Blindness may presage second sight, as the trope has it, but this does not necessarily entail the high-handed grandiloquence of an Oedipus; gouging out one’s eyes, after all, can’t but seem rather melodramatic when a blindfold would work just as well. Such, perhaps, was the Japanese-Brazilian artist Tomie Ohtake’s thinking in the mid-Fifties when, with swaddled eyes and brush in hand, she began to commit oil to canvas in gradual, methodical measure, layering strata of paint atop each other in unyielding geological sequence.

Although she asserted the result to be Sem Titulo (“Untitled”), this was the genesis of what came to be known as her Pinturas Cegas (“Blind Paintings”), a series of defiantly non-figural works borne out in a queasy haze of spectral grays and foggy turquoises, evocative of depth without disclosing it, the curt black linework of a flicked wrist riddling its surface. Gesture is the governing motif, and there is a sense of concision and deliberation to what at first glance appears a maelstrom. Rather than committing the painter to a hapless disorientation, blindness revealed the existence of logics adjacent to the purely visual: foregoing sheer blear, Ohtake achieves an oblique sense of eloquence overwhelmingly tactile in character by using an idiom of vortex, bleed, and diffusion that announces a weird precision swaying in and out of our own intelligibility. No forebear feels more apt than those divinatory swirls written into Poussin’s clouds, or the excruciated parsings of a Turner sunset.

Tomie Ohtake, Untitled, 1961, Oil paint on canvas, on view at Nara Roesler Gallery, New York. Photo: Flavio Freire. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Nara Roesler.

Drift and flow may be matters of biography, too. Tomie Ohtake was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1913. Brazil was a major site of Japanese emigration in the early twentieth century, on account of poverty concomitant with rapid industrialization in the late Meiji era, and diversion from the likes of Australia and the United States, which had both enacted legislation actively stemming Asian immigration. After traveling to Brazil to visit one of her brothers in 1936, Ohtake decided to stay at the onset of World War II and remained there until her death in 2015. She is one of a number of creative figures, including Vilém Flusser and Mira Schendel, who fled Europe’s bleakest atrocities for São Paulo. She did not begin painting until her late thirties, and it is a testament to her originality that the innovations of the Blind Paintings ensued so shortly thereafter.

A glance at her early corpus might detect the influence of Abstract Expressionism, then ascendant in the northern hemisphere. Yet whereas that movement has always been afflicted by the abiding contradiction of any mannerism—how, without lapsing into sheer nominalism, does one talk of a school or general style itself premised upon idiosyncrasy?—for Ohtake, working alone and at remove from the post-war boom, the matter is moot. There is nothing expressionistic about these early paintings: they are not hieroglyphs of a mental state, the post facto transcription of the sovereign artist’s gesture as free expression, but rather communicate a thinking immanent to the materials themselves. They are underwritten by a conception of abstraction itself as the grounds and resource for an eidetic language of colour and texture, a tact aspiring above all to the Hegelian “sensuous presentation of the Idea.” Hot-blooded vitalism is absent from these paintings, which are instead a composed and calculated parlay of thought, oil, and canvas. As she later said of this period: “I have never painted out of my emotions. I have always painted in a cool manner, always layer over layer over layer . . . until I reach my proposed target. My gesture used to be considerably calmer; it invariably struck the canvas, and followed a course that tended towards the cerebral.”

Tomie Ohtake, Untitled, 1970, Oil paint on canvas, on view at Nara Roesler Gallery, New York. Photo: Flavio Freire. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Nara Roesler.

