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Tomie Ohtake Constructive

Tomie Ohtake – Constructive


 In the essay L’Empire des Signes (Empire of Signs, 1970) Roland Barthes re-created Japan under the impact of a journey for the purpose of interpretation. At the base of the sign’s poetic economy is “the aberrant grammar of the Japanese language,” he states. Instead of using Freud’s concept of the uncanny (unheimliche) to interpret its singularities, Barthes prefers to delve into language signs, which fascinated and captivated him. From the Latin (aberrare), the adjective aberrant derives from the prefix ab (separation of outer from boundary) and the verb errare (to go astray, to wander). Therefore, the use of “aberrant” by Barthes to focus Japan’s sign system through the language itself designates that which wanders or moves away from the prevailing standard (in his case, Western tradition). In this sense, both scientists and artists may be aberrant. Barthes’ expression “aberrant language” may be extended to describe Tomie Ohtake as an artist situated between the modernizing Japan of her youth and the modernity of Brazil, the country she chose to live in – hence her errant wandering straddles these two instances of modernity. She operates an arc ranging from the geometry of shadows to the ensō – the imperfect circle in Japanese culture – or to painting informed by the notion of order in Concrete art and sensoriality in Neo-concrete art. “Constructive will” emerges in Ohtake’s painting as a fissure in her gestural system in the context of Western and Eastern mentalities. In the wake of Barthes’ Japan, we may see her geometric work as an aberrant art moving away from or beyond the European constructivist camp of Russian, German, Dutch and Swiss artists. The calligraphic act and painterly action in her oeuvre, whether informal or formless, necessarily reach for a new poetic diction and establish a system of symbols beyond rhetoric and analog connotations in the signifier-signified relationship. Polysemy produces demands for historical, critical and transcultural convergences that address the phenomenological particularities corresponding to Ohtake’s gaze, constructed in the course of developing a complex poetic agenda. The archaeological gaze comes to the aid of Ohtake’s pursuit of a plastic-conceptual project for the pictorial sign, if only the method open to the transversality that crosses this tenuous constructivist universe is rewarded by the experience of difference.

Critic Mário Pedrosa’s claim that Brazil was “destined to be modern”  gained the emphasis of a 20th-century aphorism, such was his flair for describing Brazil’s cultural dynamics. Ever since Ohtake’s childhood in traditional Kyoto, she was apparently “destined to be modern” – like Brazil –, as result of her contact with, and experimentation in, Western art in her days as a teenage school student. This was the prevailing paradigm of modernity in a Japan eager for Westernizing transformations. Ohtake was growing up in Japan when it opened up to the Western world under the Meiji emperor Mutsuhito,  who ruled from 1868 to 1912 – a period marked by the crisis of traditional feudalism and the advent of political, economic and social change, which included integration with Europe and the United States. During this process, Brazil too entered diplomatic and trading relations with Japan. The Meiji emperor’s Shinto religious orientation was widespread in Japan, but spiritual life featured syncretism too, since concurrent interests in Shintoism and Buddhism coexisted. Something similar happened in the spiritual experience of Tomie Ohtake – although her relations with Shinto remained in abeyance for further study. The enlightened Meiji regime also fostered the pursuit of learning. In this process, to take an example closer to the history of art in Brazil, a Japanese uncle of Japanese-born Brazilian painter Flavio-Shiró (1928) traveled to Germany to study science at the University of Heidelberg. Towards the end of the Meiji period, the first Japanese migrants sailed to Brazil, where they landed in Rio de Janeiro, in 1907, and Santos, in 1908. Tomie Ohtake was born in Kyoto, the Japanese imperial capital, in 1913, a year after the end of the modernizing period. The previous year, ancient Edo had been renamed Tokyo and designated the nation’s capital. Ohtake’s family life and geographical origin were thus intertwined with key processes in Japanese society: tradition, modernization and opening to the rest of the world.

Destined to be modern, Ohtake also did her part for the “general constructive will” by producing autonomous culture in a peripheral country, denoting her wish to be part of Brazil’s complex cultural system and spiritual fabric.  A certain effort to problematize rationality contextualizes Ohtake’s production for a second characteristic of Brazilian art, which would now be “general constructive will”, the most important aspect of the Brazilian avant-garde according to Hélio Oiticica.  Ohtake was asked to bring her work into this debate and did so under the influence of its principles rather than a rigid formal adjustment. Nor was she asked because of her work’s adherence to the principles of New Objectivity; rather, it was due to it having been included in this movement’s historically constructivist matrix. Although Oiticica was referring to what he called “New Objectivity”, based on six points (including the “tendency to reject the object and go beyond easel painting” and “the anti-art concept”), Ohtake obstinately continued to practice “easel painting”. However, she also introduced other pictorial issues that would constitute her anthropophagic mode, a characteristic of her own painting. Primarily, her “blind paintings” of the early 1960s defied the vision-centric tyranny of easel painting, despite it having been a permanent practice for artist as renowned as Antonio Dias. Another factor was the transcultural dimension of her work, informed by the syncretic spiritual experience of Shinto-Buddhism then prevailing in Japan, which Ohtake brought to Brazil. In her condition as involuntary immigrant (traveling to São Paulo in 1936 to visit a brother, then unable to return to Japan when World War II broke out), Ohtake was constantly pursuing integration in Brazil. Hélio Oiticica developed his “general constructive will” concept to cover anthropophagy, believing that “what led Oswald de Andrade to his celebrated conclusion that our anthropophagite culture, or our immediately reducing all foreign influences to Brazilian models ... would not have happened were there not something special, a Brazilian characteristic latent in our way of apprehending these influences, which was our general constructive will.”  Rather than religious syncretism, the immigrant Ohtake’s painting produced an East-West synthesis in a singular slant from her own cannibalism, unrelated to the issue of underdevelopment and cultural dependence. Oiticica sees this general constructive will as the overcoming of underdevelopment, a question posed by Gullar’s Vanguarda e subdesenvolvimento.  Ohtake’s anti-dogmatic singularity lay in her cultural origin situated in the formative process of Brazilian culture itself, being multiple and dialoguing with differences in the environment. While the Neo-concrete thought provided a more remote pillar for the New Objectivity experience, Ohtake was influenced by its principles and she approached its formulators, from critic Mário Pedrosa to painters Willys de Castro and Hercules Barsotti. All this eventually led to her “arrival” to the general constructive will.

