Interview | Hisao Hanafusa: “I Do It with Nature!”

Author: Dr. Tingting Xu
Hisao Hanafusa (center) and His Son Zui (left)
  • Xu: I’m glad that we are doing this interview for your solo exhibition. Let’s make a comprehensive review of your artistic career and carpentry practices. How about we start from your memories of childhood? I learned from an article that your father was a painter. What kind of paintings did he do? What did you learn from him, and how did your early life impact your later painting practices?

Hanafusa: I was born in 1937 in Kyushu. My father Hoshu Hanafusa 花房芳洲(はなふさほうしゅう) was a painter, and a schoolteacher. We graduated from the same university [Kyoto University of Fine Arts, Japan]. He drew in the old fashion. He wanted me to go to Kyoto for school alone when I was only 14—[he had a] crazy head! That head came to me. In Kyoto, it is hard for a kid to find a place to stay. I asked hundreds of people. They asked: “Where are your parents?” I was by myself. If I took the express train, it would take me about 24 hours to go back to Kyushu; 36 hours for the regular train. Finally, I found an empty space that was one hour away from Kyoto. People would have tea and lunch there temporarily during the tea harvest. I was allowed to stay there. There was no running water in that place. I had to get water from the well by myself. I also cooked for myself. I lived a wild life—strange lifestyle! I never did that before. That crazy life was perfect for making art. Later in my life, people asked me: “Can you go to NYC and make a living by yourself?” Yes, of course. It was easier than what I experienced at the age of 14. 


  • Xu: Do you remember the first pictures you drew when you were a kid?


Hanafusa: I drew my first picture around maybe 3-years-old. At the time, my father had already graduated from college. There were piles of art books at home. The paintings in those books all looked similar. They weren’t the kind of work that I wanted to do. I remembered that I watched the sun going down, with color. My hometown had a lot of hurricanes—typhoons. I drew many pictures of trees moving crazy in the wind. I also drew a picture of our old-style kitchen and the rice cooker made of metal. Its wooden lid was this thick (hands gesturing)! I drew a picture of the lid being lifted by the steam. I always had good ideas. My father drew things old fashion. He wanted to change me, but he wasn’t able to do so. 


  • Xu: What kind of painting materials did you use at the time? 


Hanafusa: Today, if you go to art school, they will ask you to use charcoal to draw pictures in black & white. I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s necessary. I never went to an art supply store. When I was a kid, painting materials were too expensive in Japan. I used chalk most of the time. 

Pigments and Tools.  ©The FQM, 2022



  • Xu: I assume that you also got painting materials from your father at home.


Hanafusa: At the time, my fun was to study Chinese and Western brushes. My father was teaching at the Kagoshima City Museum of Art. I learned how to paint from him by watching him painting. Like him, I also used sumi ink and Chinese brushes—they were made of real animal hair. Do you know that you need to dip a new brush into water before using it? You also need to press the tip of the brush and see how it bounces back. The brushes talk to you. By the way, brushes made of animals’ winter hair are better. They were twice as expensive. When I was in school, I cooked deer skin to make glue, and grounded mineral pigments. I also did silk screen painting with paper coated by persimmon juice to waterproof it. I didn’t have that many opportunities to try Western materials. I did more oil paintings after I arrived in NYC. 


Katsura Imperial Villa ©Katsura Imperial Villa


  • Xu: How was your life in Kyoto? 


Hanafusa: I was there by myself for high school and college. In Kyoto, I found a country house that I wanted to see—the Katsura Imperial Villa. People said I needed to go to City Hall to get a permit. I went to City Hall, but they only gave permits to foreign people—foreign presidents who visited Japan! I tried for three months and went there almost every day. I didn’t give up. Why can’t Japanese people see it? 


Eventually I learned that one kid’s father was working with the mayor. He was a classmate of mine. I asked him to introduce me to his parents because I wanted to see the Katsura. He said: “Come to my home tomorrow. My father is close to the mayor.” The mayor was another kid’s father. I finally got the required paperwork. You see, I’m used to going against everything. Everything in my head is against something. 

The interior of Katsura Imperial Villa ©Katsura Imperial Villa


  • Xu: I see that. What interested you most at the Katsura? 


Hanafusa: I went there two or three times. The building was nicely done, but if I were to grade it, I would give it an “A-”. The house is nice, but there are too many details. For example, the bookcases at Katsura were nice. Some of them were made of wood this thick (hands gesturing). When you walk through the space, the bookcases do tricks and don’t make you feel like you are walking straight. Overall, that is too much work. Too much is too much. Regular is nicer. I don’t like its garden either. I think too much is not good. Why do people say Katsura is the best architecture in Japan? My idea is that you shouldn’t make art or life perfect. You will miss something. It is the missing thing that makes life more fun. 


