Drawing that Contacts the Infinite

Takayuki Kurimoto (Art Critic)

“Line” as an Issue of Thought

  An investigation of modern and contemporary art history reveals that “line,” which, along with “color,” is considered a basic element of form, can be classified into two types of functions depending on its stage of development. One is to make concrete objects, whether real or imaginary, appear in space through tracing the contours of things. The other is to depart from the depiction of objects, instead orchestrating abstract movements within space as pure symbols of the artist’s body and mind.

  This could also be described as the difference between the transitive line and the intransitive line. Abstract art and Surrealism, which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, had furthermore led to the permeation of the latter. Artists who used drawing as a key means of expression embarked on a variety of experiments, revisiting the very concept of “line” amidst the artistic vision brought about by these new forms of aesthetic and the normative ways of thinking in conventional art.


  As an artist living in the 21st century, Hiraku Suzuki has continued to confront philosophical questions surrounding “line.” Suzuki’s drawings articulate his creative thinking that raises new and critical questions regarding the historical context of the “conflict between the transitive and the intransitive line.”

  Looking at works from his representative series, Constellation, Interexcavation, and The Writing of Meteors that are featured in the Excavation Today exhibition, one can see that each space is composed of a set of abstract lines that have been liberated from the need to draw contours. However, upon closer inspection, the silver lines floating against the monochrome backgrounds appear to harbor a certain regularity that makes one wonder whether each represents a symbol of sorts. While the lines in the drawings are not kanji, kana, or the alphabet, like coming across letters belonging to some unknown civilization, we accept and gaze upon them as if looking at secret diagrams or cryptic objects.

  If that which is expressed are purely intransitive lines, we will not perceive the trajectories before us as entailing anything specific. The spaces within Suzuki’s drawings, however, clearly employ a centripetal composition, wherein countless silver lines are assembled in an orderly rather than offhanded manner. Therefore, even in terms of the relationship between the lines, the viewer subconsciously finds themself engaging in a series of efforts to arrive at a specific pattern recognition. At this point, the trajectories of the lines, which seemed to move autonomously, transform into things containing within them vectors that attempt to form indefinite objects. In other words, in Suzuki Hiraku’s works, transitive lines (figurativeness) and intransitive lines (abstraction) are combined into one like two sides of the same coin.


Expressions that Connect to the Roots of Human History

  The group of lines in Suzuki’s works, while not corresponding to everyday things and affairs, are extremely symbolic in that they imply a sense of connection to the world of concrete meaning. Yet at the same time, the code for their decipherment is nowhere to be found. Should one attempt at some means of formalization, one could say that the lines detained in the face of the concept depict undefined signs within space.

  Thinking in this way, it is possible to see that the lines in Suzuki’s drawings have the function of making the “middle zone” between concrete and abstract expressions visible to the viewer. In other words, the lines seem to be drawn in order to “record” unknown symbols upon the support while abandoning the act of “reproducing” a particular object. Nevertheless, Suzuki’s artistic goal is not simply to deny descriptive painting and arrive at documentation in the broad sense. This is something that he himself has always stated.


  Drawing exists between pictures and language. In fact, drawing and writing were once one and the same. 1


  When viewed from the perspective of a visual artist, “language,” as it is written by human beings, has an appearance that is affiliated with motifs of abstract painting. The fact that not only Cubist painters, but Abstract Expressionist artists such as Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974) and Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) had incorporated literal forms in their paintings as well, is indeed testimony of this. It was once “discovered” with fresh surprise that “letters,” as visual receptacles of language, could not only appear in literature, but could also be expressed in the context of painting.

  Based on this art historical premise, Suzuki intentionally focuses on “drawing” as a third approach that neither belongs to “painting” nor “writing.” As if weaving through the gaps between the vast and fertile fields of the history of painting and the history of literature, he advances his thinking along the narrow path of the genealogy of drawing as a means of expression.

  His statement, quoted above, continues as follows:


    Long before we began using what we now know as language, the ancients etched the rhythms of the stars into mammoth tusks, onto cave walls, and across the face of ordinary stones. This is how humans invented signs. Letters and language were developed by humans to orient themselves within a world where the unknown is constantly present. And we have managed to survive as a species by using language to better study and relate to our world. 2


  From this statement it is possible to capture a glimpse of Suzuki’s bold creative thinking. In other words, drawing is considered a field of expression so firmly connected to the ancient memories of humankind, that it must be contemplated on a prehistoric archaeological scale. That which Suzuki had repeatedly encountered in the process of fleshing out such claims, were Stone Age petroglyphs. In particular, symbolic line indentations left on cave walls had served as a key source of reference in his process of creating work.