The conclusion that the constructive will in Ohtake’s painting is polysemic leads to demands for more open approaches to particular features of the phenomenology she developed for over 50 years. An archaeological gaze is required to appreciate unexpected plastic and conceptual developments of the sign. Methodological refinement must be open to the transversality of relations taking place in the universe of Ohtake’s constructive situations. One problem posed for the historiography of geometric abstraction in Brazil is the difficulty of the real analytic approach to the art object itself, which Edmund Husserl suggested, with a view to understanding it and its singularity against logocentric verbiage. References to Husserl have often been used to usher in practices that are precisely the opposite of those recommended by the philosopher of phenomenology. Husserl functions, therefore, as a kind of talisman-alibi. Mechanistic gaze and reductionist interpretation lead to misconceptions such as misunderstanding specific differences between Brazilian Concrete painters, for instance, or yet between Oiticica’s different groups of Metaesquemas in the 1950s, or Mira Schendel’s 1964 series of monotypes. Certain aspects of Ohtake’s production – such as her “blind paintings” – also tend to be downgraded by analysts. Historians such as Miguel Chaia and Agnaldo Farias have undertaken the task to clear these obstacles from the gaze on Ohtake’s visual thinking. “Abstract art remains misunderstood by the majority of the majority of the viewing public,” Maurice Tuchman wrote. “Yet around 1910, when groups of artists moved away from representational art toward abstraction ... there was never an outright dismissal of meaning.”  Part of our mission with this text is to look for hidden meanings in Tomie Ohtake’s painting.

The key premise for this historiographical program is the hypothesis that, in art, there can be no Brazil without Japan, despite the suppression of Japanese-Brazilian artists by large segments of the formalist academy. The initial focus was Ohtake’s production from 2001 onwards followed by the exhibition Flavio-Shiró: pintor de três mundos – 65 anos de trajetória commemorating the 65th anniversary of his painting career, in 2008.  The next step was the exhibition Laços do olhar [Bonds of the Gaze], in 2008, which aimed at putting together, with the collaboration of Roberto Okinaka, a comprehensive retrospective of 19th-century bonds between Brazil and Japan in the visual arts. The perspective posed by Mário Pedrosa for relations between Western art and Eastern culture and his interest in Ohtake’s phenomenological painting in the 1960s provided solid grounds for a revision of her role in the Brazilian scene. In 2011, a Japanese-Brazilian trilogy began with an essay on Manabu Mabe’s  painting commissioned by editorial coordinator Max Perlingeiro. Ohtake’s “constructive will” ensured that the trilogy continued  with a book released in her centennial year of 2013. Parts of the present essay are enlarged versions of extracts from this publication. The trilogy is to be concluded in 2014 with a more extensive coverage of the oeuvre of Flavio-Shiró, a painter of three worlds: Japan, Brazil (particularly the Amazon region), and Europe.

The first retrospective of Ohtake’s work was held at Museu de Arte de São Paulo – Masp in 1979, with curatorial design by Casimiro Xavier de Mendonça. The exhibition mapped the artist’s extensive production and had huge impact in São Paulo. Occupying an entire floor of the building designed by architect Lina Bo Bardi, the show was accompanied by an enhanced catalogue with plentiful photographic illustrations. However, it was not until two decades later that another publication would examine her painting career and go on to produce a meticulous taxonomy of her oeuvre organized from the point of view of formal and pictorial problems she had addressed in half a century’s work.  Highlights in this new book are Miguel Chaia’s review and Ricardo Ohtake’s editorial work. Chaia’s text reveals a process of conceptual problematization that could only be the fruit of his extensive reflection on Ohtake’s oeuvre.

Despite the prolific academic output over the past two decades, our knowledge of the history of modern Brazilian art has numerous historiographical lacunae that impair the country’s symbolic cartography, thus challenging historians with the task of filling in blanks. If Ohtake’s body of geometric works had been thoroughly charted or made visible in the mid-1970s, critic Frederico Morais might have discussed it in his groundbreaking survey Concretismo / Neo-concretismo: quem é, quem não é, quem aderiu, quem precedeu, quem tangenciou, quem permaneceu, saiu, voltou, o concretismo existiu?  [Concretism / Neo-concretism: who is in, who is out, who joined, preceded, touched on, remained, left, returned. Did Concretism exist?] – a milestone in discussions about geometry reaching beyond Concrete art and Neo-concrete art. Ohtake’s leaning to geometry emerged erratically in the early 1950s and was expressed more frequently from the mid-60s. However, she was always somewhat removed from the strict rules set by Waldemar Cordeiro, a painter with the collective Ruptura who advocated the preview of the Concrete form, as in the philosopher Konrad Fiedler’s advocacy of rigidly geometric drawing. Fiedler sought to “redefine the essence of art” and deplored “the constant spontaneity of being” (aphorism 94) or positivism, empiricism, atomistic-mechanistic intuition and arbitrary spiritual edifice (aphorism 97).  Cordeiro also replicates a palette restricted to primary and secondary colors in terms of the manifesto “The Basis of Concrete Art” manifesto (1930, signed by Theo van Doesburg, Léon Tutundjian, Jean Hélion, Otto Carlsund and Marcel Wantz) and quasi-industrial painting methods.  The manifesto argues that an artwork “must be fully conceived and spiritually shaped before it is produced”.  Taking the same path as the European group, Cordeiro wanted art to be given a definite role in contemporary intellectual work as a means of knowledge of deducible concepts, situated above opinion, demanding prior knowledge for its review (Manifesto Ruptura, 1952). In the article “Manifesto Ruptura,” which he wrote in 1953, Cordeiro proposed a more empirical program for the Fiedlerian preview, and a more definite Concrete project.  Likewise, Tomie Ohtake is not represented in the Adolpho Leirner collection of Brazilian art, but her work integrates the section of geometric abstract art of the Collection Hecilda and Sergio Fadel. Possibly the same lack of critical and historical information justifies Ohtake’s absence from Leirner’s collection. A keenly attentive collector, he acquired works by artists whose profiles would not pass a more rigorous conceptual screening of geometric artworks, as for example Norberto Nicola and Jacques Douchez, or artists who belonged in the second generation of constructive art, such as Sergio Camargo (Relevo 326, 1970). There are instances in which Ohtake’s mathematical unconscious acts as a compass opening into varying geometries, snaps under the many pressures of the canon, or may even be forsaken as a form of rejection of the mechanistic rationale. However, this gaze will always be in some way struck by the recurring geometric unconscious that surfaces in the artist’s paintings, often as a symptom of the crisis of rationalism.

