Shigeru Onishi (1928–1994)

Shigeru Onishi was born in Takahashi city, Okayama prefecture in 1928. He was quite precocious and as a junior high school student, his difficult questions would often stump his teachers. There are also accounts that he eagerly studied the I Ching divination manual. He entered Hokkaido University to study topology and graduated in 1953 but stayed to study mathematics. He worked on his theoretical mathematical treatise, A Study of Meta-Infinite, which can also be considered his life work. It was at this time that he began photography in an attempt to demonstrate his mathematical theories in art. Although he was a self-educated photographer, he was familiar with a variety of photographic and photo development techniques such as multiple exposure, development processing with brushes and sponges, discoloration due to particular developing agents, film processing, color tone changes due to manipulation of the development temperature and others. He utilized these techniques to achieve experimental results that were beyond his intention.

According to Onishi, the goal of a photographic work is “to know the conditions of the subject’s formation which is founded on a desire to pursue such metamathematic propositions as the ‘the possibility of existence’ and ‘the possibility of arbitrary choice.’” 1
It is believed that he produced photographic works when he was at Hokkaido University until around 1958. It was around that time in 1955 that he exhibited his first one-person show at the Nabis gallery in Tokyo with written contributions from Shuzo Takiguchi and Shigene Kanamaru in the invitation pamphlet. In 1957, Takiguchi organized Onishi’s second one-person show at the Takemiya Gallery, titled The Second Shigeru Onishi Photography Exhibition.

During this time, there was travelling exhibition that had come to Tokyo, titled The First International Subjective Photography Exhibition (1956). The exhibition focused on the Subjektive Fotografie movement centered around the German photographer, Otto Steinert but also included Japanese artists like Onishi. The following year, Onishi’s photographs were introduced in a special feature for Subjectivist Photographs, called A Special Number Atelier: New Photography, with other major artists in the movement. But the mathematical propositions fundamental to Onishi were beyond the scope of photography. As Onishi continued his theoretical mathematical treatise, his artistic medium shifted and he started to produce large scale abstract ink paintings.

In 1957, he became acquaintances with the French critic Michel Tapié who was visiting Japan. In the same year Onishi’s abstract ink paintings were exhibited in an international exhibition focusing on Art Informel organized by Tapié, The World- Contemporary Art Exhibition (Tokyo and Osaka).
Afterwards, Tapié began to actively introduce Onishi’s abstract ink paintings and works by Gutai artists in Europe, associating them with the Art Informel movement.
In 1969, the International Center of Aesthetic Researched founded by Tapié published Onishi’s first monograph, titled A Study of Meta-Infinite: Logic of Continuum (1). A noteworthy monograph because its pages are mostly filled with Onishi’s theoretical mathematical treatise. The following year, a publisher in Cologne published his collected theoretical writings, Super Function Theory.

Although Onishi’s abstract ink paintings were widely introduced from the 1950’s to the 1970’s throughout Europe, he did not keep the company of international art circles. He stayed in his hometown in Okayama prefecture and continued his mathematical research and continued the production of his art works until his passing.


1 Shigeru Onishi, The Goal of Drawing, Photo 35, 1957, July


Shigeru Onishi
A Metamathematical Proposition

Edited by Manfred Heiting
Text written by Ryuichi Kaneko
192 pages, 195 images
Hardback 23 × 28 cm
English / Japanese
Published by Steidl
More information>>>


“The Possibility of Existence”
Sep. 17, 2021 – Jan. 9, 2022
Foam Fotografiemuseum (Amsterdam)

Apr. 8, 2022 – Jan. 22, 2023
Bombas Gens Centre d’Art (Valencia, Spain)



Further readings