With the passing of Tomie Ohtake on February 12, 2015, a long and fertile chapter appears to have closed. The artist, who lived to be 101 while continuing to work and reinvent herself, was the protagonist of some of the most dramatic moments in the national art scene, helping define the nature of Brazilian artistic production in the second half of the 20th century. Paulo Herkenhoff said it well: “Tomie is a privileged place from which to contemplate Brazilian art.” In other words, how can we discuss the power of abstraction in the Brazilian case and reflect upon the conflict between lyrical and gestural creation and constructive precision without invoking her work? Would we be able to study the importance of migratory flows and the role of women in Brazilian art without considering her career? Would it make sense to reflect on the increasing fortification surrounding the still narrow-minded yet expanding market, and the need to implement public democratization policies for access to art without considering her yearning to produce public works?
Born in Kyoto, Japan in November 1913, Tomie Nakakubo (her maiden name) would say that she had enjoyed drawing since childhood. “I wanted to leave of Japan in order to paint,” she said in the film Tomie, released by Tizuka Yamasaki in late 2014. At the time, however, all young women were destined for marriage. Her arrival in Brazil to visit a brother in 1936 had a tremendous impact on her. “Everything was yellow, even the styles,” she recalled when describing the landscape she found as she disembarked. It is no accident that this color, so feared by painters, is often seen in her canvases. The war, followed by marriage to engineer Alberto Ohtake, changed what should have been a short stay into permanent residence – formalized in 1968, when the already revered artist became a Brazilian citizen.
It was not until in 1952 that the old desire to paint became a reality. In the beginning, her production was figurative, consisting mainly of landscapes. Ohtake had only one teacher, Keisuke Sugano. But throughout her life, she paid attention to the work of colleagues, both young people and the masters. Most significant among these was the American Mark Rothko (1903-1970), who showed her the power of color. Mostly self-taught, Ohtake was a member of only one artist collective among the several that shook the Brazilian art scene in the 1950s: the Seibi group, which was the gathering point for other important painters from the Japanese colony such as Manabu Mabe and Flavio-Shiró. Despite the group’s strong abstractionist bent, Ohtake recalled that she actually discovered the path to non-representative shapes by trying to “reproduce” details from her kitchen, which had become her studio. Her transition to abstractionism occurred in the second half of the 1960s, the golden age of constructivism in Brazil. But Ohtake never followed the path of pure concretism, nor did she fall into the easy gestures of Tachism.
Herkenhoff, in seeking to establish subtle yet strong ties between the painter and movements like neo-concretism, in one of the final texts published about her work, on the occasion of the exhibit Tomie Ohtake – Gesto e razão geométrica (Tomie Ohtake – Gesture and Geometric Reason), the final exhibit during her centenary celebrations in 2013, alerts us to a central theme in the way of thinking about Ohtake’s art in the Brazilian context: the need to fight “against the reductionism involved in confining it under the label ‘Japanese-Brazilian artist.’”
Undisputed is the statement – often repeated by anyone who considers her work – that the richness of her art lies precisely in its impressive ability to reconcile forces that are seemingly opposed, promoting a rich synthesis between the East and West, an improbable close encounter between geometry and informalism (in the words of Miguel Chaia), or an approximation between intuition and empiricism (as Frederico Morais says). But increasingly relevant are the historical and critical efforts to think about her work from the standpoint of the relationships within the larger context in which they were produced.
To attempt to reduce her to a particular focus, isolating her from the miscegenated effervescence that marks Brazilian modernism would ultimately be the same as considering Ohtake exclusively as a painter of simple geometric shapes when in truth she is not just a painter, nor can her art – pictorial or otherwise – be considered to be merely the fruit of constructive rationalism. Yes, Ohtake was Japanese and Brazilian, just as she was both constructive and lyrical, formal and intuitive.
She managed to remain free of ties to the flat surfaces of canvas or paper by escaping into urban public spaces. Studies of lines as elements capable of leveraging space become evident, for example, in a series of sculptures using white iron tubes done by the artist in the 1990s and exhibited at the 23rd São Paulo Art Biennial. And she makes one feel it in works like the monument in celebration of the centenary of Japanese immigration, a gigantic red steel structure, measuring 15 meters in height and weighing 100 tons that insinuates itself into the marine landscape of the port city of Santos with the airiness of a sketch. Twenty years earlier, Ohtake had taken part in creating a monument to memorialize the beginning of Japanese immigration to Brazil, which on that occasion was commemorating 80 years. She decided to depict the relationship between her two countries by installing on São Paulo’s Avenida 23 de Maio four identical concrete shapes that allude to ocean movement, which earned them the nickname “waves.” There is in them as well a sort of encounter between the seduction of color and a tribute to the concise modern architecture of the monument, the internal concrete components of which are painted in color, in a finely-tuned chromatic composition.
It is in dialogue with the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer that Tomie Ohtake completed what has already been identified as her favorite public work of art. It was the sculpture conceived of in 2004 for the inner hallway of the Ibirapuera Auditorium, composed of a succession of sinuous shapes in a rich red color that come into sharp contrast with the precision of the modernist architecture.
Another hugely impactful piece was the star installed in Rio de Janeiro’s Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in 1985 that caused great controversy in that city. The work came to a mysterious end – removed for repairs after suffering storm damage, the piece (17 tons of metal measuring 20 meters in diameter) simply disappeared. A comment by Miguel Chaia sums up both the plasticity and fate of this work: “Under her hands the flat surfaces reveal capricious and graceful curves as though made of a soft material that had withstood a strong windstorm.”
Bold in her urban interventions, often criticized for having the institutional support that most artists lacked, Ohtake rose elegantly above the controversy. She spoke little, choosing instead to repeat the same succinct phrases, which were understood sometimes as enigmas while other times as lessons hinting at teachings yet falling short of revealing everything. When asked for a statement, she would say: “I prefer to paint.” She liked to leave analyses and interpretations of her work to the many critics she called friends, who she was pleased to welcome in her home along with her sons Ruy (the architect who designed her house and her institute) and Ricardo (in charge of leading the institution now responsible for managing her works and memory). It’s impossible to ignore in her comments the Zen, cosmic element easily identifiable in her work. She preferred silence, the daily exercise of creating through form and color, the clash between control and happenstance, mental exercise in just the right proportion, in an always fine-tuned precision that we might call a rare vocation.Republish