The conceptual keys to Ohtake’s painting are definitely situated beyond the labels to which it was confined, in the abyss excavated by the reductionist approach of skimming glances or the ethnocentrism of rationalists in the Brazilian market. The problem was not in her painting or her discreet personality, but the systematically distorted reception of her work by certain critics. Against the reductionism of confining her to the heading “Japanese-Brazilian artists” – a ghetto outlined by Mário de Andrade and implemented in a Rio de Janeiro university –, a more in-depth assertion is required to demonstrate that she is indeed a Japanese-Brazilian artist. Hence, the cultural density driving the importance of her contribution to art and its singularity, beyond the confines of the ghetto of nationalisms or the reductionism typical of Greenbergian flunkies of form. At just the time when the Brazilian constructivist project was facing the 1964 crisis, Tomie Ohtake seemed to have exhausted the limit-experiment of her “blind paintings” and moved on to a particular process of gradually addressing the apparent exhaustion of geometric abstract languages.


When, after having had two children and raised them through to their teen years, Ohtake started painting again at the age of almost 40, most of her paintings were urban scenes in São Paulo, such as rows of ordinary houses on Rua da Paz (1952), in the Mooca district. Her “geometric will” shown from 1952 to 1956 in the organization of urban landscapes soon turned toward abstract art. A prevailing feature of her return to painting was an intuitive ordering and alignment of facades in perspective to depict the city. A geometric unconscious was already activating in the emerging artist. Ohtake’s subtle geometric will was more remotely seen in her urge to use space in the form of a proto-geometry based on human interventions in landscape such as a row of houses on a street, or lines of trees.

The São Paulo cityscape was to offer Ohtake an unexpected relationship with Ukiyo-e woodblock art (1952 and 1953). A couple of her canvases overlap a double seriality: façades aligned along streets and tree trunks in rows. This painting is typical of japonisme, although it might seem tautological to say so. The powerful graphic sense of the tree trunks recalls the striking contours of 19th-century Ukiyo-e production in Japan. The view of the façades is shrouded by a row of dark-brown bare trunks to contrast with brightly lit facades in the background, as in the grille effect of the Ukiyo-e graphic art tradition. A line of trees along this street in São Paulo operates the “grille effect” or play of light and shade to define space, as noted in a text on Japanese woodcuts written by Siegfried Wichmann,  which Ohtake had surely read. Hokusai addressed the same subject in various woodcut landscapes such as Abe no Nakamaro (Looking at the moon, 1840s). His methodology was adopted for the Trees (1911) oil painting, but Monet’s Poplars on the Epte (1890) was a more significant paradigm. These sequences of trees and the problem of light in Western art are also used to produce the “grille effect” in the painting of Edouard Vuillard, Félix Valloton, Pierre Bonnard, Gustav Klimt and Maurice Denis. In modern Brazil, they are seen in etchings by the modernist Carlos Oswald (Árvores em Pietti, 1908, and Dança clássica, 1909) and in Anita Malfatti’s work of the mid-1910s. Ohtake’s urban scenes have something of the solitary aspect that recalls a sense of mystery Robert Goldwater pointed out in that painting by Monet.  Ohtake’s landscapes resulted from her naive return to painting, since she had not yet combined the spiritual dimension of life into her art.

After Ohtake’s three São Paulo landscapes, she moved toward non-objective visual discourse and abstract sketches. Representations of the outside world were no longer part of her painting, thus expressing her restless search for new concepts as a definite option. In two paintings (1953 and 1954), color blotches and zones adjust the chromatic agenda of space in her first affinity with non-representation and a clear penchant for geometric ordering of the gaze. Figurative work was banished forever from Ohtake’s spatial, material and chromatic rationale. Her return to painting coincided with the first São Paulo Biennial. At that time, this new locus for art in the city’s imaginary made a great impact locally, even though young Brazilian artists had already been doing abstract work. Before finding her place in the material sign responses, the artist’s first step was to definitively do away with titles for her works. An untitled painting cannot allude to anything.

In a painting dated 1956 (60 x 75 cm), the epiphany of space is developed into white lines outlining the void of its monochrome support with random straight lines and curves and angled bends – the locus is constructed over a huge area of dark blue hues. This proto-geometric calligraphy evokes Paul Klee’s almost childlike drawings of simple structures, such as imaginary architectures. The resolute brushstroke follows the sensory path of Ohtake’s discrete rationale. Form alludes to nothing beyond its inner space. Construction is architecture and structure. Her spatial key is far from Waldemar Cordeiro’s Concrete methodology, since the subject will never be expressed by mathematics, although the latter inhabits the unconscious of language. In the second half of the 1950s, Ohtake worked on several experiments and investigated a method that would enable her to use abstraction as a condensation of purpose and action. Her “blind paintings” opened up a new path.


Transcultural geometry
In the National Library building, a paradoxical watercolor by Jean-Baptiste Debret features an African man in Rio de Janeiro wearing dress uniform and drawing, with a stick, a perfect circle on the ground. Debret’s neoclassical form seems to be a geometry lesson from the Enlightenment, an intricate transcultural overview, but one that also shows his discomfort in relation to slavery. The ever-Eurocentric Debret could not imagine an African-Brazilian circle not being derived from a Platonic perspective. Perhaps the scene refers to the older idea of something like a “scored point” or some other meaning from a different religious system. As in Debret’s case, Brazilian ethnocentrism tends to exclude artists of Japanese origin from discussions of the major postwar artistic movements. This bias portends a certain racism in relation to differences within Brazil – there are probably critics and academic historians who have written essays throughout their careers without ever naming a Japanese-Brazilian artist.

In any analysis of Ohtake’s constructive will, it must be said from the outset that her legacy was to pose an opportunity for an idea of transcultural geometric art beyond the Greek geometry of Platonic solids that Sergio Camargo reconfigured in the 1960s. Ohtake’s arc of geometric abstraction straddles East and West to foster constant encounters between the two traditions. Through her work, painting gained its own right to act as ongoing transition between the two experiences, fusion and singularity, as a metaphor for her own life. Another example of this transcultural practice is geometric art focused on problematizing perception rather than pursuing precision in form. This phenomenological method coexists in both Japanese Buddhist calligraphy’s use of circles and Latin American support for the sensitive geometry concept.

