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Tomie Ohtake's Building of Forms

Before her painting, the critic faces a perpetual challenge: either he talks about painting, or he has to withdraw. In effect, in her canvases Tomie Ohtake neither describes lived or dreamed situations, nor reads or recreates the reality that surrounds both her and us; she also does not move toward social or political analyses and, furthermore, her work is not confessional or autobiographical. Thus, there is nothing for the critic to cling to in order to escape the challenge of talking about painting.

Yet, to talk about Ohtake's painting is to talk primarily about form. It is form that comes to mind when we think of her painting. In 1976, when critiquing an exhibit by the artist, I wrote: "One retains in one's memory, with absolute clarity, that precise form that is at once rigorous and soft. One retains in one's memory that precise gesture that makes color travel within color, in ripples. One retains in one's memory that precise shape or capsule, apparently suspended in space yet at the same time so solidly bound to the canvas. One retains in one's  memory that precise succession of arched forms that occupy the lower part of the canvas-precise and distinct shapes that move us like certain bright sunny mornings, when everything seems to acquire a perfect balance, like the calm and soft brilliance of certain autumn afternoons, like the solidity of the rock, the wave, silence. "

It is as if Tomie Ohtake created the forms that we need or desire - distinct and precise forms, capable of fulfilling our needs, which is profound and permanent, for order and beauty, for luminescence and freshness, for transparency; forms that function as a type of visual hygiene, a necessary counterpoint to the fragmentation and dispersion of the current world, a world that is chaotic, quick, and attached to the materiality of objects and consumption; a necessary counterpoint to the excess of contingent reality and to the flood of useless information transmitted through the mass media. Hence, her forms remain in our memory as models or archetypes of a healthy world of clean light, a world worth living in.

However, form is not wrapping, in the same way that the idea of precision does not end at the visual field. It is above all a foundational principle. From the perspective of the Gestalt theory, form is structure - a totalizing structure. Certain laws that we do not distinguish visually rule the world. As Klee once stated, the artist makes visible that which is invisible in the world. Thus, we have the world as Form - that is, as structure - and as forms - that is, individualized and private manifestations. However, the private form is simultaneously color, texture, pictorial matter, a way of painting, and, ultimately, an atmosphere and an environment. It is worth noting that they are part of a larger, more complex structure, a spatial-temporal continuum that is Form. Tomie Ohtake's painting is both Form and forms.

In 1969, critic and historian Lionello Venturi wrote: "The form's perfection does not exist - that is, every form is perfect when it is created. The perfection of the form depends on the artist’s personality, that's all. To see whether a form is perfect, one need only reconstruct the artist’s personality and determine if it has been absorbed by his creative imagination." It’s true. The forms created by Ohtake stay in our memory, enriching our existence, because they are consistent, honorable, and whole. And they are convincing because they are sustained by a strong personality. It does not matter if, after being concluded, and when living in the canvas, the forms become, in the world of culture, impersonal and anonymous like so many other forms that at every moment are confirming the beauty of the world.

In one of the rare interviews she gave about her work - an interview published in 1975 in the 15th Campinas Art salon catalogue -, Tomie Ohtake states: "My work is Western; nevertheless, it receives much Japanese influence, a reflection of my formation. This influence is noticeable in the search for synthesis: a few elements must say many things. In haiku poetry, for instance, you speak about the world in seventeen syllables. Since the elements are few, they must be very precise, in form as well as in colors and relations. "The artist was born in Kyoto, a sacred city where the wooden religious buildings are structurally flawless. The fittings, the internal areas that value empty spaces, the roofs, and the balconies reveal an extraordinary expressive economy. This experience of the sacred was complemented by studies of the arts of calligraphy and drawing in both elementary and middle schools. Yet Ohtake, who moved to Brazil in 1936, was only initiated into the art of painting in 1952. However, it was not until the 1970s that she was to define her own repertoire of forms, infusing them with her own personality. At that point, she was perfectly integrated into the Brazilian art circuit and had reached, in Mário Pedrosa's words, "the high spiritual standards required by her personality "by recovering her Japanese roots. That which Noma Seroku defined as the fundamental characteristic of Japanese art- "the spiritual depth that is found in the simplicity of its expression” - also applies to Tomie Ohtake's painting.

