In the imminence of her 100th birthday, Tomie Ohtake works every week in new paintings, sculptures, and prints, while serenely entertaining visitors who are interested in asking her once again about her trajectory. To every new journalist introduced to her, the family explains that it is better not to have too many expectations, because Tomie Ohtake doesn’t speak much, hardly says anything, and this isn’t just because of her age. The strength in her production comes, among other things, from the intimate and spontaneous way of her creative process, free from any commitment with explanatory discourses. Her near-silence speaks, thus, of her deep involvement with an art freed from calculable and rational compositional principles that marked concrete artists’ discourses in the mid 1950’s. This gamble opened a path into a continuous and cohesive investigation of the abstract form that transcends the constructive-geometric paradigms.
Hereinafter, we propose a passage through some short statements made by Tomie Ohtake during a conversation with the authors in August 2013.
“At that time I didn’t know how to prepare the paint, but I also didn’t like asking people about it, so I kept trying to find out on my own”
Encouraged by Keiya Sugano, a known Japanese painter who passed through Brazil, Tomie Ohtake spent a week experimenting with oil painting in 1952. At the time she was 39, a housewife and mother of two, and has never stopped painting since. In her affective biography, this week represents the moment of reuniting with the dream she had in Japan, kept in hibernation since her arrival in Brazil, in 1936. Doing art, living as an artist – this ambition didn’t have a predetermined direction, and began by being fed by the most traditional figurative themes: still-life paintings, portraits, houses and urban scenarios. Despite the conventionality of these subjects, Tomie Ohtake emphasizes the empirical approach she applied, for she was too proud and too anxious to dive into the technical principles of western academic painting, which – much like the watercolor technique she learned in school back in Japan during her youth – seemed far too concerned with virtuosities. The attention to the intrinsic qualities of painting materials – texture, viscosity, pigmentation, transparency, drying time, etc. – began, thus, almost as an accident, and later became one of the defining aspects of her production.
“I don’t give titles to my work so that the person who sees it does not create a single meaning in their heads. The lack of titles allows people to use their own ideas.”
Very quickly, even before she began continuously interacting with artists and critics from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Tomie Ohtake broke free from the explicit figurative aspect of her early studies and dove into the investigation of abstractions created without ruler or compass – free non-figurative forms that still evoke aquatic surfaces, lights, stars, cosmological images, depending on the beholder’s imagination.
To her, this choice came less from a wish to be directly associated with this or that avant-garde movement, and more as echoes from her aesthetical affiliation with forms and compositions that were more condensed and cohesive. Therefore, the abstraction allowed for a more direct and elementary handling of color, gesture and materiality. It also freed the fruition of the works, taking them to an open terrain, without scripts or predetermined paths set by the artist. Finally, she chose abstraction due to her acclaimed preference for household items, culture and Japanese rituals – from theater to religion, passing through to the creation of ornaments; she says to have always chosen the most simple and condensed. Again, in her affective universe, the simplicity found in her home, in her workspace, is intertwined with what she seeks in her painting.
“There is no concept”
When questioned, Tomie Ohtake reiterates – with the same attitude she has maintained for decades – that her paintings do not result from the implementation of concepts, calculations, or previously elaborated formulas. Everything is gesture, only pictorial gesture, she ensures. It is impossible to fully believe this affirmation, since it would be impossible to completely purge the gesture from the pictorial process, and so, it is also unlikely to eliminate all thinking and logical formulation from the creative process.
The truth is that, when affirming the ‘non-conceptuality’ of her work, Tomie Ohtake is being accountable to art history, stressing the difference between her and the concrete and neo-concrete avant-garde movements in Brazil. Unlike the programs, manifestos, and principles from these groups, the artist’s practice is based on the research about the power of her gestures, this is, the possible encounters between her hand and the material she chooses, either for her studies or her artworks. The concept, thereby, resides in the hypothesis of researching materials, forms and colors, which she has recombined throughout six decades of work. Far from random in her procedures, she knew how to, in each period, maintain some variables and keep others in an open position, much like a musician interested in exploring alternative aspects of the musical scales.
“After the phase of the ‘blind paintings’, when I wasn’t painting, I spent my time assembling and combining forms, in those studies made from shredded paper and cutouts”
The most recurring process in Tomie Ohtake’s works is the collage: made from tears and cutouts from Brazilian and Japanese magazines. Since the first half of the 1960’s, she has used this procedure to define color fields close to geometric shapes, made imprecise by the effect of tearing the paper by hand, that is, because of the textures, grooves and edges from the unpredictable detours that this method imposes to forms. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, her studies evince a stronger definition of the forms’ contour. This is due to the use of scissors for cutting the paper. These small projects reverberate directly in the artist’s works, which many times maintain in her paintings and prints the same delicate contours of the collages as well as the textures and tonalities of the papers she used.
The existence of these studies and the fidelity of their unfolding into paintings don’t contradict the commitment of the intuitive gesture defended by the artist. But actually, they change, the temporality of the work. Unlike the meditative process, intensely immersed in a state of improvisation and drifting of the brushstrokes, Tomie Ohtake relies on decisive moments in which chance, handiness and intuition converge in an untimely manner. Using eastern metaphors, her painting is closer to a samurai blow than to the meditation of a monk. These compact gestures reverberate, in the continuity of her work, in multiple reinterpretations and recombination of the forms, according to an empirical method of non-dogmatic exploration of possibilities. The improvised compositions of the collages become symbols that the artist articulates as pieces of visual phrases, fragments of a personal language.
“Niemeyer once said that the line made with a ruler is not a human line, it needs to be free-hand.”
When Tomie Ohtake revisits this quote by Niemeyer, the artist is speaking of herself. Even though she did utilize scissors in some of her studies, she never used precision instruments when drawing her forms, like ruler and compass. Thus, she kept herself open to chance and to the imprecisions of the hand. Furthermore, it is possible to always identify the analogy between her works and the morphology of the architecture and the landscape: Niemeyer’s poetic is based on the indistinctness between natural curves and lines built by men; in the opposite direction, it is possible to perceive a tectonic intelligence in Tomie Ohtake’s production, evident from the 1980’s onwards, when she began developing sculptures and public artworks conceived as an unfolding of her forms and curves into three-dimensional space.
“I like music, Beethoven and other classics, but to work, I need silence”
As this interview tried to clarify, Tomie Ohtake’s painting aims at the simplicity of the gesture and the form. Maybe it is this objective and intense attitude that demands quietness, a basis for observation and continuous reformulation of her own pictorial alphabet.
Paulo Miyada e Carolina De Angelis