Ohtake’s extensive references to the traditional East include her calligraphic will; sumi; color transitions in Ukiyo-e prints; Japanese culture’s shadow tradition and Yozo Hamaguchi’s mezzotint engraving of the post-war period. They also include her relationship with Flavio-Shiró and other Japanese-Brazilian artists such as Sachiko Koshikoku or Kimi Nii; her interest in Kumi Sugai’s forms; Mário Pedrosa’s advancing closer relations between Brazil and the culture of Japan; Taoist yin/yang symbolism and, conceptual questions of Buddhism. Ohtake’s personal identification with Mira Schendel may have been based on a convergence to spiritual elements from the symbolic field of the East. The significance of this encounter is anchored in the relation with image and the ineffable. Schendel viewed the circle as mandala and pi, Ohtake as enso. Schendel’s discursive capacity is sustained by a belief in language capturing human experience, so a monotype is no more than writing over a semicircle: nel vuoto del mondo (in the void of the world); Tomie Ohtake’s verbal economy proposes a verbal void, since her works are never given titles.

The discussion of Japanese-Brazilian artistic miscegenation remains limited, despite the existence of an oeuvre such as Roberto Okinaka’s sculpture, for example, which potentiates references from an African-Brazilian religion, candomblé.  The acceptance of a work that in some way refers to the Far East – such as, for example, that of Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, an Afro-descendant of mixed Chinese origin, in a double angle of slavery in Cuba – is partly mediated by its discourse referring to the orishas of the Cuban pantheon. Lam is located in a process of miscegenation that Edouard Glissant  has recognized and solidly theorized through his “creolization” concept. Like Flavio-Shiró’s, Ohtake’s transculturality is obviously opposed to the Amerindian-African-Portuguese modernist tripod that Graça Aranha launched in A estética da vida (1921).  It is outside the significant axis of historical victims of the colonial process and on the Portuguese side, as representation of the Conqueror State. The Japanese diaspora was not marked by the tragic condition of slavery or multiple pogroms and the Jewish Holocaust. For Brazilian painting of Japanese origin to avoid being confined to a territorial limbo (due to not being Eurocentric, Afro-descendant or “nativist”), it has to be seen as a particular form of “in-between-place” that activates aesthetic and historiographical problems. Here we use this term borrowed from Silviano Santiago to discuss the difficulties of critique as negation of differences and a hierarchized way of understanding certain artistic productions by denying them any kind of fruitful problematization.  To counter this theoretical obliteration, be it voluntary or involuntary, Ohtake’s transculturality has to be afforded visibility and integrated into the general territory of “constructive will”. Her transcultural geometry is a particular process of hybridization since her praxis approaches Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology or Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic man concept advocated for Neo-concretism, or Buddhist and Shinto precepts, while combining geometric abstraction with a certain spiritual orientation in the manner of Rubem Valentim. In terms of Maurice Tuchman’s key, Mira Schendel showed a remarkable interest in tantric Buddhist mandalas – paradigms of lesser interest to Ohtake in her corpus of circles, despite her taking them as symbols of the void and the universe. Ohtake’s transcultural “constructive will” poses a challenge in the form of an opportunity to deconstruct regency using postcolonial discourse to reconstruct what Homi Bhabha and others have called the contemporary location of culture, which acts as agency dismantling limits within which part of Brazilian culture is confined.


Concrete geometry and Neo-concrete paradigms: Mondrian, Malevich and Albers
Some Ohtake paintings recognize a tribute to Brazil’s Constructivist art universe, the most extended being in a reference to conjoining all three major paradigms for Neo-concretism with Kasimir Malevich’s supremacism, Piet Mondrian’s neoplasticism and Josef Albers’ Concrete art. Max Bill’s call for mathematical precision in Concrete art led to him eventually playing a lesser role for the Rio group than these three precursors. Very emphatically, the grand prize awarded Max Bill at the 1st São Paulo Biennial, when geometric abstraction in Brazil was in its early stages, seemed to hold out the promise of an aesthetic orientation for both, the pro-development ideology that emerged in Brazil at that time, and the utopian horizon that was also opening up. Even today, the latter guides certain academic reviews in Brazil. In this context, Waldemar Cordeiro seemed to believe in Konrad Fiedler’s model consistent with the former’s philosophical position, in which an artist “dispels the darkness that disturb men’s way of looking at the world and their lives.”  The calls for order in Max Bill’s discourse did not adhere to the Neo-concrete experimental project or Ohtake’s intuitive “geometry without rulers”, a particular dimension of her “constructive will”, beyond any operations in fields formed by an imaginary grid. In Gullar’s Manifesto Neo-concreto [Neo-concrete Manifesto] (1959), he writes of taking “a new stance in face of non-figurative ‘geometric’ art ... and, particularly, in face of Concrete art taken to a dangerously rationalist exacerbation.” Bill’s excessive rationalism in calling for mathematical precision in geometric art would soon lose its attraction for the Rio-based artists. At a certain point, even canonical Concrete artists such as Hermelindo Fiaminghi or Décio Pignatari, albeit belatedly, came to the conclusion that “Max Bill seen as a ‘weak’ painter – had been fully immersed in so-called informal research” (1961).  Ohtake was referring to precisely that artistic triad (Malevich, Mondrian and Albers) whose legacy of plastic problems sustained historical references in Brazil, in various instances, from abolition of the object to symbolic and formal paradigms.