A Constructive artist, Ohtake uses neither mathematical structures nor the authoritarianism of straight lines and orthogonal planes to support her creative work. If, as we have seen, she rarely agrees to explain her work, it is because it is not bound to any aesthetic dogma or to any previous theory. She is intuitive, like so many other Brazilian Constructive artists. Her creative method is empirical, although this does not diminish its rigor or prevent us from analyzing her painting in intellectual terms, identifying some recurring elements or formal categories that appear in her work's different phases and are perfectly coherent, resulting in a "discourse of forms" and composing an aesthetic thought.

Ohtake’s very brief figurative phase counts for very little in her body of work. Nevertheless, in a 1952 canvas that stands out we see a set of houses diagonally slicing the canvas, anticipating the composition with linked yellow arches produced in 1974. The roof that imposes itself as a great red strip, to the left in the 1952 canvas, is relocated to the floor in the 1974 work. The function of the two strips is to maintain the composition within the two dimensional surfaces. The dominant yellow - orange is another common aspect. A period of trials follows, when the artist wavers between residual figurativeness and the desire for abstraction, between the line still bound to the figure and the stain that wants to impose itself, between a persistent linework and the almost tactile matter that insinuates itself.

It was, however, at the turn of the decade, between 1959 and 1962,  that Ohtake astonished everyone with a series of impeccable works that I do not hesitate to identify as the peak of informal abstraction in Brazil. In fact, labeling these works "informal" is an injustice, since nothing in them likens them to tachism’s gestural rhetoric, to the norm of quick execution, or to the occasionally attractive, but decorative, matter. On the contrary, the works are painstakingly and slowly elaborated, layer upon layer, in an uninterrupted and unrelenting dialogue between laying and overlaying, between un-doing and re-creating, between blotching and effacing, between lines-near-groves inscribed directly on the pictorial matter-and vast colorless areas, and between shady and illuminated areas-all of this in order to emphasize, at the same time, the porous canvas surface (space) and depths (time).

These canvases represent Ohtake's first conscious effort to define painting as form - a living form, in Susanne Langer's words, that speaks not of precise forms but of those in movement, Heraclitean, pure becoming: the nascent form, which is produced in opposed, divergent, or convergent movements that at times expand to the point of bleeding the sides of the canvas, while at others they are concentrated, as if seeking the temporary lull of a center, to then, almost immediately, flow back out in waves, spirals, concavities, drops, dives, abysses, vortexes. Between the extremes of the black and the white, multiple gray tonalities, which are attached to fading blues, ochre, and rusty reds. The line is dissolved in the stain, and the brushstrokes are submerged in the pictorial matter. Suddenly, a yellow attempts to emerge and overwhelm the canvas' entire surface, like what the foamy wave leaves behind as it is washed ashore and then finally swallowed by the sand. For a moment, the sand retains the memory of the water - "aerial foam gardens laying siege to the living shape"(Olga Savary).

What follows, throughout the 1960s, is Ohtake's effort to stop the previous fluidity, the form's constant flow, as if, in an outburst of "classic consciousness," she sought to substitute the precarious, unstable, transient, and uncontrollable living form by something solid, consistent, and lasting. However, this was not a Classicism that returns to its Greek origins or to contemporary minimalism; it was, rather, a sort of vivifying brutality - not the clean form, the precise outline, or the smooth pictorial matter, but the almost coarse form, the wrinkled matter and the irregular outline. The linework retreats, the stain is secured in compact areas and masses, nearly planes, the chromatic sloping of the gray hues, interrupted by cold tonalities, is substituted by loud yellows, intense reds, and introverted blues or greens, in a friendly confrontation with opaque blacks or whites. This is a period of intense experimentation and, as such, produced uneven results. However, between advances and setbacks, Ohtake begins to define a repertoire of forms, some of which, though continually reformulated, would recur throughout her work. The crack opens a gap, through which a bit of light passes or divides the rectangles in two, while these, in turn, although still umbilically connected, are symmetrically inflected. The semi-circle at times appears on its own, like the branch of a river, while at others it faces its counterpart, each slightly twisted and creating virtual spaces between them. The triangle is like a meteorite bursting abruptly into space, precariously balanced within the canvas 'four" walls. "Ohtake continuously plays with these and other forms, with smaller, black forms sometimes nearly touching them or else separating them, or yet, superimposed like pure layers of color.

