She is a woman of few words. To her, this characteristic may be a result from either the broken Portuguese she speaks in short and substantive phrases despite having lived in Brazil for 65 years, or from the fact that a verbal discourse is but an invisible and ephemeral occurrence, so she would rather focus on the artistic act she has carried out in a disciplined and indefatigable manner for more than 50 years. This is possibly why photographs and films always feature her in action, her petite figure performing a slow and silent choreography before the canvas in a to and fro movement as she fastidiously reviews linework and brushstrokes, before resuming her work with a steady hand. By and large, the cameras of countless journalists and researchers that now and again call at her studio zoom in on the movement of her chest and hands; on the slow succession of brushstrokes applied on canvas; on the execution of small canvases that serve as studies for larger pictures; or on printmaking, another of her preferred trial fields-particularly if they belong in series stemming from appropriation and rectification of forms printed in previous works. For this unique process, the artist takes a print from which she cuts out an image; then, she holds the paper cutout with one hand and exposes it to a light source. Finally, the resulting shade of irregular contours cast on the printing plate provides her with a new starting point.
The artist's economy of words is coincidental with the enhancement of an experience that seems to be informed by certainty, if not by urgency, as if there was no time to lose. After all, in abidance by the codes of a society that had women devote themselves exclusively to homemaking activities, Tomie Ohtake became an artist somewhat belatedly, when she was nearly 40, and the mother of two grown children. Ever since then, painting has represented the backbone of her career from which a number of offshoots-printmaking, murals, set designs, and more recently sculpture-have derived in the meantime. A key point to remember is that these offshoots are so significant that to designate Tomie Ohtake as a painter, albeit her being one of the most distinguished Brazilian painters, would seem an improper and reductionist manner to refer to such a well-rounded and accomplished artist.
Even so, we must duly acknowledge the role of painting in her life: from a somewhat shy figuration a natural consequence at a beginning underpinned by academic procedures, to a plunge in abstraction, which earned her instant recognition. Seemingly, Ohtake's consistent path was treaded in a gently truncated and gently straight line, and tended to delve into deeper strata. I say gently because, notwithstanding her interest in geometry-curved forms and sinuous, relief-like contours in particular-of which her black paintings on white background are exemplary, our artist has never been keen on the use of conventional drawing instruments. She had nothing to do with rulers and squares, much less with compasses. Her geometry is rendered by hand, with the rhythm and the varying weight of the hand in motion, the body sway, and color as the medium through which or on which Ohtake acts.
Early in her career, Tomie Ohtake positioned herself close to her abstraction peers. Little by little, she switched from the blotches that previously covered her canvases and confined them within the planes-solitary planes, displaced in relation to the artist's quadrangular work field, or superimposed and arranged into series, as if unfolded. In turn, the representations that at first resulted from her calligraphic impetus, i.e. Free-flowing, tangled lines now were to attend the canvas as a single accurate and incisive rendition.
Instead of the gestural and heavily textured dramaticism of Manabu Mabe, Flavio Shiró, or lberê Camargo, and at the same time not opting for the suggestive character of fringed-edge planes delicately interconnected by Sheila Brannigan or Yolanda Mohaly, Tomie Ohtake veered toward a poetics that implicated greater reasoning. She took up the execution of economic canvases made up by few colors and planes, elements duly placed under strain, and an active medium to nurture the gaze, besides involving, in the case of large format works, the viewer's body.
These works of the sixties boast a certain air of architecture and, let us not forget, according to Hegei, architecture is a frozen music. Ohtake takes superimposed, mutually attracted and repellent volumes in contrasting colors with which she creates games that secure for her work a temporality proper to music. In some cases, it seems that immense dark, heavy and silent blocks cross her canvases-by themselves, impelled by a mysterious drive, these blocks remain in their places. However, it is clear to us that the inertia also expressed in their dense texture will drive it even further. At other times the course of displacement is established by the repetition of a same plane, as if the first of the series were only the starting point of a wind-blown tumbling stack. In these works, the plane is slightly distorted in the course of describing a horizontal trajectory. Yet in other canvases, the displacement is vertical: larger and smaller planes are stacked as if they were ascending or descending-an unbalance caused by the positioning of these planes in relation to one another, and to the bottom edge of the canvas.
Ohtake's basic combination, the relationship between form and color, was to reach its prime in the canvases she produced in the seventies. The result is a fascinating, variegated arcade of works that gradually change from a crinkled surface finishing to smooth color planes, so thin and fine that their skin is liable to tear, causing them to fray. In fact, in some cases the painting is so transparent that the texture of the support is clearly discernible. The old pictorial medium, i.e., the ground dye grain that rendered color fields, is no longer there; consequently, neither is the gesture that applied it with the brush. Now the paintbrush runs resolutely on canvas, as if in the hand of a calligrapher, a loyal servant of the mind that, even so, produces more textures areas here and there, denouncing the attendance of the gesture.