  • Xu: The black painting with the matrix of dots​​ was one of your early works completed in college. Could you tell us more about this work? 


Hanafusa: The dots are volcanos! I grew up in Kyushu—a state of volcanos. The dots were protruding out about 5 inches from the background. They were made in a pottery workshop. The potters had a turn table and they made perfect tubes and bowls. They also made a couple of different-sized pieces for me. Then I glued them on canvas and painted them black. I used the same ink used for blackboard. I think people are brainwashed by the pigments available in art stores. If you don’t like them, go find your own materials. I was changing blackboard to something that I liked. The shading and the shadows of the “volcanos” become different gradations of black—I made the work three-dimensional! I am not a genius, that’s why I worked with nature to make the work in three dimensions. Now I end up with things from the fifth dimension. 


I made this work for the graduation show. But the teachers didn’t show it at the museum where the show was held. It was kind of fun to be left out! They didn’t take it to the show, so I took it to different galleries. I made 10 to 15 more new paintings. There was a nice gallery in the city of Kyoto. Only famous people could show their work there. But I was able to show my work there! I was the first person who had a solo show before graduation in the school’s 150-year history! 


Before my own show, my teachers were ready to kick me out of the graduation show. They said: “If the gallery accepts your work, we will say sorry.” After the show opened, an assistant professor wanted to meet me with questions. I went to the meeting and saw fifteen professors there. They finally admitted that they were wrong, and I was right. The main professor, who was super famous, said that he would apologize first. Others followed. 


A picture containing indoor, kitchenware

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 Hisao Hanafusa. Untitled (c.1963). Acrylic and resin on canvas. 51 x 63 in (130 x 160 cm)


  • Xu: That was awesome! Thanks for sharing this story. I’m wondering, since you are talking about the protruding, truncated cylinders as the volcanos, would you still consider the work a painting? How would you prefer to exhibit it? 


Hanafusa: Yes, it is a painting. If you hang it on the wall, the daylight will make it 3D. You know, Chinese calligraphy is two-dimensional. Two-dimension is fantastic, because it is human being’s creation. The flat surface is two-dimensional. Chinese calligraphy and painting are two-dimensional. It is really genius to create the written characters in two dimensions. That’s very creative. The pre-historic French animal drawings didn’t draw animals in three dimensions either. They drew in two dimensions, changing the whole world to a surface. This is way more important. For me, I want to transcend the dimension to something else. I want to learn from Chinese calligraphy and make something creatively in three dimensions. I don’t want to use color to get to three dimensions. I use light and shadows instead. 


Detail of the Untitled (c.1963).


  • Xu: You mentioned that now your work is in the fifth dimension. How did you extend three dimensions to four dimensions and then five dimensions? What exactly is the so-called “fifth dimension” in your new work?


Hanafusa: The fourth dimension is the three dimensions plus time. Movies have the fourth dimension. But I want something that has a fifth dimension, that transcends what we know. 


The fifth dimension is mysterious. No one knows what it is. I can use this concept; nobody can complain. No dictionary explains it because nobody can explain it. Thus, it is perfect for artists. Anybody can think about and use the idea of the “fifth dimension.” It doesn’t need to be the same. It’s kind of fun to use it. 


  • Xu: I like the openness you endowed in this concept. We can talk about it more later. Now let’s return to your early career in Japan. Were there any other galleries that were interested in your work? 


Hanafusa: When I was rejected by the school’s thesis exhibition, the Yamada Gallery in Kyoto was also interested in my work. At the time, they were representing the famous Gutai artists. They were all 10-15 years older than me. The gallery wanted me to join the Gutai Group, but I said “no, thank you.” I didn’t join any group. I didn’t want to join them to become famous. I think it’s stupid to join the groups. 


  • Xu: Why not? Isn’t it a good thing to become famous? I’m wondering what your feelings are about group exhibitions in general. 


Hanafusa: If you are famous, you will have to copy yourself. You can’t make it to the next stage. I don’t like that. I’ll just be myself. 

Exhibition view. Guggenheim Museum, 1960s. © Courtesy of Artist


  • Xu: But later you joined three large group exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum. Those were the highlights of your career after you arrived in the U.S.  