Certain geometric works by Tomie Ohtake, dated from 1978 to 1980 may also be situated in the context of two major exhibitions that reintroduced the geometric abstraction discussion in Brazil: Projeto Construtivo Brasileiro na Arte: 1950-1962 [Brazilian Constructivist Project in Art], organized by Aracy Amaral at Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro – MAM-RJ and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, in 1977; and Arte Agora III: América Latina: Geometria Sensível, [Art Now III: Latin America: Sensitive Geometry], curated by Roberto Pontual at the same MAM-RJ, in 1978. Although Ohtake was not concerned for her own legitimation through associations in her painting, her way of arranging these planes within the rectangular frame leaned more towards orthogonality, as in certain of Clark’s Planos em superfície modulada or Oiticica’s works featuring the aesthetics of the collective Grupo Frente. As regards Neo-concrete art, Ohtake’s closeness to critic Mário Pedrosa and painters Willys de Castro and Hercules Barsotti  influenced her in the form of a need to experiment with the plastic ideas then current, rather than allegiance to the Neo-concrete program on the lines of Ferreira Gullar’s Manifesto Neo-concreto or Teoria do não-objeto. Constructive artists largely rendered their homage to Albers by working with square supports, as was the case with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Judith Lauand, Geraldo de Barros, Waldemar Cordeiro, Aluisio Carvão, Hermelindo Fiaminghi, Maurício Nogueira Lima and others. Instead of the prevailing square support, Ohtake chose to work on the analytic color relations that Albers developed in his lengthy series Homenagens ao Quadrado [Homage to the Square] for an untitled 1980 painting. The unique symbolism of this work, in which chromatic relations are broken down into white and yellow planes of light, arises from Ohtake’s first impression of a “yellow” Brazilian atmosphere when she set foot at the port of Santos for the first time. Each of the painting’s three bands has a fold that acts as a shadow of color, a vestige from Japan’s traditional culture as revisited in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows.

Another untitled painting by Ohtake from 1978 situates a black rectangle overlaid by a nebulous plane juxtaposed with a red square on a white support. This plastic-chromatic vocabulary references Descoberta da linha orgânica (c.1954), a key-work in the set of Lygia Clark’s created spaces. In both works, flat surfaces coexist with chromatic questions influenced by the plastic thinking of Malevich and Mondrian, including their ideas on the nature of objects. Furthermore, Ohtake’s painting most clearly poses plastic dialogue with two Mondrian works showing the same arrangement of painted geometric referents as Clark’s Composição – Composição branca e vermelha [Composition white and red] (1932) and Composição C – Composição com cinza e vermelho [Composition with gray and red] (1936). Her neoplastic chromatic economy is pared down to black, white, gray and the primary colors. The Manifesto Neo-concreto stated that “in his geometrical painting, Malevich had already expressed dissatisfaction, a will to transcend the rational and the sensorial that nowadays manifests itself in irrepressible manner.” Similarly, Ohtake’s relationship with the Supremacist “zero degree” of Malevich’s painting emblematically overlaying white on white may be seen in two works from the white “blind paintings” series (in the Mário Pedrosa and Patricia Phelps de Cisneros collections). All Ohtake’s paintings are developed within this sensoriality-rationality dichotomy (as in the sighted-blind opposition). This “blind painting” seems to have learned from Ferreira Gullar’s essay Teoria do não-objeto (1960) [Theory of the Non-Object]  written some two years previously, where he spoke of the “desert, mentioned by Malevich, in which the work of art appears for the first time freed from any signification outside the event of its own apparition.” It would be pointless to look for an association between Ohtake and Malevich based on the question of form. Both struggled against rationalist excesses and both overlaid intellectual reflection on logocentrism. The icon as a devotional object in the spiritual universe of Russian liturgy and his interest in theosophy constitute the spiritual basis for the latter’s art  – an art permeated by the Zen.


Imprecise geometries (or quasi- geometry in perception)
In the aftermath of World War II, after nuclear weapons had caused mass destruction and death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with their terrible consequences widely reported, Ohtake could have no faith in the idealistic view of harsh constructive form charged with utopia and optimism. Otilia Arantes analyzes Mário Pedrosa’s contemporary relevance to poses the social and historical process of modern architecture in Brazil as an experience of crisis: “a successful transplant when everything condemned it to be a pale imitation due to the glaring absence of the technical and social pre-conditions required for the new constructivist rationality – whose necessarily ‘formalist’ course nevertheless revealed the reality that had been disguised in the original metropolises, the false basis of the Ideology of Planning, whose utopian tabula rasa was to be the functional extension of the endless and euphemistic ‘creative destruction’, as the essence of capitalist accumulation.” Her article points to the disappointing outcome of Waldemar Cordeiro’s canonical Concrete art and predicts its aesthetic impasse.  Cordeiro’s work had no place for the psychology of the “black sun of melancholy,” Gérard de Nerval’s poem, modern culture since Baudelaire, or contemporary philosophy.

Ohtake’s “blind paintings” of the 1960s, which were executed blindfold, reexamine art and the gaze within the bounds of possibility.  In Brazil too, geometric abstraction comes across as belief in modern western rationality and the ideology of progress adopted by most Brazilian academic critics who were mimetically optimistic in relation to the constructive process in its historical context of Juscelino Kubitschek’s social democracy. It was an image for readers of Meyer Schapiro, who saw Mondrian’s abstraction as a desire for utopia.  With Flavio-Shiró, Iberê Camargo and Tomie Ohtake (blind paintings), informal abstract painting gradually moved away from supporting that utopian optimism. However, Mondrian himself treated art as a “moral struggle” against worldly violence.  Ohtake sees painting as reflexive action that addresses not only perception but also the specters of rationality, which in her case would be war itself and the violence inflicted on the Japanese people.  Hence her “blindness”. In face of the Real, Ohtake came up against the limit of the unrepresentable on ceasing symbolic action. Hence also, the emergence of her geometric specters in imprecise geometries or quasi-geometry. Her geometric art therefore emerges as a symptom. This geometry in art can only be spectral for Max Bill’s formalist followers and many other abstract-geometric artists.

The gaze – Piet Mondrian’s painting celebrated this power – corrects the mistakes of the “geometric will” expressed in painting as power of perception. This is Gestalt psychology’s law of pragnanz [meaningfulness] of form. There are painters who use crooked lines to paint straight ones, or sketch crooked rectangles. Or paint squares without right angles. This affinity is called “imprecise geometry”, which is perhaps contradictory in scientific terms. To see imprecise lines in Mondrian’s neoplastic structures, is to realize that the gestalt process of the gaze eventually sees everything as exactly straight, as in some of the Compositions. Their neoplastic structures are based on pseudo-perfect bands on their edges. However, a historian or critic who claimed they were absolutely straight would attest to an anti-Husserlian gaze that would not look at the object itself, but would confound the poetic license Mondrian allowed himself, unlike Theo van Doesburg’s canonical and verbal precision.