Despite being deeply indebted to geometry, and unlike the expressive modes set by the Concrete movement in São Paulo-a movement that coincided with the artist's early career-, the formal/artistic construction of Ohtake's paintings of this period do not inhabit the world of reasoning. In addition to their color at times quite lively-, her paintings often allude to architectural elements such as pillars and porticos. In some cases, the slightly shaded areas of planes delineated by a curved line, make them look like cylinders. Actually, the tonal variation of a same field indicates a light cast on it from the outside. They are masses brought together in light, well in agreement with Le Corbusier’s famous definition of architecture.
Together with architecture, the natural environment is another indirect reference for these works, and a source on which they have always fed. This fact is another indication of Tomie Ohtake's grasp of geometry: a constructo that did not originate in the realm of abstraction. History has it that the origins of geometry are in the observation of tides of the Nile River, in ancient Egypt; of parabolas described by a thrown rock; of the arched path of the sun in the sky; and of the force of the wind that causes raindrops to fall at an angle. Geometry is an even more manifest form that we find, scrutinize, and feel with the hands in the spherical seeds, in slender and dark fern stems bent under the weight of fronds, in the precious brilliance of pebbles slowly rounded and smoothed by abrasive hydraulic action in a stream bed.
I reiterate that Ohtake's work makes a direct allusion to nature. Yet, how not to glimpse it in these canvases that boast reds, yellows and greens and that, what is more, are inscribed in planes that suggest bodies in expansion, germinating and sprouting things, sensual masses impregnated with vitality? That which geometry takes away from nature, reducing it to essence-things are reduced to their bone structure, and their contours, to fleshless and boneless line vectors-, the artist gives back into colors, under the weight of her brushstroke. She does it in such a way that even those works that could be labeled as completely abstract are organisms in their own right; they are unfamiliar to us, which does not mean they are nonexistent.
This register of canvases that Tomie Ohtake painted in the early eighties includes the great circular arches that take on the quadrilateral as if to eclipse them. Note the recurrent contrast between these immense forms rendered into smooth, homogenous surfaces, and the smaller ones, remainders of the ground now covered up, both of which have received different pictorial treatments. Whereas the former convey to the viewer a notion of stability, a value close to absolute, the latter are so blotched that they transmit the subtle sensation of evanescence of everything that is touched or is ruled by time.
Particularly in comparison with the work of the previous period, a scrutiny of Tomie Ohtake's canvases of this phase show us that, little by little, the previously light forms submerge in great diffuse areas, i.e., the said planes as evanescent as water-saturated clouds. In more extreme cases, the only traces of forms are their contours left on the surface as they submerge, something like a vacuum created by a body in motion, These defibered planes result from the brushstrokes, which in smooth surfaces were much more discreet, if not totally invisible. No traces of the painting process are found in those paintings except, as we have mentioned, in a few regions in which unstable colors reveal their origin in superimposed paint layers. Now Ohtake dispenses this treatment to the entire canvas surface. Her short and rhythmic brushstrokes point in all directions. At times, they become more textured, like a tightly woven, thick fabric; at times, they open up like a floating stained-glass window, full of gaps.
The artist's palette determines the result. If the painting is done in contrasting colors, the superimposed multidirectional brushstrokes form an active, vigorous set the observation of which causes the viewer's eye to move erratically and off center. On the other hand, the use of a single predominant color rendered into an iridescent range of undertones attracts the observer's eye to the deeper regions. The canvas space is thus converted into a region of variable lighting, in which crevices lure the gaze, inviting it to plunge in its depths.
Color value does not prevent the problem of the linework that, at the same time that it approaches nature, is seemingly besieged by an even greater organic pulsation, and attains greater autonomy as a formal element. The result is increasingly more ambiguous: the line no longer serves as a contour; it is no longer restricted to the enunciation of the boundaries of a color field. Whereas the artist still utilizes ellipses, circles and spheres, now the line, as if acting by itself apart from the narrative of paintbrushes and colors, enunciates other figures - possible embryos, seed-like forms etc. On occasion, as for example in Ohtake's canvases of the late nineties, it wears white to quietly infiltrate a dark territory.
Since the early eighties Tomie Ohtake has been included among Brazil's leading artists; she is the first lady of Brazilian art, particularly as of 1983 when her first retrospective show was held at Museu de Arte de São Paulo (Masp). For the occasion, Masp’s chief curator Pietro Maria Bardi exceptionally changed the museum’s organization and had the exhibition set up on the second floor, which is dedicated to showing Masp's permanent collection. Then, in view of the huge number of visitors that flocked to the museum, he extended the exhibition’s hours to include evenings. Nowadays Ohtake's popularity has been posing an obstacle to the contemplation of her work. After all, excessive esteem might lead to the lack of reflection on the vivaciousness of an artistic career that remains highly animated as the artist approaches her 90th birthday. Tomie Ohtake carries on undauntedly as a rare artist to whom autumn has turned into spring.