Hanafusa: I was happy to be included because in one of the exhibitions my painting was shown next to Francis Bacon’s (1909-1992) painting! Another group exhibition features works by Japanese artists. The third one was about art of the 1960s and the 1970s. I don’t think many people noticed my work. 


Guggenheim Artist Courtesy Pass, © Courtesy of Artist
  • Xu: It is hard to pay attention to an individual artist in such big shows. How did you get into the Guggenheim exhibitions? Maybe we should start from the question of what made you decide to come to New York? That must have been a big decision after graduation. 


Hanafusa: I didn’t feel I had studied anything in Japan. I had no interest in European art. Everything there was old fashioned. I liked the U.S. It seemed to me that American artists all lived in big lofts. They had space to make work, and they were about my age. After I finished college, Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) encouraged me to come to the U.S. We met at the Yamada Gallery. He was buying works from the gallery. The Rockefeller Foundation had connections to all places. There was an artist residency program with the Brooklyn Museum. So I took a boat from Japan to Los Angeles, and then I came to New York. 

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Hisao Hanafusa, Untitled, 1966, Hand signed and dated, Oil on shaped canvas, 64 x 53 in


  • Xu: How was your life in New York? What were the first works you made after you arrived in New York City?


Hanafusa: I arrived in New York in 1963. In my first week, I rented an apartment at 13th Street and 2nd Avenue. I borrowed $300 from a friend. I had all kinds of jobs, including washing dishes. I was out one day to look for a job, but the apartment was broken into. Everything was gone. I had no money left. Then I saw an advertisement for a painting competition in a magazine. The prize was $1,000. The deadline was the next day. So I made the “blue painting” in one night, and borrowed another $5 from the same friend to ship it to Connecticut—my friend said that since I already had borrowed $300 from him, he didn’t mind giving me another $5. The painting was still wet when I shipped it. About 60,000 artists attended the competition. My painting won the first prize! I used that award to pay my rent. That painting was still wet when it won the prize. Later I told the committee that it had been made one night before the deadline. They thought that was amazing. 

Prize-winner art Book 7. © Courtesy of Artist


  • Xu: What a story! You have lot of amazing stories. That is a very intelligent work indeed. After that, your first mature series was the tube paintings. 


Hanafusa: When I was working on the tube paintings, I didn’t do any technical part of the work. I didn’t use the techniques that other painters use for oil paintings. But the work was better than everybody else’s work with brush techniques. My method is only good for me.


If I had stayed in Japan, the galleries wouldn’t have accepted the tube paintings. They don’t think they are paintings. I don’t necessarily like American galleries either. New York and California galleries also asked: “What is this? Are they paintings?” Some of them said: “No, they are not.” I said goodbye to them. 


  • Xu: But there were people who liked your work. Now we can return to the topic of how you got into the Guggenheim Exhibition. 


Hanafusa: I had a solo show at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1969. Gary Snyder wrote a short essay for my show. At the time, I had already started my carpentry work at the Miya Shoji in New York. The owner of the gallery had been a Miya Shoji customer. They did the show and the catalogue in one month. A hundred people came. Through them, I met Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979). My studio was on the 2nd floor of an artists’ building. One day, a guy visited the American artist Joan Mitchell’s (1925-1992) studio on the top floor. It was in the summer. The doors were all open. The guy also saw my work. The next day he brought Stable Gallery’s owner to my studio. At the time, 99% of the galleries were owned by rich ladies. The owner of the gallery saw my work and she said: “we can show your work next month. I am the owner of the gallery. I don’t need to ask for others’ approval to show your work.” So I got a solo show there, even though the gallery’s schedule was already full at the time. 


  • Xu: Ha! What kind of works were included in that show?


Hanafusa: Only tube paintings made when I was young. They were all big paintings. Peggy Guggenheim came to my studio and picked two paintings. Later, an IBM client also bought a work from me and donated it to the Guggenheim Museum. 

Hisao Hanafusa, The 47th-50th Streets, color silkscreen and paper,
signed lower right & edition: 12 /17, 1973. 39 1/2 x 27 in, framed 43 x 31 in.


  • Xu: Is that what got you started? Were you invited to more shows? 


Hanafusa: In 1976, I had another solo show with my father at the Kagoshima City Museum of Art. Our works were shown at the same time, but in separate rooms. I showed 10-12 pieces from the “Subway” series. They were big paintings, measuring about 6x8 feet. Then SFMOMA showed one of my “subway paintings” next to one of Rauschenberg’s paintings. A Beverly Hills person took me there and donated one of my paintings through their family collection. 