Although Gestalt form has not been totally absent from Ohtake’s geometric production, her geometry was rarely submitted to the most powerful appeals of graphics solutions based on this psychology, much less did she resort to Op Art’s mechanistic seduction. Eschewing bellicose statements, Ohtake very clearly took up a position distant from the “objectivist” and rationalist idealizations that permeated Waldemar Cordeiro’s Concrete art in Sao Paulo, and from the prevailing gestalt-geometric art of the early days of Concrete Art in Brazil. The imprecise geometry is found in the crooked empty black bands (the white part is in the unpainted area) of Frank Stella’s 1958-1960 Pinturas pretas [black paintings], which recall Mondrian. These paintings in turn, succeed Clark’s “organic line” and are also contemporary with the organic affinity in the open lines of Lygia Pape’s Tecelares [weavers] woodcuts. Unpainted white interstices between black bands are called “breathing spaces” in William Rubin’s essay on Stella.  Imprecise lines were also to be found on the edges and corners of supports in paintings by the German artist Blinky Palermo, such as 4 Prototypen (1970), “reality rough at the edge, torn”, as Susan Tallman notes,  or “wobbly” as Maika Pollack puts it.  From imprecision comes minimalism, of which Frank Stella’s painting The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (1959) is emblematic. Unlike Ohtake, Stella named his abstract paintings, sometimes resorting to verbal drama.


The unnamed
Were it not for the painting itself, it would be a case of aphasia. Ohtake rejects titles to avoid any discursive instance being a necessary aspect of a work. In the text civilization, the rule of invariance is the painting’s status of verbal silence. “Form is merely insinuated,” noted Miguel Chaia.  Her painting does not rely on an acoustic-image title such as Aluisio Carvão’s Cubocor, Lygia Pape’s Tecelares, Hélio Oiticica’s Metaesquemas or Hermelindo Fiaminghi’s Corluz, or self-edifying titles such as Iberê Camargo’s Ascensão and Tensão, using the typical vocabulary of his heroism of form. The title of Frank Stella’s Marriage of Reason and Squalor conveys a strong extra-pictorial dimension while articulating antithetical relations of entropy and optimistic construction. Ohtake refuses to let any phonological, poetic, interpretive or political dimension of a painting take control of viewers’ perception or interpretation. Hearing has nothing to with painting. “Power lies with the eye,” wrote Jean-François Lyotard.  An Ohtake painting exists in the instance of the belief in this power of the eye; it is not a chain of “signs from a spoken chain” that requires the phonological dimension of Saussure’s linguistics.

Painting is what is seen, not what is named, written or read. Before Lyotard’s Discourse, Figure (1974), Ohtake had already realized that seeing is not reading. What she offers therefore is un-named sign and symbol. This deliberate non-naming is a means of avoiding the power of a name over viewers’ phenomenological exercise of gaze. She believes a title will confine pictorial signifier to an extra-pictorial primordial meaning and the verbal cannot read the visual. Like all Brazilian art, Ohtake’s is a victim of an uneducated market that, based on mere marketing strategy, labels “composition” any abstract work of art, even if it is not one. Names for periods are coined by formal similarity. Landscapes are named from topographical descriptions, any geometric work is described as “Neo-concrete”, and so forth. This thematic fabrication often violates conceptual rigor and miseducates those consuming it. The artist finds reiterative titles that foster an unnecessary tautology of verbal over visual to be just as undesirable. Not naming sustains a painting in its condition as model for purely visual knowledge, given that “reading is understanding/hearing and not seeing,” as J. F. Lyotard reminds us.

Ohtake’s geometric art shows that quasi-geometry is proportionally stronger among women aligned with the Brazilian constructivist project, in the work of Maria Leontina, the paintings of Ione Saldanha from her paintings to her Bamboos, and Mira Schendel, as well as the post-Neo-concrete developments of Clark and Pape’s production. Due to their affinity, Schendel gifted Ohtake a few of her monotypes. In Schendel’s graphic work, the line functions as a beam as strong as a hair strand, as Max Bense  defined it; the line produces imprecise rectangular architectures, such as the door in the monotype series Sexta-feira da paixão [Good Friday] or Catholicism’s altar-stone reliquary. Until the late 1950s, Schendel was not doing a strict geometry. It would be ingenuous to ask for geometric precision in her ideogrammatic writing, as in the enunciation of the form of Earth in her Genesis series (1964), which was always a rough circle, like a signature or a simple sketch of its calligram.

The structure of Mondrian’s neoplastic work hardly consists of precise lines and bands with exact patterns and contours. Like Mondrian, Ohtake relies on viewers being mentally able to correct perception and restore right angles to her planes. She starts from an orthogonal constructive matrix to soften angles, corners and edges of planes. Constructive will resolved in deconstructive will for geometric exactness. It is not the precision of prevalence of number over form that moves Ohtake. As an artist associated with Zen thought, she knows that perfect form is impossible. In imprecision it is still possible to fruitfully examine the just value of rationality given the world’s imperfection. What system of controlling the world is possible for the Zen artist? Perhaps the most appropriate response would be “disbelief”. However, Ohtake operates through symptoms. Form is the specter of the history of constructive art.

It has been claimed, as in Mondrian’s precedent, that Ohtake’s quasi-geometry (1961-1965) inscribed imprecise planes in primary colors (yellow, red or blue) or purple on black, white and gray graphic base. This production coincides with the most critical moment of form in her method when she was working on the blind paintings experiment. Ohtake’s quasi-geometry afflicts the plane with fracture, rupture, imprecision and upset – as if it were the first (or last) view of geometric form at the beginning (or end) of its dissolution and crisis of cohesion. As a radical finishing touch, the Concrete poet Haroldo de Campos also found “dissipatory structures” in the corpus of her work.


Circles – a brief introduction
“Ever since I was a child, I have really liked roundness. It’s a synthetic form that contains love and energy,” Ohtake told Camila Molina, at the age of 97.  In these words of many a contemporary artist, free of the intellectual affectation, she summarizes her conceptual and affective program driven by the pulse of life – today at the age of a hundred, to paint is to live life to the full. Ohtake provides a glimpse of the circle as her noema, or intentional object of thought. In it, she finds meaning – and if it is thought, it cannot be mere canon, as the Concrete art of Theo van Doesburg would have wished. In her painting, the circle takes the form of what Edmund Husserl treated as an intentional object of an act of consciousness, but the object remains unnamed as result of determination and impossibility. Painting is what you see, not what is appointed. Hence the artist’s posture being so close to the unspeakable. Hence her view of painting as a paradox. It is the act of consciousness itself, which, however, is not materialized as response of the perceptive faith of the cogitato but as an investigative hypothesis for her questioning given the vast universe and incommensurable void.

