need to; the greatest celebration and cosmic wedding awaits us. And this reality will transcend our finite definition of abstraction--it will truly become the abstract noun definition of epitome. We need to be ready, and invite others to join us, to rejoice, dance and sing...and paint.

Copyright Makoto Fujimura. Used by permission.

More essays by Makoto Fujimura...