Hisao Hanafusa in his studio, ©The FQM, 2022


Hisao Hanafusa in his studio, ©The FQM, 2022


  • Xu: And Miya Shoji always connected you to people and opportunities unexpectedly. May I ask how you started your carpentry career and what you enjoyed most doing it?


Hanafusa: I learned carpentry when I came to New York. Japan has a carpentry tradition with thousands of years of history. People learned from masters, but did not pay tuition. They didn’t pay to learn. The master made it; the young boys watched it. 

In New York, I befriended Shoji Shiraki, a temple maker who later became an artist. He was a temple maker for twelve years before switching careers. Everybody needed a job at the time. They needed carpenters but couldn’t find any. So I got a job there. At that time, Miya Shoji’s boss asked Shoji Shiraki if he could have work done by another carpenter. He refused and worked as a helper [at the workshop] because he made better ones! He couldn’t make work of lesser quality. 


  • Xu: How was your communication with him? Did you guys talk about art?


Hanafusa: When I talked to him, we never talked about art. Art is so broad. You know, one piece of junk could be better than all the beautiful stuff. Art is tough. The competition among artists is very tough. That’s why my father himself gave me the choice and the freedom to choose the life I wanted. 


Hisao Hanafusa, Untitled, 1967, Hand signed and dated, Oil on shaped canvas with anodized aluminum, 48 x 48 in


  • Xu: And it seems that you were trying many different things in painting at the same time. One major turn was the usage of color in the work. Why did you change from B&W to color?


Hanafusa: A long time ago, everything in my work was black. After that, I switched to blue, then yellow—in some of my tube paintings, the whole thing was painted in yellow. Nobody was using yellow at the time. People asked why. I simply thought it was nice to use yellow. 


Installation view of Hisao Hanafusa: Borrowing Nature’s Powers ©THE FQM2022


  • Xu: The Cosmic Inherent Memory series was another major turn from your early career. You started it in the 2000s. Where did you get the inspiration for “cosmic inherent memory”? 


Hanafusa: The cosmic memory is in my brain. I started to think about the cosmic memory when I was about three-years-old. We all carry memories of the cosmos before us. We don’t learn them from something. They come with us. 


Hisao Hanafusa,Untitled, from Uchuiden Kioku (Cosmic inherent memory), Aluminum paint on canvas, 80 x 104 in


  • Xu: I noticed the compositional similarities between the black painting (that we just mentioned) and one of the largest paintings in the Cosmic Inherent Memory series. How do they differ from each other? What has been changed?


Hanafusa: That is my favorite work (pointing to the large silvery painting)! It was done around 2000. They look almost the same! The dates are very different: 1962 versus 2001/2002. The processes are not the same. Only I know how to make these paintings (pointing to the silvery painting). This is the largest one I can do. Now everything is smaller, around 18 by 7 feet. 


  • Xu: Since the painting process is extremely important for your new work, may I ask how you made these silver paintings please? For example, the largest work, which features a matrix of nine dots. How was it made? 


Hanafusa: You are asking a question which nobody out of 100 artists would answer. The background and the dots were made at the same time. You have to try many times to achieve these effects. This is similar to cooking. You mix soy sauce with other things and then wait for timing. It took a few days for paintings in the Cosmic Inherent Memory series to dry, and about 6 months for the Fifth Dimension. The oil and water-based materials separate during that process. I got this idea from the weather. You know, the Canadian cold air comes down to the U.S.; Mexico’s hot air goes up. They mix around Kansas. I’m doing the same thing on canvas. 


Detail of Untitled, Uchuiden Kioku (Cosmic inherent memory), ©THE FQM, 2022


  • Xu: I still want to know more details. Were the silvery background and the dots painted in two layers separately? 


Hanafusa: Ok. I’ll tell you. This is my first time explaining it to people: I used the hardest linen canvas. Each canvas costs 3,000-4,000 dollars. They are expensive, but strong. I dropped the water-oil mixed pigments onto the canvas. Due to its weight and the gravity, the canvas droops along the wooden frames supporting it. That’s how I got the image. If something comes out and I don’t like it, I can re-use the canvas. The canvas has to listen to me. You have to shake hands with the canvas. Let nature do the work, not me! I know I’m not a genius. So how could I get closer to genius? I have to use nature. I did not use my technique, nor my brain, but nature to do the work! I didn’t do the work myself.  Nobody can do such work except for me. 


Installation view of Hisao Hanafusa: Borrowing Nature’s Powers ©THE FQM, 2022


  • Xu: I wonder how your painting is connected to your general understanding of nature and the relations between you and nature, as a practicing carpenter. 


