This exhibition of recent paintings by Tomie Ohtake presents an interesting conundrum for the critic or for the audience in general: how to read the works without pre-formed value judgments. In Tomie's case, these pre-judgments are perhaps especially onerous; she is, after all, an artist active in her 90s, with half a century of a production that while broadly recognized in Brazil, is nonetheless somewhat marginal to the official history of art of that country. Of course the fault here is likely not in the artist but in the model that posits a history with inflexible borders and categories, which will inevitably be confused by an artist like Tomie, whose work lives precisely in between the binary absolutes with which art history often works: abstraction versus figuration, expressionism versus formalism, paint versus concept. Tomie's work surprises precisely through its ability to be both things at once, hence a challenge to our tendency as historians to look for absolute positions which make our job easier even if they do not reflect reality so well.
Another preconception that has clouded understanding of Tomie's work is her Japanese origin, which while undoubtedly important, has perhaps also become something of an absolute category, so that discussion of her work often defaults to Zen, Buddhism, or Calligraphy, as a form of contemporary Orientalism While these elements are undoubtedly in her work in multiple formal ways, and perhaps even in philosophical impulse, I would argue that these are fundamentally contemporary paintings, of their time and culture, and that to follow a path to ancient Japan may be yet another way of avoiding a direct and honest confrontation with these paintings as the objects and images that they are.
So, what exactly is in this series of recent paintings? First of all, it is imperative to explain what is not visible in this catalogue. As in any reproduction, the physical qualities of the works are not done justice by the printed and mediated image, but in this case specifically, the encounter with the object is of prime importance. The scale of each painting is carefully chosen to fill the viewer's optical space at the exact point between being overwhelming and comfortable. This apparently simple decision, to produce 25 works at approximately the same scale (between 150 and 200cm on each side) creates the format of a series and variations, without hierarchy, but that prepare the viewer for a gentle sequencing through the artist's thoughts and decisions. As straightforward as this may seem, this 'setting the scene' for the encounter between the eye and the canvas is a skill often lost to contemporary artists, as perhaps an inheritance from our modernist reflex to believe that art carries its own meaning regardless of its presentation, or the flipside in which exquisite placement of the canvas becomes a form of installation art in dialogue with the space. This is different, this is a respectful and humane spacing of conventional paintings in a way that invites the viewer and encourages their reading. Recognizing of course the important historical and cultural differences, we could think of the structure of a Via Crucis, in which the viewer is taken along a sequence that is deliberate but in which each stage has its particular meaning and pathos, while building on the former work and preparing for the next. This is fundamentally different from the sequencing that emerged during post-War art, particularly in Minimalism and process art, in which the sequence is the content. In this case, the sequence is there, but as a way of enriching the experience of the individual works, rather than subsuming them into an overall pattern.
The other aspect that is not visible through reproduction is the variation in texture between the works. Some are dense like rubber while others are as translucent as parchment. In some cases the brush is almost aggressive in gesture, while in others it barely skims the surface. Likewise. Many works present subtle variations in color that require sustained looking at the canvas to perceive the minor shifts in hue as one layer of paint interacts with the other. Each canvas is an essay in two, maximum three, colors that set the tone and structure the composition. The entire series runs through the whole chromatic spectrum from violet to cadmium red, passing through cyclamen pinks, moss greens, Iemon yellows, which alone would be enough basis to categorize Tomie as one of the great colorists of her time. Such is the success of these works that once we see the combinations of color and form, it is difficult to imagine them any other way: the form suggesting the color and the color making the form.
The works also flirt with metaphor and symbol in a unique way. The majority of canvases employ the circle as their central form. The circle is at once the most suggestive and lucid of forms, charged with layers of metaphorical meaning, while it is also paradoxically so polysemic as to brush against the meaningless. The circle is of course a symbol of life, of plenitude, of commitment, and also of the cosmic. The cosmic metaphor emerges several times in this exhibition through the suggestion of planets, moons and eclipses. The circle also recalls Pascal’s positing of the universe as a sphere whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere, an image that was fully developed by Jorge Luis Borges. The spherical form, at least as represented by Tomie, has the additional characteristic of being virtually impossible to scale. We have no idea if we are seeing a representation of a massive celestial body or a microscopic being; the whole notion of representation being thus placed in suspension.