Monumental, shocking, possibly abstract-these shape-signs recall monoliths coarse, two-legged, stone pieces of architecture. At an intermediate point between figure and abstraction, they lie, rise, or float in the canvas' space, thus leaving unsolved the always-problematic relation between background and surface and therefore contradictorily recreating the representative space. In a 1963 painting, a typical transitional work that is nevertheless fully accomplished, color entirely occupies the canvas' space, which is divided into two chromatically differentiated planes. The lower, rectangular plane occupies one-third of the canvas and the upper plane forms a square in the remaining two-thirds. The greater weight of the red below is compensated by the larger area of white, which shelters a central area in blue that virtually divides the upper plane into two rectangles. The opposition between the background and the surface persists minimally and subtly in the very straight margin that separates the painted area from the canvas' stiff border. In two other canvases - among the most significant of the period-the way in which the shape-signs were implanted in the canvas' space is so powerful and disturbing that they end up contaminating the background itself with their pulse, and it in turn is activated and comes to compose the work's spatiality in Gestalt - like manner.

Beginning in 1973, the curve, in its different configurations and in each way it unfolds, Predominates in Ohtake’s work: arches (1973-1982), oval or capsular forms (1976-1979), tubular forms (1978-1982), organic forms (1979-1982). Curves that occasionally are made up of lines: squares, rectangles, triangles, trapezoids. A sequence of photographs reproduced in Casimiro Xavier de Mendonça's 1983 book about Tomie Ohtake illustrates the artist’s creative methodology. She first appears drawing lines with a charcoal stick then, with the wide brush wet with paint and sliding over the fabric; then, with scissors in hand, she cuts from the cardboard the forms that, after being analyzed and compared carefully, will be implanted on the canvas. The creations of the 1970s originate, almost always, in these clear, distinct, and precise cut-up forms with which the artist was to build her pictorial architecture: the Tomie Ohtake building.

If architecture's organization is based on the relationship between weight and support - that is, between entablature and column - then the arch will determine the different architectural styles. If, in the 1960s, it was possible to identify, here and there in Ohtake's forms, the menhir and the dolmen, in the 1970s the presence of the arch is overwhelming. Thus we have the round arch, the "polylobed" arch, the convex arch, the flat-topped vault, the chancel arch, and, moving toward the appropriation of more complex constructive systems, arcades, aisle arches, architraves, flying buttresses, "rampant" arches, and so on.

The idea is not, however, to record the different types or families of arches on the canvas some of them invented or recreated by the artist - but, rather, to pictorially define the shape, establishing new structural relations between lines, colors, blotches, space, and time. The relations will determine the emergence of purely visual rhythms: chains, repetitions, displacements, superimpositions, reflections, and so on. If, in the arches' configuration, the emphasis is placed on the line, the arched shape is clearly highlighted in the canvas' space. As a consequence, the Ohtake building is enriched by a new architectural vocabulary: windows, doors, columns, oculi, openings, or gaps, organized in pairs, sets of three, sequences, symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangements, one after another, or all at once, creating hybrid groups with other geometric figures where the arch is itself inclined, lifted, suspended, or deformed in winding irruptions, as if it represented its own shadow. However, this almost excessive list of functional architectural forms indicates only a first perceptive moment. The Form, as a totalizing structure, is not exhausted in the arch's drawing, and, regardless of its attractiveness or impact, it also includes the emptiness and gaps that emerge between forms; these are in turn continually transformed through the intervention of color.

This spatial dynamics is even richer when, in the arch's configuration, the emphasis is placed on color. Let us take as an example a 1973 painting in which a large, complete, rose - colored, richly textured arch stands out over a smooth, red background. The arch's base is a line that is broken at a certain point and over which white bursts out, as if the artist wished to fuse and recreate in a single image two icons of Japanese culture, the great red circle of the flag, and snow-capped Mount Fuji. An ambiguous spatiality derives from the relation between these various components, since the great arch seems to emerge as much as be submerged, at once inside and outside the red.

