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Austerity and intuition in balance

As she turns 100 this year, Tomie Ohtake displays a lasting experimental nature and an understanding of her times

Untitled works from 1980, 1952 and 2013 (clockwise): “Painting is my daily routine,” says Ohtake

Images Tomie Ohtake Cultural InstituteUntitled work from 1980: “Painting is my daily routine,” says OhtakeImages Tomie Ohtake Cultural Institute

Tomie Ohtake will be 100 this coming November.  The celebrations will take place throughout the year and have already begun on the occasion of the opening of two exhibitions that beautifully sum up two of the artist’s striking features: her lasting and well-honed experimental nature and her great understanding of the art of her times. While the collection Correspondências (Correspondences) on display at the cultural institute that bears her name establishes connections  – albeit tenuous – between her work and the work of a wide array of artists (like Cildo Meireles, Mira Schendel, Paulo Pasta and Cadu, among others) built around three central aspects of her production: color, texture, and gesture, the sample for viewing at the Nara Roesler Gallery through March 23 reveals an artist in full operating mode, still capable of reinventing herself.  In three recently completed (2012/2013) series of large paintings, Ohtake seems to have stepped up the pace of her brush in exploring the relations between depth and luminosity in seemingly monochrome paintings (in yellow, blue and green), surgically punctuated by red. “I’m interested in transparency and depth,” she says in a recent interview with Art Nexus.

“Painting is my daily routine,” Ohtake likes to say – she who has spent over six decades investigating the primordial aspects of painting with a nearly devotional zeal.  Even though she says that she has liked to draw since she was a child in Japan, Ohtake only became a painter at nearly age 40, over 15 years after coming to Brazil.  She came to visit a brother, but ended up staying because of the Sino-Japanese War.  She married, had children and became a Brazilian citizen.  Initial art lessons were given by her first and only teacher Keisuke Sugano. The artist’s first figurative compositions date back to the early 1950s, but she quickly adopted informal abstraction and went on to doggedly explore the containment and materiality of gesture.

According to several critics, she reached maturity during the decade that followed, when she conducted experiments such as “blind paintings” at the suggestion of critic and friend Mário Pedrosa.  Shunning any particular group or trend, and with a highly self-taught style, Ohtake casts aside the richness introduced by contact with and observation of the production that surrounds her.  As Paulo Herkenhoff stated, “Ohtake is a vantage point from which to look at Brazilian art.” Or as Miguel Chaia sums it up, her work allows an “approximation between geometry and informalism, combining the contradictions of Brazilian society with her own history of art.”  Thus he sees in her work a type of synthesis, or peaceful coexistence, between often opposite poles like East and West, the austerity of the shape and the lyricism of the color, or figuration and abstraction, for example.

Ohtake: distinctly self-taught work

Images Tomie Ohtake Cultural InstituteOhtake: distinctly self-taught workImages Tomie Ohtake Cultural Institute

Throughout her extensive career, Ohtake has explored various ways of handling a very limited range of issues:  her geometric shapes are nearly always curved, marked by the sinuousness of the circle and the spiral; the colors tend to be placed not in contrast, but rather in balance, even when they are more strident like those of the 1970s; gesture is normally contained and elegant, appealing to the notion of choreography or musicality.

Her résumé consists of more than 20 international biennials, 90 solo exhibitions and nearly 400 group exhibitions, including not only paintings, but also other areas like engraving, sculpture and public works, which she has done since the 1980s.  The most recent of these, a giant metal figure eight, was unveiled last year in Tokyo.  Her public works, which make up a significant portion of her career, will be the subject of a book by Paulo Herkenhoff whose release in November will coincide with the opening of her exhibition Gesto e razão geométrica (Gesture and Geometric Reason), crowning her centenary celebration.

Before that, in August, the Tomie Ohtake Cultural Institute (designed and run by her sons Ruy and Ricardo Ohtake) will also house an exhibition that will display projective aspects of the artist’s work, her intimate exercises, studies on procedure, drawings, collages and other works. The exhibition will offer a tangible way to get to know the applied researcher who goes hand in hand with the intuitive artist, and to confirm – in the words of Olívio Tavares de Araújo – that she has given “nearly equal doses of reason and emotion.”