This doubt-ridden representation of nothing and something at the same time is one of Tomie's great contributions to the history of painting, her willingness to avoid the zero-sum game of abstraction versus representation when in fact, all representation relies on the abstract, just as any abstraction must by its very nature also be a representation.
The circles in these paintings are also notable for bringing to attention yet another trauma of 20th century art: the figure-ground relationship. Since Malevich’s White on White, artists have searched for a way to apply paint on canvas without suggesting a visual illusion or a recessive space. Much paint has been applied to canvas, and even more ink has been spread on paper trying to get to the root of visual perception and its impact on understanding. Brazil in particular has a fascinating relationship between Gestalt theory and abstraction since the 1950s, precisely the decade in which Tomie started to practice as an artist, and we should not forget her relationship to Mario Pedrosa, the unequalled champion of Brazilian modern art and theory. A single circle drawn on a canvas will inevitably create a figure-ground relationship, but it is one that is fundamentally different from the compositions of rectangles and lines that characterize most abstraction from Kandinsky until today. The circle both delimitates and contains space, while avoiding conventional perspective. With no start and no end, no top and no bottom it is the ultimate non-hierarchical shape, both modest in simplicity and ambitious in reference. Passing from one canvas to another the circles alternate between centrifugal and centripetal energy, moving inward and outward, while some of them rest in perfect stasis. This implied movement presents a challenge from the perceptual/conceptual point of view, as it is not a traditional figure-ground relationship, but rather something organic, breathing, and almost alive, another form, perhaps, of a quasi-corpus, to use Pedrosa's terrn.
So after absorbing the virtuosity of these paintings: their color, circular form and balance, we are left with the most important question: what do they communicate, what is their intention? Here, again, we should start with what they are not: they are not programmatic in the sense of abstraction, expressionism, surrealism, or any of the other isms of the 20th century. Neither are they speculative in the sense of much contemporary art where the principal operation is to present subject matter above formal resolution, almost as a competition to photo-journalism in the desperate search for a connection to the ‘real'. In the history of modem art, there is something of a dichotomy between the search for form (geometric abstraction) and technique (abstract expressionism).
ln other words, in the former, shape and composition are the vehicles for content while in the latter, the technique and its unfolding in time create the primary focus. Tomie’s paintings lie in the exact center of this division: bridging the gap between deliberate iconic composition and vigorous execution. I would argue that these canvases are, above all, exercises in generating emotional temperature through the act of looking. Tomie's work rescues from a position of great risk the pleasurable act of detained looking at a particular image in order to generate experiences that are not substitutable by other means. There is no text, description, manifesto or contextual description that will necessarily provide a richer experience with the work than just sitting in front and spending time with it.
In an age where art is often, at best, a contingent exercise in positioning and strategizing vis a vis the institutions and consumers of artistic discourse, this is a valiant position, and almost a last cry for the autonomy of the artistic experience. In the past decade there has been an explosion of contemporary art that deals critically with the legacy of the modern and the failure of utopia. Generally these artists focus on the institutional context of art: of how the original revolutionary precepts of the avant-garde were neutralized or commodified by the art system in general. Tomie takes almost the opposite position: an attempt to recover that dream of a pure, autonomous, and preeminently visual experience free of narrative, representation or literary content.
So at the end of the day, Tomie's great contribution in this body of work is both simple and complex. By returning the visual to the center of the artistic experience she is creating a subtle and understated challenge to the viewer to refocus his or her vision, to shut off the babble of discourse that surrounds contemporary art and to look, look again, and keep looking.