However, the masterpiece in the series of arches created by Ohtake is a 1974 painting in which the arched shape is undone in successive waves of red onto the red surface itself-color within color, arches within arches. Medieval churches have porticos with receding architraves, while in Gothic churches jambs are decorated with superimposed statuary. This canvas we are describing would be, then, the transposition of a portico organized in architraves to the sphere of abstract color. Yet this painting is, at the same time, an extraordinary chromatic exercise color worked onto color, i.e., onto the materiality with which it is laden. It is a joyous offering of color. With each brushstroke, the color is transformed, renewing and enriching the matter. Through the artist's intervention, what was at first pure quantity becomes differentiated quality-pigmentation color, color-space, generating planes that mediate background and surface. Color - time.

Around 1976, Ohtake introduced in her painting the "capsular" form, whose origin may be found, once again, in architecture. I am referring to the "oculus", the function of which is to ventilate and light up a building's interior. With its impeccable outline, this form first appears vertically, occupying the center of the canvas with a gradually darkened red, then horizontally, like a blue ship traveling silently in the blueness of space, like a blue planet lost in the cosmos -once again, color on color. For a moment, the "capsule" rests on a "pedestal, "to then rise again and freeze over the horizon or else transform itself into a giant bean pod, like Icarus approaching the sun. If earlier, from 1959 to 1962, the blotch expanded as if seeking the canvas' limit, in the "capsules" blotches are imprisoned in a hermetically sealed yet transparent space, like the memory of something that comes from a distant time and place. Ohtake Painting then acquires a temporal dimension, yet of time not as (kinetic) movement but as animistic projection, from afar and from within, both depth and interiority.

However, the curve's highest achievement and most vigorous moment in Tomie Ohtake's painting was in a series of paintings dating from 1978 to 1982 and organized according to the tubular form. It is, in fact, the recreation of the flying buttress, usually inverted. In religious buildings, the flying buttress is the external arch that, supported by outer abutments, sustains the dome thrust an architectural component that fulfills the irresistible human desire to continuously elevate the religious building in the Middle Ages, Wilhelm Worringer points out that Gothic architectures expression is not based on matter but, rather, arises from its very negation. To dematerialize the stone means, therefore, to spiritualize it. In other words, if the stone's essence is weight, and this weight is sustained horizontally, then the Gothic architect seeks its opposite, the spirit, which is manifested vertically. Ohtake transplants the flying buttress into the canvas; its function, however, is not to make the base vertical, but, rather, to reinforce its original format, which is invariably the square. If on the one hand the powerful tubular structure seems to virtually reach beyond the canvas, on the other hand the curve never actually threatens the squares stability-much to the contrary. Thus, the first impression we have of the paintings is that of heaviness and stillness. These strong and impressive works declare a clear desire for form. This impression persists even when Ohtake daringly builds the tubular shape only with the white of the canvas that is, with the blank surface, an absence that turns into presence, a full emptiness.

If, in the previous configurations of the arched or capsular form, the visual sensation we experience is that of tightness and elevation - "I live in the heights and my throne is in a column of clouds" - in the series we are describing the feeling is precisely the opposite: density, materiality, thickness. In this sense, Ohtake would be closer to the Roman than the Gothic, closer to the monastery than the cathedral. Let us not forget that the artist, in that rare 1975 interview, stated that her painting, although Western, had been greatly influenced by Japan. Well, the essentially massive and closed Roman style originates in the primitive Christian church, although it borrowed from Eastern art a number of solutions it would later employ, The Roman, even more than the Gothic, is at the center of the North/South clash, a clash that, projected into the present, happens between East and West. "The Roman,"Worringer claims, "Has this pompous seriousness that is full of character, this somewhat heavy splendor that is produced when two artistic worlds are unable to penetrate each other and remain, honorably and bluntly, side by side."

