Among the most important terms for discussing art from the 20th century onward are “abstraction” and “(im)material.” Once visual art no longer needs to reference concrete figures, just how material are the forms we see in artworks? A geometric form such as a triangle is, in a sense, immaterial. And many artists over the past century or so have been convinced that works composed solely of such immaterial forms can help us approach the invisible spirit that creates the world around us.
Yet it is rash to assume an equivalence between the immaterial and the invisible—or at least this is a point of contention in Japanese aesthetics. In his influential essay In Praise of Shadows (1933), author Junichiro Tanizaki asks readers whether they know the color of “darkness seen by candlelight.” There is a material difference between that color and the darkness of a road at night, he asserts.
Tanizaki connects the former kind of darkness to that of Japanese lacquerware, once called “japan” in English. “Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware,” he writes. “The lacquerware of the past was finished in brown, black, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness.”
It actually does require numerous coats of lacquer to make a piece of lacquerware. Moreover, the surface of the object needs to be repeatedly polished and scored with fine grooves for each coat to take. What accumulates in the color of lacquerware, then, are not flat layers but rather scores of minute undulations. These are what produces those “colors built up…of darkness.” And, in Tanizaki’s mind, the beauty of that color only achieves its full effect in dim lighting.
Tanizaki discovered materiality in darkness precisely because it was invisible. In which case, it should also be possible to produce the opposite effect and convey immateriality by giving it visible form. If this at first sounds like mere wordplay, there’s at least one designer who consistently sought to put that thesis into practice: Shiro Kuramata (cat. no. 2).