Nara Roesler Gallery has assembled an impressive array of Ohtake’s work for its latest exhibition, “Visible Persistence.”1 Any success in augmenting the reputation of this seminal cross-cultural figure of twentieth-century painting, given her typically peripheral status outside of Brazil, is absolutely to the gallery’s credit. The show’s first room is devoted to Ohtake’s early work of the Fifties and Sixties. Beside the Blind Paintings are a number of more figurative works displaying a chromatic range and a berth of technique testifying to the attention she paid to abstraction. As seen in her sketchbooks, these paintings were often planned out in advance through miniature collages constructed with reams of torn paper that she would seek to replicate on canvas. Two examples of this method (whose precise details are still unknown) are highlights of the show and capture the textural drama of collage in layered oils. One, Untitled (1969), is a tangled cone of navy and white emerging from a beige block; the other, Untitled (1970), is a stark exercise in uncharacteristically decisive linework, a trapezoid of ultramarine on white whose membrane uncannily curdles upon approach. The gallery blurb refers to a “tectonic beauty,” and, indeed, they evoke nothing less than topographical maps of a glacier and a coast respectively, a bird’s-eye view of an imaginary landscape wherein the signature of her abstract vernacular is whittled and refined to the point of becoming a visible geography.

If such figuration is only implied in the earlier work as a possibility haunting the interplay of gesture and material, the Seventies and Eighties heralded a hardier incarnation of contour, as that signature sense of precision in Ohtake’s paintings took on more outward definition in geometric abstraction. (No longer tearing paper, she had begun to use scissors to make her models.) She painted robust shapes upon the canvas: exact and monumental assemblies of lines and semicircles, or else sinuous outlines whose clear-cut curves suggest a rigorous order through their tangents. The paintings’ bulbous forms undeniably bear the influence of Tarsila do Amaral, the great Brazilian modernist painter. Untitled (1984), centering upon a curling, tear-like body executed in a deep indigo, seems to suggest the tumefied limbs of do Amaral’s seminal painting Abaporu (1928). Just as was the case regarding American abstractions in her earlier work, Ohtake occupies a singular position of reference without derivativeness, parallelism without subsumption, as a vector in resolute flight from category. Indeed, that path also intersected the contemporary developments in Color Field painting. Ohtake’s later works adopt an expanded palette where the same bold and definite sensibility she brought to figuration is extended to their coloration: a muscular ebullience in the incandescent yellows and teeming scarlets. These are staunch, vivid modes that at times almost seem to translate the insights of color field towards an aesthetic of Tropicália, the 1960s Brazilian artistic movement. If the Blind Paintings were a methodical investigation of the intensive infinities of shade, here that practiced immersion is extraverted and redeployed into a pulsing, fecund, and enlivened character.

This progressive turn to figure over her career found its logical continuation in an opening onto the third dimension. Indeed, Ohtake is probably known to most of her adoptive compatriots in Brazil for her distinctive sculptures that adorn many buildings and public spaces there. Included in this exhibition is a tubular white strand from 2008, tracing an erratic squiggle whose zaniness imparts a playfulness and pep less palpable in the paintings. In line with Ohtake’s general method of working from models, a selection of maquettes from many of her more well-known sculptures are also on display, themselves vaguely reminiscent of her Brazilian contemporary Lygia Clarke’s Bichos (1960) in both scale and dynamic play of form.

Tomie Ohtake, Untitled, 2014, Acrylic paint on canvas, on view at Nara Roesler Gallery, New York. Photo: Flavio Freire. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Nara Roesler.

Straddling the two rooms is a painting composed in 2014 by Ohtake, who was prolific until the end of her life. In her later works, the vivid colors evaporate into the stark pallor of flawless white, though the textural emphasis of the Blind Paintings persists in swirls compacted upon the oil and the maritime suggestions of those former turquoises are now bleached wave crests. Bisecting it along its equator is a jagged black line that resembles a spectrometer’s wave form, as if a lifetime’s approach towards figuration is now stammering upon the threshold of representation itself. The temptation is to an almost crude literalism, as if the repertoire of touch and texture that she discovered sixty years earlier in depriving visuality of its primacy is now being extended to another sense: a forthright beckoning to the ears. Just as blindness never heralded darkness, the intimation here is that in spite of any painting’s literal muteness, absolute silence is itself an impossibility.

  1.   “Tomie Ohtake: Visible Persistence” opened at the Nara Roesler Gallery, New York on November 4 and remains on view through December 23, 2021. 

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