Tomie Ohtake's poetics is based on the line/blotch dualism. The line is space the blotch is time. The line defines the territory to be occupied; it concentrates and marks the boundaries, it is skeleton and bones. The blotch expands, disperses, and introduces the vague and imprecise. Line and blotch are, nevertheless, reversible. The line, originally ascetic and solid, becomes sensual and fluid, while the blotch, previously open and expansive, retreats, closes itself up, and is immobilized. At times, the blotch seen as color concentrates, incorporates, thickens, creates planes, and renders pure space. And the line swings, stretches, trembles, softens, or absorbs the stiffness of the straight line and the curve, as if the artist were short -sighted and did not see one but a bunch of lines falling apart in "dizzying, shady curves." 

Ohtake never reached the dryness of minimalism, just as she only grazed the informality of her Japanese compatriots in Brazil without falling into tachism's free-for-all. Not a cold or cerebral artist, yet also not emotional, she never desired pure geometry, hard-edge, or a strictly planar painting. If at a certain moment an excessive and authoritarian order threatened to impose itself, the artist immediately juxtaposed in the same plane the imprecise, the blotch, or a bundle of winding and wavy lines that at the same time pressured the flying buttresses and endured the thrust it exerted on one of the canvas' corners. Or yet, more discreetly, she drew a line or trace that passes vertically across the middle of the convex arch and another that crosses longitudinally over an area of color that arises from the canvas' depths and emerges on its surface, like a plan. Then, the smaller curve distances itself slightly from the larger curve, opening a gap through which a speck of light passes.

A Tomie Ohtake abstract painting from the 1960s - discreet in its form and color - takes up the entire cover of Olga Savary's book of poems (Magma, 1982). It is difficult to foresee, through the work's reproduction, the author's explicitly erotic poetry, which says, "I don't believe in metaphysical haughtiness/but in a high sensuality put to use :/that my man may always be erect/and that 1 may always be wet for my man. "It might have been simply one of those auspicious coincidences, but it nevertheless uncovered an as-yet unstudied aspect of Ohtake’s painting: the sensual form.

Art is tied to sex in its very operation, and not only through its representations, it must be said: eroticism may be as much in the theme and form as in the creative pulse and libidinal energy that artists invest in the production of their works. Thus, every work of art contains, to a different degree, doses of eroticism and sensuality this is so even in abstract works or, among figurative works, even in religious paintings. Georges Bataille once explained that Bernini's baldachin at Saint Peters Cathedral in Rome, was once considered obscene and inconvenient. The volumes' arrogant and tumescent swirl, i.e., their formal erection, was seen as a contradiction at the heart of a space for meditation. When depicting Saint Theresa mystical ecstasy, Bernini also allowed pleasure to spread over the drapery, in irrepressible joyous ripples. The culmination of erotic form in the Baroque, this sculpture is in fact a representation of orgasm. The eroticism is halfway between sensuality and obscenity. Sensuality is a subtle suggestion: it implies, insinuates, and hints more than it describes or reveals. In contrast, the obscene, in Baudrillard's words, renders the erotic scene hyper-visible and is therefore the total absence of sensuality or pleasure.

Ohtake's painting is sensual and, as such, is only occasionally erotic. Among the forms the artist created in the various stages of her oeuvre, some may be seen as at times erotic, allowing phallic, vaginal, and uterine analogies: slits, dens, grottoes, creases, pelvises, hips, tongues, blunt forms, plump forms that mate, penetrating shapes that reach for the clitoris or the glottis and that, even so, are still more allusive than intentionally figurative. Only in a brief period did they seem to indicate a conscious desire for eroticism. I refer to the series of paintings Ohtake made in 1987 and invariably-not coincidentally-of a fiery red, the color of flesh; in them we see hips and buttocks, the "butt of a thousand versions, the multi-butt, "as Carlos Drummond de Andrade wrote in one of his erotic poems. This series has two wonderful precursors from 1981 and 1982, in which we see two arches, powerfully lowered, plump and heavy, with the lower part split, close to the bottom of the canvas, bringing to mind the shape of coivaras, the piles of branches and trunks set on fire to finish clearing land, where embers becomes coal.