Tomie Ohtake adhered to the shape of the circle, which sought to exhaust possibilities of “enformation” of matter by means of the pictorial action – thus evoking Martin Heidegger’s concept to indicate labor with the material sign of painting. To Ohtake, painting means activating a phenomenology of the circle as a condition of matter.  In her work, the circle, the more stable and perfect form, found no privilege or status of permanent solution, it found a paradoxical dimension. Ohtake’s geometric unease has always relinquished a formal lexicon ruled by a canon. Establishing a taxonomy of circles would prove nonproductive before the painter’s practice. Our aim here is to problematize certain knowledge models of the circle, like another geometry.


From infinity to the circle
In the to and fro between East and West, the three fundamental concepts of modern mathematics are infinity, zero and the redefinition of the concept of “One” as a multiple. “Unbinding from the One delivers us to the unicity of the void and to the dissemination of the infinite,” philosopher Alain Badiou wrote.  Tomie Ohtake had explored spatial infinity in the so-called blind-painting series (1959-1962) as figural sense of informal abstraction itself. The surface agitation may produce nebulae in Ohtake’s paintings. In them, gas surrounds the nebula, attracted by the magnetic field and the radiation from the pulsar.  The circle, however, offers a broad and consistent mathematical possibility of approaching Ohtake’s mathematical unconscious. Briefly overviewed, circles have often featured in pieces by abstract artists in Brazil since the early 1950s, so Ohtake’s meaning may be contextualized in the Brazilian setting. Overlapping circles and patches of color emerged in the painting of Ivan Serpa and Willys de Castro reinterpreting Gestalt issues raised by Max Bill’s print series Fifteen Variations on a Single Theme (1935-1938). In the circle of Ohtake’s friendships, Hercules Barsotti painted a circular white picture that operates with the panic of visual logic by affixing black fields on the edges so as to institute negative spaces that ultimately virtually cut off the curve. Barsotti devises the relationship between lines and circles through Archimedes’ Exhaustion Method, which involves drawing a regular polygon, inscribing it in a circle and doubling its sides successively until the inscribed polygon touches the circumference.  Thus, as the number of sides of the polygon increases, the form grows closer to the shape of a circle. Hercules Barsotti’s circular painting is a state of panic of visual logic on black and white, introducing negative spaces that virtually cut across the curve. Decio Vieira’s circle energizes chromatic plays of fractured form and color intermission in his “color-form” stylemes.  Antonio Bandeira’s memory contains the circle as a fiery core of energy reminiscent of the forge in his father’s workshop. For Amilcar de Castro, the circle is a planar form in the epiphany of tridimensional space arising from the economy of two acts: cutting and folding. Lygia Clark’s tondo Egg posits the perceptual challenge of closing an incomplete circle under the aegis of Gestalt theory’s principle of continuity. A circle emerges from straight lines in Lothar Charoux’s Op Art play. It is the disciplined mathematics of color proportion in Antonio Maluf’s phenomenology of perception. In Rubem Valentim the circle constitutes a variant symbology of Afro-Brazilian religions, in its role of formal economy of geometric reduction of tools and other evocative elements of orishas and their spiritual values. In Mira Schendel’s symbolic abundance, it is a letter and ideogram for Earth and Pi, the Chinese symbol for heaven. For Tomie Ohtake, the circle in its more complex philosophical and spiritual dimension is ensō, the experience of the imperfect circle in Zen Buddhism.


Erudite East
“My work is western but there is a lot of Japanese influence, reflecting my education. This influence is seen in the pursuit of synthesis: a few elements must say a lot. Haiku poetry, for example, speaks of the world in 17 syllables.”  Here Ohtake not only addresses cultural ties from her country of origin and the place she chose to reside, but also sets forth the+ economic regime for her work. The artist’s spiritual fabric can weave delicate senses of the Baroque Counter Reformation  shifted in Brazil with the symbolic weight of the circle in Zen sumi painting. Her controlled poetic dimension and elegant restraint in her un-named painting show a radical nexus with traditional Japanese poetry. Ohtake does not paint haikus, but finds in them an economic synthesis that enables her to leave aside the minimalist principle of “less is more” taken from Mies van der Rohe. Brazilian historiography has done little research into origins and the singularities of the constructive will. Inn São Paulo, detailed readings of local Concrete artists continue quite successfully, whereas unfortunately a frequent screening has muted the readings of Rio de Janeiro constructive art production. Instead, there is a tendency in Brazil to understand geometric abstraction and, as a consequence, Oiticica’s “constructive will” was announced at the exhibition Nova Objetividade Brasileira (1967) as a western language with a compulsion to Eurocentric reductionism. Vicente do Rego Monteiro’s pioneering modernism contains references to Cubism pervaded by his studies of the archeology of indigenous peoples in the Amazon region at the Museu Nacional. The subject has not been sufficiently investigated, excepting Walter Zanini’s pioneering essays.  The impact that the graphics of certain indigenous peoples had for an artist such Lygia Pape has yet to be assessed. In Brazil, the Eurocentric academic world appears to have actively excluded two strains of geometric art: the Afro-Brazilian and that of Japanese-Brazilian artists.  Although no deliberate desire to exclude them may be imputed, critiques eventually impose a formal canon and elide differences within society.