  Speaking of cave paintings, what comes to mind are realistic depictions of animals as represented by those found in the Lascaux ruins. However, Hiraku Suzuki focuses not on hunting scenes depicted through the layering of painterly materials, but on the abstract symbols carved out of the rock walls. In terms of the wording used so far in this paper, traces of prehistoric human artistic activity include both “transitive: figurative painting” and “intransitive: abstract drawing,” and Suzuki, by linking the latter tendency with his own work, could be regarded as attempting to refine the idea of “line” in the present age.

  However, despite detaching himself from painting, intransitive lines are not the only thing that appear in his work. The true essence of Suzuki’s work lies in the fact that it also maintains an indivisible relationship with transitive lines, that is, lines that have the disposition of producing something further based on an object other than itself.

  What should be questioned here, is none other than the hidden conceptual intercommunication between drawing and writing.


“Engraving” the Universe

  Hiraku Suzuki’s drawings not only illustrate intuitive parallels to prehistoric line engravings, but also offer a vision that allows for science fiction-like scenes of contacting extraterrestrial life in outer-space. Although there is a difference in vectors of time (past and future), cave ruins and outer space have something in common in that they are both “places” suitable for peering into the limits of human imagination. Such is perhaps the reason why Suzuki seems to intentionally overlap the two.

  It is also possible to mention specific figures that serve as a pivotal axis for Suzuki’s thoughts in taking this approach. What immediately come to mind are scholars and thinkers, such as André Leroy-Goulin (1911–1986), who employed the term “graphisme” to describe the fundamental role of line engraving in the expression of human thought, and Roger Caillois (1913–1978), who wrote The Writing of Stones (1970), which inspired the naming and production method for Suzuki’s The Writing of Meteors series.

  However, that which is rather essential in making sense of the intrinsic logical relationship between drawing and writing, is one of America’s leading abstract painters, Mark Tobey (1890–1976). One believes that the essence of the concept of “drawing” articulated by Hiraku Suzuki can be fully revealed through the thoughts and works of such predecessors in art history.

  Tobey is credited with arriving at the “all-over” style in the mid-1930s, ahead of the Abstract Expressionist artists. The “all-over” style entailed eliminating compositions consisting of a center and periphery, instead uniformly covering the picture plane with countless fine lines. Provided that, what sets him apart from New York-based painters such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) is his hands-on study of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy art from across the Pacific, and his use of the term “white writing” to define his own style while drawing links between calligraphic expression and religious cosmology.3  The white lines that extend across the canvas like a spider’s web in his “White Lighting” works exist as a bundle of light that invites viewers to meditate on outer space. Moreover, in terms of Tobey’s awareness, such were objects of “writing” rather than “painting.”

  Hiraku Suzuki is greatly inspired by the concept of Mark Tobey’s abstract paintings, which could be referred to as “writing in the universe.” What is more, it seems that he is trying to redefine his own drawings as an act of “engraving the universe” in a developmental way.

  To “engrave” is to make incisions. It is perceivable that what lies at the basis of Tobey’s practice in the art of calligraphy, is actually the idea of inflicting grazes in the form of “lines” upon the “universe” that extends beyond the human world, and causing countless beings to spring forth from within these wounds. In this case, the calligrapher does not engage in “adding” lines of ink to the finite margins of paper, but instead makes incisions in the infinite universe and “extracts” the phenomenon of letters from it. Such an approach would lead to salvaging the perspective and sensitivity of oriental metaphysics, which is closely tied to the tradition of brush-and-ink expression.

  In light of Suzuki’s long-standing concept, the essence of painting with paint is an act of “addition,” whereas calligraphy and drawing are a means of “subtractive expression.”4  In other words, it means that the artist must abandon the arrogance of creating something from scratch, and always contact the “universe” that is already in front of them with a sense of awe and reverence, and assume that they are drawing out what implicitly exists within it in a subdued manner. Suzuki intently engages in drawing lines in his endeavor to venture towards this state.

  Excavating unknown “lines” from an overflowing space—Hiraku Suzuki’s drawings continue to be unearthed in the stratum of the present as a paean to all beings that emerge within this infinite universe.





1:  Langue and Space vol. 1  Hiraku Suzuki  Signs of Faraway (Aomori Contemporaru Art Centre, Aomori Public University, 2015), p. 3.

2: Ibid

3: Mark Tobey was a follower of the Bahá’í Faith, a new monotheistic religion that originated in 19th century Iran.

4: See Hiraku Suzuki’s remarks in “The Origins of Letters,” his conversation with calligrapher Kyuyo Ishikawa published in Flap-flop, Clap-clop: A Place Where Words Are Born (Sayusha, 2017), pp. 13-14. Suzuki also seems to have in mind the discourse of cultural anthropologist Tim Ingold (1948–) as the source of his idea for the dichotomy between “addition” and “subtraction.”


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