However, eroticism as a theme is not what predominates in Ohtake's painting. Instead, the sensual form prevails, as it is manifested primarily in matter and in color, that is, in the painting's skin and in the colors body. This is almost tactile matter, with its shape-signs, the blotches inside flat arches or capsules, the yellow intensities, the vibrant blues and greens, the hot yellows framing bulging outlines, the lines that collapse in successive waves, and the sensuality that blooms even in the canvases that only use the color black. Or, yet, daringly, when the Brazilian flag is redrawn, juxtaposing the authoritarianism of the yellow triangle with a vast green area, as if the artist wished to cover the Amazon vastness or just recreate on the canvas, abstractly, those moving and sensual images of the anonymous sports fan or activist who let himself be draped lusciously by the flag, as we have seen so many times in the country's recent history.

Throughout half a century of uninterrupted creative activity, Tomie Ohtake developed an extremely rich vocabulary of forms that maintained a basic nucleus but was continuously re-elaborated and re-signified and constituted the undying fascination provoked by her work. With each new phase, the artist makes use of the same forms and/or formal structures, but their semantics is transformed thanks to the new chromatic, material, and spatial relations that she seeks to establish. This circular and self-referential character of her work is reiterated in the series of large-scale paintings she has been producing since 1991. The large, red spiral from 1992 and the green-and-yellow and red spirals from 1993 had already been announced in the 1962 and 1961 canvases; the sensual pink arch from 1973 reappears in a purple shade in 1991; the erotic 1987 form, of a compact and heavy red, emerges blue and transparent in 1992, like foam after a fire; the capsular or elliptic 1976 form returns, black over a black background.


This circularity is also noticeable when we compare different phases or cycles of her painting. The current cosmic phase is a reunion with the works made between 1959 and 1962, where the scattered, whitened blotches had already announced today's great clouds. In these two extremes of Ohtake's pictorial production, we have the culmination of the Langerian concept of the living form, the form as permanent genesis. If it is possible to assign a metaphor to the 1959-1962 works, then that metaphor is water. Fog, waves, foam. For the 1990s, the metaphor is gas: clouds, vapors, nebulas, stellar masses, galaxies, celestial bodies, the Milky Way, the formation of the universe. In her current works, the curve continues to dominate: the galactic circle, rings and balls of fire, rose windows, ellipses, parabolic spirals, Yet, while in the 1959-1962 canvases the stain commands the structure, thickening the surface in areas that are almost planes and that alternate shades of black and white extremes, with graphic remains indicating the path of the paths of the thin and wide paintbrushes, in the 1990 canvases the vibratile brushstroke, which is more touch than extension, annuls or even destroys the precision of the curved line, ending up in forms that are dispersed and enveloped by gaseous, foggy, cloudy matter. Not by chance, the artist substitutes the bodily opaqueness of oil by acrylic, which favors transparencies and glazing.

Between these two extremes, Ohtake constructed her building of forms. In the 1960s (1963-1970), we have units or fragments of shapes, isolated blocks that are combined or opposed in a precarious balance, as if they still sought a structure. In the 1970s (1973-1982), Ohtake solidifies her vocabulary of forms and, at the same time, a grammar and a language. The form that was previously isolated is now integrated into more complex systems, it is, in other words, an order. This is the moment of the form's plenitude. I repeat: it is clear, distinct, precise-the encapsulated stain, the untouchable curve, the rhythmic chain of arches, the smooth and uniform surface, black as color, white as space, the fluent dialogue between the curved form and the orthogonal base. The artist could end her work there. Her star would still be shining brightly in Brazil’s art sky.

But Ohtake has not put down her work tools, contented. She has remained active and creative. Then, she surprises us once again by abandoning the building of forms that she put together so solidly and venturing into cosmic space. In fact, a sign that this could happen was already conspicuous in a small group of mostly black works from 1987, in which the form once again rises, stimulated by the ogival - a pointed arch that at times crosses the canvas longitudinally like a meteorite or a rocket. Her current painting begins where the arch dissolves or the rocket disintegrates. It is a dive into the exterior abyss, into the inside of the immense outside, into the silent shrillness of the cosmos. The gigantic rose window, the flaming mass, is about to explode before our very eyes, a pyrotechnic bubble imploding the canvas' space. To the dematerialization of the rock corresponds the line's de-geometricalization. There is no background; there is no surface-only gas, vapor, and ether. 


Frederico Morais