Eurocentric West
Perhaps the young critic Sergio Bruno Martins was misled, in his commentary about Tomie Ohtake (“it’s hard to see how the notion of ‘constructive will’ could take in an artist like Tomie Ohtake without its historical meaning becoming too vague”)  by his lack of in-depth knowledge of the artist’s work, compatible with her firm deconstructive political intention. Offhand, a little-investigative Martins dismissed the assertion by PUC-SP Professor Michael Chaia that, “Tomie Ohtake stands out in the history of Brazilian art for accomplishing a specific synthesis between geometry and informalism” (2001). Moreover, if Martins’ nonchalant exclusion of Ohtake was befitting, then the same should apply to Iberê Camargo, unless certain critics entered a corporate agreement. In particular, the critic Lorenzo Mammì tried sticking Iberê Camargo in Brazil’s Concrete experience. In the catalogue of the exhibition Concreta ’56: a raiz da forma (MAM-SP, 2007), Mammì listed the reels stacked in Camargo’s work of engraving and painting among the three major directions (three amendments) taken by constructive will in Brazil, the project design for Brasilia and Alfredo Volpi’s production, respectively.  Iberê Camargo’s painting did not need such reckless strategy for validation. Mammì viewed the artist’s reel stacking as an arrangement of form for drawing, painting or engraving, an argument with which Iberê Camargo is not in total agreement when he states, “objectified creation [sic] is the reality of art. Theme, subject, color, line, volume, etc. are artwork contents that, however, can only be considered as such when creating the aesthetic picture.”  Who will deliver Mammì’s argument that mistakes the tridimensional model and its representation for the built form? The exhibition curated by the USP professor reserved itself the right to obliterate violently the Neo-concrete experience, possibly because it had trouble understanding the conceptual and historical program of the Rio de Janeiro movement, and offer a phenomenological gaze that would be closer to the object than to the concepts. It is difficult to examine the “root of [constructive] form” in the same work by Camargo that other critics in Mammì’s group assessed from the viewpoint of George Bataille’s concept of “formless”.  As it seems, Iberê Camargo – a well-established name in the history of Brazilian art – had to be included in the exhibition, one way or another, to serve an alliance among critics of the Brazilian mainstream. In so doing, methodological evaluation rigor was being sacrificed, as here the object was missing the phenomenological reunion with itself as per Edmund Husserl’s recommendation. To Mammì, Neo-concrete experiences including Lygia Clark’s Bichos, Lygia Pape’s Book of Creation and Neo-concrete Ballets, and Hélio Oiticica’s Núcleos are not important. After reviewing Mammì’s standpoint, Sergio Bruno Martins should also critically scrutinize the “parallels” drawn by the English critic Guy Brett and that Martins abjured. Brett drew true pseudomorphist comparisons by means of the formal juxtaposition of Lygia Clark’s O eu e o tu (1967) and Goya’s La confianza (1797-1798), his Caprice n. 50, as well as Clark’s Canibalismo (1973) and Goya’s Brujas en el aire (1794-1795).  It will be even harder for Sergio Bruno Martins to review the misconceptions of Brett’s gaze on Brazilian art, without jeopardizing his own network in London, where he studied. Brett’s writings mix up together madness, psychiatry, therapy and psychoanalysis.

Whereas the modernity on the fringes witnesses “an inevitable commingling of several ethnicities,” as Paulo Sergio Duarte and others have noted,  there are people who would purge the encounter and limit it – on the level of constructive will – to a Eurocentric axis, which also excludes Ohtake from the discussion in the Instituto Moreira Salles website. Duarte himself emphatically states that, in his view, Rubem Valentim’s lifelong effort to arrange an encounter between the symbolic universes of Afro-Brazilian religions and constructivist art was unsuccessful.  As a black artist, Valentim would be on the fringes in terms of success and fine aesthetic achievements. However, this does not seem to match Giulio Carlo Argan’s ideas on Valentim’s African theogony governed by a radical reduction of religious symbols to structural and geometric elements. “[symbolic-magical signs] must be shown before they appear suddenly immunized, stripped of their own original evocative or provocative virtues: the artist works on them until the threatening obscurity of the fetish is clarified in a limpid form of myth,” Argan wrote.  Rubem Valentim’s Manifesto ainda que tardio, one of Brazilian art’s greatest documents, defines the principles of what he called “riscadura brasileira” [Brazilian linework]. “Following my intuition between popular and scholarly, source and refinement ... in the symbolic instruments and tools of candomblé – abebês, paxorôs, oxés – I began to detect a kind of ‘speech’, a Brazilian visual poetics, capable of configuring and adequately synthesizing my entire core interest as an artist.”  Rubem Valentim struggled in a society afflicted by an “inferiority complex over its African past,” in which black and African became synonymous with slave, the anthropologist Arthur Ramos noted.  This conclusion seems unfit for Greenbergian models for analyzing art in Brazil, given that as late as in 2013 slave quarters still appear to be the place for blacks, and history must be one of triumph in the market. To the generous Mário Pedrosa who agreed with Giulio Carlo Argan’s assessment, however, Rubem Valentim “belongs in the same spiritual family as Volpi, or Tarsila”.  This relationship of two leading art critics historically known to be socialists seems not to meet the requirements of the alleged young Brazilian left.

Sergio Bruno Martins, a critic from Paulo Sergio Duarte’s circle of influence, also expelled Afro-Brazilian culture from the debate held in the Instituto Moreira Salles website.  In a text for the exhibition Vontade construtiva na coleção Fadel [Constructive will in the Fadel collection], an anthropoemic Sergio Bruno Martins rejected “broadening the interpretation of this constructive will by taking ‘Minas Gerais Baroque’ as its privileged historical antecedent. This is a thesis that flirts with pseudomorphism, or apparent similarity between forms originating from different historical-cultural situations, and its aim is clearly to challenge the hegemonic role of modernist formal categories in the historiography of Brazilian art.” The term “Minas Gerais Baroque” used here refers to two Aleijadinho sculptures, a photograph of his work in Congonhas do Campo, and a picture of Mestre de Piranga shown at the exhibition. Sergio Bruno Martins contradicts himself by seemingly aiming to support the hegemony of the “modernist formal categories” (precisely the ones with greatest recognition in the international art market), after having flirted with pseudomorphism in a short text about the Neo-concrete artist Decio Vieira.  In this piece, he literally compares one of Vieira’s abstract drawings to a windmill. Having cornered the market for adequately articulating pseudomorphism in his manner, Martins was not to recognize the obvious relation of three Neo-concrete artists with the angular drapery folds on Aleijadinho’s Cristo no horto (in the Way of the Cross, at Congonhas do Campo), in the exhibition’s section on African origins, candomblé and the Baroque. The critic failed to see that the metallic folds in the Neo-concrete sculptures by the three Minas Gerais artists (Franz Weissmann, Lygia Clark and Amilcar de Castro) re