Hanafusa: Now I am the owner of Miya Shoji. A lot of people ask me to make tables. A table could weigh 1,000 pounds alone. If I don’t touch it, different tables come out. If I touch it, it comes out as a work of Miya Shoji—it can last 50 to 60 years. That’s how people want it. Shoji Nakashima makes tables thin. We make them thick. I do it with nature. First, when slicing the wood, we are the only carpentry workshop that uses the timber’s external side for tabletops. We use the side facing outward for the surface. Most people use the inner side because it is wider. That is against nature. The beauty is the nature. My living part is with nature. Furniture is nature-based. Form follows function. The way nature grows is the way you craft. You should always cut the wood in the way the tree grows; use the wood from nearby areas, and listen to the wood.


Hisao Hanafusa’s Studio. ©THE FQM, 2021


  • Xu: I feel that the Fifth Dimension series continues the Cosmic Inherent Memory series in terms of materials and methods. But there has been evolution. First of all, why did you switch to a canvas of smaller scale for the Fifth Dimension series?


Hanafusa: I’m 85 now. I can’t handle large works by myself alone. The 8 x 10 feet canvas is too heavy for me. Smaller works are easier to handle. I made 125 paintings for the Fifth Dimension series. 


  • Xu: Why exactly 125 paintings? 


Hanafusa: That’s enough to stop. They are all the same size, because I also made cardboard boxes by myself to store them. 


  • Xu: For the first time we saw figures in your paintings. Are they figures? Why figures?


Hanafusa: I don’t know (smiling).


  • Xu: Are they self-portraits? 


Hanafusa: I don’t know. I don’t think so (keeps smiling). 


Hisao Hanafusa, Byōbu II, 2021. Six-panel folding screen, aluminum paint, silver leaves on paper. 26 1/2 x 57 ½ ” per panel.From the series “Fifth Dimension,” ca. 2000-present.


  • Xu: The most recent two pieces of work in The Fifth Dimension series were done on folding screens. Is the folding screen a new medium for you? Why screens?


Hanafusa: The Japanese byōbu (folding screen) has a long history. This is why I tried it. It normally has 4 or 6 panels. I painted half of the doubled figures on the folding panels. When the panel is folded, the pigments react with the silver leaf on the facing panel. The pigment oxidizes the silver materials. The image doubles. I didn’t do the work; nature did it. The idea is from the Fifth Dimension. I like mysterious stuff. 


Fifth Dimension Soul-Screen, 2019,  Four-panel folding screen, Aluminum paint on oxidized silver screen.24 x 48 in Each panel, From the series “Fifth Dimension,” ca. 2000-present.


  • Xu: When was the first time you tried the medium of the folding screen?


Hanafusa: In the 1990s, an Italian artist [Francesco Clemente] asked me to make a byōbu for him. He drew the screen and exhibited it at the Templon Gallery in Paris. That was my first time making a screen. I recently finished two screen paintings. The frame of the 4-panel screen was made in Japan. I did the mounting. For the 6-panel screen, I did the mounting as well as the work of gluing the silver leaves onto the screen. Usually, Japanese screens contain 12 panels in pairs. I never did that. I have only done screens of 6 panels, because 12 panels put together would be too heavy for me. That’s a lot of work. If I was younger, in my 50s or 60s, I would do it. Now I’m 85. That’s too much work. I can start it, but I’m not sure whether I can finish it. 


  • Xu: What do you think of the traditional Japanese screens on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? 


Hanafusa: Ogata Korin’s (1658-1716) screens of the Iris flowers are repetitive but fantastic. Many people don’t know that they were printed, not painted. Lots of people were involved in making those screens. The screens were first coated with the persimmon juice to waterproof them. And then the flowery patterns were stamped on them before they were hand-colored. This was also the technique used by Kimono artists. Anybody can make it. That’s not art; that’s craftsmanship. The work is fantastic. People like it. Obviously, it is good, but the “school” is not original. The brand is important for the price and the business—like I. M. Pei’s buildings. There are more than thirty of his buildings in NYC. I don’t want to make my own “school.” I make wooden tables, but they do not bear my name, only the company name “Miya Shoji.” 


  • Xu: Do you enjoy working alone instead of leading a group?


Hanafusa: Yes. Groups can make money. If you work alone, [it is] impossible to make money. But when you work alone, if you make junk, nobody complains. 


  • Xu: Glad to know that you are still trying new things. 
October 21, 2022