In the last ten years, having earned acknowledgment as the painter who has pleased our eyes with her interpretations of the color space, Ohtake leaps from the pictorial space to add impetus to her sculpture production. Formerly an expressive medium she visited from time to time, sculpture joined painting as the artist's focus of attention.
Tomie Ohtake had worked with sculpture in the past. Actually, one of her important achievements in this field - one that has been destroyed - was a work she rendered at Galeria Paulo Figueiredo in same year of her retrospective show (1983). This sculpture consisted of a shallow elliptical reflecting pool, seven meters long and three meters wide, over which the artist installed a concrete "lid" painted yellow and red. This "lid" with edges that seemed to have been cut open by a can opener, rose up to two meters above the pool surface. Its bottom surface contained color planes the sinuous borders of which apparently echoed the swimming pool borders and the undulating movement of the pool water.
The first monumental sculpture by Tomie Ohtake was to make a deep impression in the city of São Paulo. The piece titled "Monument to the 80th anniversary of Japanese immigration" installed in the median strip of Av. 23 de maio, the city's main north-south expressway, gave definitive proof of the artist's artistic competence at enlarging the scale of her work. Dimensions and an imminently abstract character secured for this pioneering work a status that remains unparalleled to date. The work consists of four "waves" or folded-over blades of reinforced concrete, each 40 meters long, that curve upward from ground level to the point of reaching 2_meters, and then bend down, forming a loop. Their form agrees with the surrounding terrain, slopes gently toward the Avenida Paulista ridge, the city's highest point. As a horizon-less urban center deprived of natural landmarks, most of which have been destroyed by indiscriminate and predatory land occupation, São Paulo finds in this sculpture by Tomie Ohtake a brief, though necessary refreshment -a singular vision of a monumental piece in which intimacy is expressed by colors applied to the inner side of the reinforced concrete blades ooze sensuality.
Tomie Ohtake fully accomplished her quest for and conquest of the public space with her large - format murals executed on lateral outside building walls and inside public spaces, as for example the tapestry she designed for the Memorial da America Latina auditorium, or the four murals she created with Vidrotil glass mosaics, each one hundred and fifty meters long and two and a half meters high, along platforms at the Consolação station of the São Paulo subway. In this project, she carefully designed the horizontal planes with gradations of blue and red, taking into consideration the vantage points of passengers aboard trains arriving and departing from the station.
The special room in which Tomie Ohtake showed her work at the invitation of Nelson Aguilar, curator of the23rd São Paulo International Biennial set yet another milestone in her artistic career, Those who still viewed her as painter were surprised to come face to face with a complete set of original sculptures that bore no resemblance with her previous output in this field, Ohtake's early sculptures were curved and undulating shapes that still boasted weight and for this reason always sat on the ground. Not any longer. Now they tried to take wings, they were in love with air. For this reason, they were reduced to the extreme and dematerialized to the point of turning into white lines that travel in space, elegantly and merrily, like the invisible drawings we trace in the air with our fingertips. These pieces were arranged on the floor and hung high from the third floor ceiling of the Bienal de São Paulo building designed by Oscar Niemeyer, in the high and hollow stairwell flanked by railings with sinuous edges. On the floor or suspended, these sculptures conserved from Ohtake's paintings only the line that now, set free, conquered space.
The search was not over yet. From line to the plane, Ohtake's sculptures gained bulk and dared to defy gravity. Her studio routine involving models and twisted wires was extended to industrial plants - iron working shops and even steel mills-, where it involved the banging and screeching sounds of iron against iron in gigantic calendars. Design engineers such as Aluísio Margarido, and ironwork experts such/ as Jorge Utsunomiya and Vera Fujisaki, joined in as regular collaborators. Sculptures like the one installed at the Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração industrial park, and the enormous Moebius Strip permanently on display in the courtyard of Laboratórios Aché headquarters are fine exemples of the artist's capacity to tame metal. Guided by her expert hands, planes describe whimsical and graceful curves, as if made with soft materials, as if exposed to strong winds.
Tomie Ohtake’s latest accomplishment is a work she created with 12 distorted circles of white metal. From painting to sculpture, from sculpture to installation, this new work does not fit in with the others, meant for contemplation. Here the distorted circles touch the floor on two points; otherwise, they rise up in the air, drenched in unbalance. It is up to the viewer to walk around and touch them so that the floor is reinvented as a moving plane, sea or cloud, in constant mutation.